Wednesday, June 28, 2006

WMD Blues

I disagree with E. Thomas McClanahan of the editorial board of the Kansas City Star when he writes:

Most of the media yawned at the news last week that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq.

If it was a yawn, it was a studied and deliberately offensive one, the kind a rude teenager gives to a parent's lecture. What might have looked like ignoring the story to him looked more to me like sullen silence.

Can there be a more "move-along-nothing-to-see-here" sentence than the lede of the Knight-Ridder story:

A new, partially declassified intelligence report provides no new evidence that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion, as President Bush alleged in making the case for war, U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday.

... I first heard about it on the radio while driving home. The next morning I found nothing about it in The Kansas City Star, nothing in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, and nothing on the Web site of The

Washington Times, a conservative paper. Using Google, I couldn't even find an Associated Press story.

If it's only partially declassified, how can you say the report does or doesn't prove anything?

And remember, this is not a second-day or sidebar story: this is the main story KR ran about the report. It's as if the main story on al-Zarqawi's killing said not "Zarqawi dead," but "Zarqawi's death unlikely to slow violence in Iraq."

I agree with Glittering Eye and others that the declassified parts of the report aren't going to make much difference in the public debate or change people's minds. Thoe of us who supported the overthrow of Saddam and the reconstruction of Iraq have known about these hundreds of old chemical and biological shells since they started turning up in 2003. Those of us who oppose the war will simply say, "but that's not an active WMD program, and 500 scattered shells do not make a 'large stockpile.' "

Which leaves open the question of what does make a large stockpile. But let it pass; the important thing in Iraq is where to go next, as Glittering Eye writes. And clearly the case that the White House put together about Saddam's active weapons development program turned out to be overstated. Most of us -- even most war opponents -- were surprised by how little he really had. He bluffed us and we bought it.

Yet exactly the one place where the revelation of the 500 WMD counts is -- journalism. I've given up counting the number of news stories and columns I've edited and proofread that said "Though Bush made Saddam's WMD a principal reason for going to war, no WMD have ever been found," or words to that effect.

I knew that was wrong. It's a simple matter of language. "Some" or "a few hundred" is not the same as "none." None means none, and when you use "none" in place of "some," you're deceiving your reader as much as if you said "no one is poor in America" when in fact some people are.

The journalists dislike this story so much because it makes them wrong. Not in their essential partisan rejection of the Bush argument for taking out Saddam, but in the plain business of telling a story in words.

Why did I participate in that? Why did I not object to the "none" every time I saw it in print, even though I knew it was wrong? Because the one time I did such a thing in my newsroom I got a shitstorm of abuse from co-workers as a "Bush apologist" It was so irrational I felt like I was talking to deranged street people. It had nothing to do with Bush being right or not; it had to do with us being right in the eyes of the readers. In doing our duty to tell the truth as well as we know it to the people who drop four bits at the newsstand to read this thing.

But the all-knowing AP said "none" And who was I, a "Bush apologist" sitting in a newsroom in Pennsylvania, to correct that?