The Interview That Keeps On Giving

Another speech from President Bush on the War on Terror, five more references to 9/11, and another opportunity for politicians still so inclined to allege that Saddam Hussein was connected to the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.

The latest came this morning around 6:20 a.m. on CNN’s “Daybreak” when Carol Costello interviewed Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C. (Fort Bragg, the location of Bush’s speech last night, is in Hayes’ district.) The transcript is worth a read because it’s a rare example of a television reporter challenging an elected official who the reporter knows to be peddling falsehoods:

Carol Costello: President Bush said in his speech, “We’re there to fight terrorists.” But he failed to explain how a war to remove a dictator bent on using nuclear weapons has turned into a fight against Muslim militants. Doesn’t he owe us an explanation?

Rep. Robin Hayes: He gave us a very good explanation of what the war’s about. It’s winning the war against terror and people who would kill us, innocent woman and children. This is about a military action against ruthless, brutal killers who have no conscience whatsoever about destroying us.

Costello: We understand that, but that’s not what it started out [as], when the United States invaded Iraq. It’s changed, hasn’t it?

Hayes: I don’t think it’s changed at all. It’s very clear that terrorists are connected to what Saddam Hussein was all about. That again faces us as the most severe threat going forward.

Costello: But there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein was connected, in any way, to al Qaeda.

Hayes: Ma’am, I’m sorry but you’re mistaken. There is evidence everywhere. We get access to it. Unfortunately, others don’t. But the evidence is very clear.

Costello: What evidence is there?

Hayes: The connection between individuals who are connected to Saddam Hussein, folks who worked for him. We’ve seen it time and time again. But the issue is, where are we now? Nobody disputes 9/11. They would do that again, if not prevented. Preventing 9/11 wherever it might happen in America, winning the war overseas, not bringing it here to our shores is the issue in that regard.

Costello: Are you saying that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11?

Hayes: I’m saying that Saddam Hussein — and I think you’re losing track of what we are talking about here — Saddam Hussein and people like him were very much involved in 9/11. Did he make a phone call [trail off] …

Costello: There’s no evidence of that.

Hayes: I’m sorry you haven’t looked in the right places.

Costello: I must not have. Because I know of no evidence connecting Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda …

Perhaps Costello became a little fixated, continuing to hammer Hayes on a statement that she had already made clear was not true. And that’s good; it’s about time TV news drew a line in the sand about acknowledged fact and refused to let people cross that line just because they are elected officials.

CNN became a little fixated itself — so much so that the Hayes-Costello exchange was replayed all morning on CNN, on CNN Headline News, and on CNN Europe — and that’s not so good.

Typically, the CNN anchor would lead with something like, “One Republican congressman insists the president was right to tie the war in Iraq to 9/11.” A clip of the punch-counterpunch-punch-again would ensue, usually followed by something like Sen. John McCain rebutting Hayes, and ending with a reminder that the 9/11 Commission found no evidence to support Hayes’ novel interpretation of recent history.

Here’s our question, though — is this news worth more than one viewing? Given that the comments by Hayes contradict the 9/11 Commission, is there a need to keep repeating Hayes’ flub on CNN all day long? Granted, Hayes was recently named the vice chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism. If he holds such beliefs about 9/11 and Saddam, then it’s probably a good idea that the public know about them. On the other hand, CNN failed to identify Hayes as such — thus leaving viewers under the impression they were watching just another party hack giving obeisance to a presidential address and fumbling questions from a persistent reporter.

But the issue at hand is the president’s state of mind, not that of Rep. Hayes. If CNN, as a news organization, believes that Bush’s five allusions to the 9/11 attacks last night were a renewed attempt to draw a Saddam Hussein/Osama bin Laden connection, then instead of pounding at Hayes half the livelong day, shouldn’t CNN be playing clips of Bush and other key Bush administration officials disavowing any such connection in the past? Because such clips most certainly exist. (On Sept. 16 and 17, 2003, Rumsfeld, Rice and Bush all went out of their ways to unlink the two events, and Colin Powell later chimed in with his own disavowal.)

Costello’s tenacity was impressive — an alert CNN anchor catching an obscure Congressman exposing the degree of his ignorance at 6 o’clock in the morning — but should that be the news of the day?

Or is the news of the day what was said, and what was left unsaid, in a prime time presidential address to the nation?

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.