“Weapons of Mass Confusion,” a long article by the New York Times’s chief war correspondent, Michael R. Gordon, prominently posted in the Times’s electronic edition August 1, has the look and feel of news. It is presented as news in a news part of the site. But it isn’t news. It isn’t an editorial. It is flackery. It floats, without any attribution at all, an Administration hypothesis about the Administration’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It is Judith Millerism at its worst.
The article is datelined Camp Doha, Kuwait, Aug. 1: Gordon is still out there, getting the facts at the press briefings. The first two paragraphs go:
There is a bold and entirely plausible theory that may account for the mystery over Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam Hussein, the theory holds, ordered the destruction of his weapon stocks well before the war to deprive the United States of a rationale to attack his regime and to hasten the eventual lifting of the United Nations sanctions. But the Iraqi dictator retained the scientists and technical capacity to resume the production of chemical and biological weapons and eventually develop nuclear arms.
Bold and entirely plausible? That’s objective reporting? That’s a lead for a story in the news section? Here’s a theory supported by no data, that just happens to deal perfectly with one of the Bush administration’s most recalcitrant public relations problems and Michael R. Gordon begins by characterizing it as “bold and entirely plausible.”
What’s bold about it, other than the likelihood that it’s untenable? Why does “plausible” warrant the adjective “entirely”? “Plausible,” even if warranted, works perfectly well in this sentence and context without any modifier at all. Before we get to the story Gordon is telling us what to think about it.
Gordon never ties this “bold and entirely plausible theory” to anybody. Instead, he finds a few people in the defense establishment-particularly an Israeli military specialist-who say it is entirely plausible. Well, lots of things are plausible in this world. That doesn’t mean they happened. It’s plausible, to some people, that Jimmy Dean didn’t really die in that crash and that Elvis is cryogenically preserved and that funny little people from another galaxy landed in New Mexico 50 years ago and got a bunch of girls pregnant. Plausible doesn’t tell us anything. You can sit in any bar in the country and hear plausible all night long and go home knowing not one thing more than when you left. Journalism isn’t supposed to be about the plausible. It’s supposed to be about what happened.
Passive Theory, Active Demon
In his third paragraph, Gordon shifts to Hussein and the active voice:
Mr. Hussein’s calculation was that he could restart his weapons programs once the international community lost interest in Iraq and became absorbed with other crises. That would enable him to pursue his dream of making Iraq the dominant power in the Persian Gulf region and make it easier for him to deter enemies at home and abroad.
Not, “According to the theory, Mr. Hussein’s calculation was.” Just “Mr. Hussein’s calculation was.” Why no qualifier? With a qualifier, it’s somebody’s idea. Without a qualifier, it is the New York Times telling us a fact. The only fact in that paragraph is the fact that those words appeared in the electronic edition of the August 1 New York
Through the rest of the article, Gordon continues hyping the passive theory, never ascribing it to anyone, and immediately leaping from it to declarative statement of putative fact:
In the meantime, a plausible theory is that the Iraqi dictator was trying to strike a subtle balance between averting a war and preserving Iraq’s military options for the future. Destroying the stocks would deprive the United Nations Security Council of a reason to authorize military action to oust the regime, he calculated. But Mr. Hussein continued to believe that the programs were essential to his strategic ambition to dominate the Persian Gulf and to his efforts to fend off internal and external challenges to his rule.
Lousy Logic in the New York Times and the White House
The theory itself is syllogistic and ad hoc. It is pretty much what Bush or his surrogates have been saying whenever anyone has been able to get one of them to stand still long enough to take the questions:
Q: You said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that’s why we went to war. But no WMD have been found. So did we go to war for trumped up reasons?
A: Of course not. We know there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Didn’t we tell you that before we invaded Iraq? If there were weapons then and now there are no weapons it means Saddam either hid them or destroyed them. Since we haven’t found them, he must have destroyed them.
Q: Why would he have destroyed them?
A: To keep us from finding them. Why else would he have destroyed them?
Q.E.D. This is the logic of the witch-determination scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the conclusion of which is, “If she weighs the same as a duck she’s made of wood.”
Why the Passive Voice is Lousy Journalism
English teachers tell kids to avoid the passive voice because it’s flaccid and indirect. Things happen; they’re not done. Things are said; nobody says them. Nobody’s home in the passive. Nobody takes any responsibility for anything in the passive.
Which is why it is so beloved by little children who are culpable (“the cup fell”), by murderers (“the gun went off”) and by politicians and generals wishing to dissemble (“The decision was made…it was thought….The bombs fell in the wrong place…”) You can say almost anything in the passive without attaching it to any human being. Bad things happen but nobody did anything. If you’re doing bad things, practice up on the passive voice.
In political discourse, the passive gets something out there in a way that avoids interrogation. You can’t cross-examine the source that never got named about what justification exists for the smear tossed into the public hopper (“It has long been known that the senator prefers little boys and shoots heroin….) or what grounds exist for a broad, sweeping statement that may have no foundation in fact whatsoever (“There is a bold and entirely plausible theory that….”).
Location, location, location
I’ve got another question (I almost wrote “There is another question….”) about this article by Michael R. Gordon: if this bold theory is really entirely plausible, how come the piece never made it to the print edition? How come it never made it to hard-copy? Gordon is one of their heavy-hitters, their chief war correspondent, their source of major policy pieces from the Camp Doha and points beyond. He’s been a regular on the PBS Newshour since the war started, explaining everything to us. Michael R. Gordon knows the difference between stories that are ascribed and stories that are not, the difference between Judith Miller puff pieces and real journalism.
So what’s he doing writing this kind of flaccid prose and why is it located only on the web site? Why is the graphic a jet fighter half-buried in desert sand? Are he and the Times trying it out for the Administration? Are they filling space on a dull news day? Are they making it up as they go?
There is a bold and entirely plausible theory that….
BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo. He is a documentary filmmaker and the author or editor of 20 other books. In 2002, the government of France honored his
ethnographic and anti-death penalty work by appointing him Chevalier, l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His new book, The Peace Bridge Chronicles, will be published next month. He also edits the Buffalo Report. Jackson can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org