Reprinted from Consortium News
Several weeks ago, I received a phone call from legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh who had seen one of my recent stories about Syria and wanted to commiserate over the state of modern journalism. Hersh's primary question regarding reporters and editors at major news outlets these days was: "Do they care what the facts are?"
Hersh noted that in the past -- in the 1970s when he worked at The New York Times -- even executive editor Abe Rosenthal, who was a hard-line cold warrior with strong ideological biases, still wanted to know what was really going on.
My experience was similar at The Associated Press. Among the older editors, there was still a pride in getting the facts right -- and not getting misled by some politician or spun by some government flack.
That journalistic code, however, no longer exists -- at least not on foreign policy and national security issues. The major newspapers and TV networks are staffed largely by careerists who uncritically accept what they are fed by U.S. government officials or what they get from think-tank experts who are essentially in the pay of special interests.
For a variety of reasons -- from the draconian staff cuts among foreign correspondents to the career fear of challenging some widely held "group think" -- many journalists have simply become stenographers, taking down what the Important People say is true, not necessarily what is true.
It's especially easy to go with the flow when writing about some demonized foreign leader. Then, no editor apparently expects anything approaching balance or objectivity, supposedly key principles of journalism. Indeed, if a reporter gave one of these hated figures a fair shake, there might be grumblings about whether the reporter was a "fill-in-the-blank apologist." The safe play is to pile on.
This dishonesty -- or lack of any commitment to the truth -- is even worse among editorialists and columnists. Having discovered that there was virtually no cost for being catastrophically wrong about the facts leading into the Iraq invasion in 2003, these writers must feel so immune from accountability that they can safely ignore reality.
But -- for some of us old-timers -- it's still unnerving to read the work of these "highly respected" journalists who simply don't care what the facts are.
For instance, the establishment media has been striking back ferociously against President Barack Obama's apostasy in a series of interviews published in The Atlantic, in which he defends his decision not to bomb the Syrian government in reaction to a mysterious sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.
Though The Atlantic article was posted a month ago, the media fury is still resonating and reverberating around Official Washington, with Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt penning the latest condemnation of Obama's supposed fecklessness for not enforcing his "red line" on chemical-weapon use in Syria by bombing the Syrian military.
Remember that in 2002-03, Hiatt penned Post editorials that reported, as "flat fact," that Iraq possessed hidden stockpiles of WMD -- and he suffered not a whit for being horribly wrong. More than a dozen years later, Hiatt is still the Post's editorial-page editor -- one of the most influential jobs in American journalism.
On Thursday, Hiatt reported as flat fact that Syria's "dictator, Bashar al-Assad, killed 1,400 or more people in a chemical gas attack," a reference to the 2013 sarin atrocity. Hiatt then lashed out at President Obama for not punishing Assad and -- even worse -- for showing satisfaction over that restraint.
Citing The Atlantic interviews, Hiatt wrote that Obama "said he had been criticized because he refused to follow the 'playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment,' which would have counseled greater U.S. intervention." Hiatt was clearly disgusted with Obama's pusillanimous choice.
The No "Slam Dunk" Warning
But what Hiatt and other neocon columnists consistently ignore from The Atlantic article is the disclosure that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper informed Obama that U.S. intelligence analysts doubted that Assad was responsible for the sarin attack.