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Lies, damn lies, and journalism?

Opponents of the Iraq war, and of George Bush, have been very vocal lately in claiming that the failure (so far) to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq proves that "Bush lied." But for people worried about honesty, they don't seem to have any trouble distorting the truth for their own agenda. First we had Maureen Dowd falsely claiming that Bush said that Al Qaeda wasn't a problem anymore. Then we had Paul Krugman, among many others, claiming that Paul Wolfowitz said that weapons of mass destruction were just an excuse for war.

Now we have a fellow named George Wright in Britain's Guardian repeating that lie, and extending it, claiming that Wolfowitz admitted that the U.S. was really motivated by oil:

Oil was the main reason for military action against Iraq, a leading White House hawk has claimed, confirming the worst fears of those opposed to the US-led war.

The US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz - who has already undermined Tony Blair's position over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by describing them as a "bureaucratic" excuse for war - has now gone further by claiming the real motive was that Iraq is "swimming" in oil.

The only problem? Well, there are two. The first is that if you read the quote, it doesn't say what the Guardian claims it says:
Asked why a nuclear power such as North Korea was being treated differently from Iraq, where hardly any weapons of mass destruction had been found, the deputy defence minister said: "Let's look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil."

Saying that oil was a difference between the two countries is not saying that oil is reason for war. For instance, if someone asked why Iraq and North Korea were different, and Wolfowitz identified the desert terrain of Iraq as being more suited to America's military forces than North Korea's terrain, would that be an admission that sand was the reason for war? Of course not. There's a difference between a particular element creating a condition for war and a particular element being a reason for the war.

The second problem, though, is more fundamental. Wolfowitz didn't say what the Guardian claims he said. From the actual transcript:

Look, the primarily difference -- to put it a little too simply -- between North Korea and Iraq is that we had virtually no economic options with Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil.á In the case of North Korea, the country is teetering on the edge of economic collapse and that I believe is a major point of leverage whereas the military picture with North Korea is very different from that with Iraq.á The problems in both cases have some similarities but the solutions have got to be tailored to the circumstances which are very different.
Last I checked, words in quotes are not supposed to be paraphrases of what a person says. And when you do choose to paraphrase something, you're not supposed to change the meaning. This Guardian article fails both tests.

As the Guardian frames it, Wolfowitz is apparently claiming that Iraq's oil is important to us economically; as Wolfowitz actually said it, he's claiming that Iraq's oil was important to Iraq economically, giving us no options in pressuring them financially, unlike the near-bankrupt North Korea. They manage to reverse the meaning of Wolfowitz's words entirely.

I just don't understand it. Do reporters just assume that nobody will ever check up on them? I suppose it's not an unreasonable assumption -- just an outdated one. Before the age of the internet, it was very difficult to do so. Reporters apparently simply haven't adapted to the fact that the real transcript of a press conference can be available to us before their own versions of it are. (I guess the only way to file the story sooner than the truth can come out is to use Jayson Blair's approach -- skip the time-consuming reporting process and go right to the writing.) But even though it's wonderful to see that the public can learn the truth in spite of media attempts at spin, it's depressing to realize how many stories we'll never know the truth about, simply because they slipped under the radar or happened before the blogosphere arrived to point out their lies.

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Comments (2)

Richard:

It appears that George Wright and Maureen Dowd are taking a cue from the movie advertisements in their papers. You know the ones where the blurb states "best ┬ůmovie ever", even though what the critic wrote was "If this is the best that they can do, then they should not make another movie ever again. However, instead of using the technique to praise Bush, they are using it to demonize him.

Dave S:


I think it's more a matter of reporters hearing what they want to hear, rather than a conscious decision to mangle people's words in order to distort the meaning. That's not an excuse, as it's still crappy journalism and editing. But I think it's more an indication of incompetence than malice.

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