It Takes Just One Click of the Mouse

In the Washington Post today, media critic Howard Kurtz weighs in on the charges of media bias arising from the Iraqi ammo story. (In case you’re not up to speed: Bill O’Reilly, Tony Snow, Bill Kristol, and a number of conservatives have claimed, among other things, that the initial New York Times story was “somewhat hyped” and “looks pretty bogus.” Some have gone so far as to charge that the whole issue was engineered by the Times and CBS to hurt the president’s reelection chances.) Here’s an excerpt from Kurtz’s piece, in which he quotes Times executive editor Bill Keller:

The principal uncertainty about the story involves the timing of the ammunition’s disappearance. The White House says the explosives may have gone missing while Saddam Hussein still controlled Iraq.

“Sure there’s a possibility” that happened, Keller said, “and I think the original story accounted for that possibility. … I don’t think we’ve ever claimed there was a definitive answer to what became of this stuff.”

… A top Republican strategist said the Times did not spell out the possibility that Hussein moved the ammunition and that CBS was planning a last-minute “ambush on the president.”

So Keller says the Times article accounted for the possibility that the ammo disappeared before the war started, and a top Republican strategist says no, it didn’t. Wondering who’s right? You won’t find out from the Post story. Kurtz gives us Keller’s spin and the spin of that “top Republican strategist,” but he doesn’t give the reader any sense of who is telling the truth.

So we will.

It wasn’t hard to find the story in dispute — heck, it hasn’t even been moved from free to paid content in the archives of the online Times — and when we did, we discovered the obvious: that the main thrust of the piece is that the explosives disappeared after the invasion, at a time when responsibility for safeguarding them had been inherited by the invading forces. Here’s the second paragraph of the piece:

The huge facility, called Al Qaqaa, was supposed to be under American military control but is now a no man’s land, still picked over by looters as recently as Sunday. United Nations weapons inspectors had monitored the explosives for many years, but White House and Pentagon officials acknowledge that the explosives vanished sometime after the American-led invasion last year. (Italics ours.)

There is nothing in the story that explicitly backs up the assertion that the White House and Pentagon acknowledged that the explosives vanished after the invasion. The officials cited above never reappear. However, two paragraphs buried deep in the article do leave the door open to the possibility that the weapons were taken before the invasion, contrary to the piece’s main thrust. Here they are:

But apparently, little was done. A senior Bush administration official said that during the initial race to Baghdad, American forces “went through the bunkers, but saw no materials bearing the I.A.E.A. seal.” It is unclear whether troops ever returned. …

I.A.E.A. experts say they assume that just before the invasion the Iraqis followed their standard practice of moving crucial explosives out of buildings, so they would not be tempting targets. If so, the experts say, the Iraqi must have broken seals from the arms agency on bunker doors and moved most of the HMX to nearby fields, where it would have been lightly camouflaged — and ripe for looting.

Evidence has emerged that the weapons were present when Americans passed through Al Qaqaa, though it hasn’t been authenticated. But the issue here is that Kurtz neglected to parse the contradictory arguments of Keller and the Republican strategist. It’s his job to read the story and cut through the contradictory spin, not offer up competing interpretations without a filter.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.