Is anything more satisfying for media watchers and conservatives than to pounce on the journalist who has sinned by publishing supposedly-erroneous information? For years, right wing ministers of hysteria have been out to nail C.B.S. anchor Dan Rather, whom they regard as poster boy of the much-reviled “liberal” press. They finally had him in their sights when his 60 Minutes report on the questionable National Guard service of George W. Bush used questionable documents to question our unquestionable and error-averse President of the United States. Some of Rather’s able C.B.S. colleagues were dismissed for over-zealous reporting. Much to the disappointment of Rather Bashers, Dan Rather survived the storm and will retire on a schedule presumed to be of his own choosing.
But why so much ado about a serious report that, whatever its faults, had truth at its core? Was it because the press must refrain from criticizing the omnipotent Republican King of the Realm, especially during an election year? Did fawning corporate executives cave to pressure from powerful shakers in high places? Was this specific fifteen minutes of infamy as appalling as many have suggested?
Nearly two years ago on February 23, 2003, shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the C.B.S. program 60 Minutes ran an interview with Dr. Hussein Shahristani, formerly a top nuclear scientist in Saddam Hussein’s regime. Apparently bitten by the now-discredited Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction Bug that was then infecting political discourse to justify the undeclared war with Iraq, 60 Minutes devoted serious air time to reporter Steve Kroft’s interview with Shahristani, whose “facts” lent authenticity to the Bush claim that Iraq was awash in WMD.
The central message from Shahristani was that Saddm had converted his unfinished Baghdad subway system into a secret hiding place for his WMD stockpile. The interview was conducted with total seriousness, and it appeared to give substance to Bush Administration claims that Saddam had massive amounts of WMD. They were safely cached beneath Baghdad.
The doctor quoted Saddam as saying, “Well, we have these designs for the tunnels, go ahead and do them, but not for metro, for our weapons of mass destruction. We can hide them, move them around.” Furthermore, the doctor speculated, the tunnels would provide Saddam with a convenient escape route should the threatened invasion actually occur. “He actually has a tunnel that can withstand a nuclear blast and if he survives in the tunnel, he has won the war because, for him, winning the war means surviving it,i Shahristani told Kroft. That was before Saddam was found residing, not in a tunnel, but in a small hole in the ground.
Recently the Bush Administration was prodded to reveal that its 1700 person force diligently searching for hidden WMD has come up empty. The Shahristani story of weapons stored in unfinished subway tunnels was just that: a story, pure fiction, just as it had seemed to some who watched the program during its original broadcast.
The purported substance of the Kroft interview provoked no firings at C.B.S., even though Shahristani’s straight-faced (and untrue) allegations were not verified, even though the interview gave seemingly-strong support to the Bush Administration fiction that hidden WMD required the U.S. to invade Iraq, dispose of Saddam and destroy his massive WMD stockpiles.
The C.B.S. firings over Dan Rather’s report examining the National Guard service of George W. Bush might seem to some an over-reaction in the light of the earlier Shahristani interview. Whatever the merits of the documents relied upon by Rather and some producers at 60 Minutes, there is substance to the still-unanswered questions the report raised about the president’s military service record. Investigators were not even able to state with certainty whether the Bush/Guard documents that caused the uproar over 60 Minutes and the eventual firings at C.B.S. were authentic or falsified.
On the other hand, there was absolutely no substance to the fantasy outlined by Shahristani and his all-but-forgotten description of a subway system to nowhere. Because the good doctor’s bogus claims deliberately supported the WMD “line” the Bush Administration was feeding its audience, stoking a fire to take the nation into war, there was no outcry from those critics who now excoriate Dan Rather and 60 Minutes for airing a story that did and still does have legs.
DOUG GIEBEL is a writer and analyst who lives in Big Sandy, Montana. He welcomes correspondence at firstname.lastname@example.org