Accuracy in Media

New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who is now hawking a book bashing the Bush Administration, has a secret. He was one of those gullible media figures who bought into the phony conspiracy theory that the White House was out to destroy “whistle-blower” Joe Wilson. 

In a series of fanciful columns in 2005, Rich repeatedly accused the White House of trying to destroy Joe Wilson and his wife. Rich saw a sinister group of “neo-con zealots” active in the highest reaches of the Bush Administration, some of whom were determined in a systematic way to smear, trash, or take down Wilson. When you review these amazing columns, in light of what has been established as fact in the case, you quickly realize that Rich made things up in order to put the worst possible interpretation on what turned out to be largely insignificant White House involvement in the story. That is why the title of his new book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, should apply to his own columns. He has far more of a credibility problem than anyone he attacked in print. 

Before reviewing actual quotations from his columns, which are very embarrassing to Rich, it is important to understand what we know about this case, which occupied the attention of the media for almost three years. Joe Wilson, a former ambassador, was picked by the CIA to go to Niger to investigate a possible Iraq-uranium link. He later reported in the New York Times there was none. But it quickly became known that Wilson’s wife, a CIA employee, had recommended him for the mission, and that his report had not in fact ruled out an attempt by the Saddam Hussein dictatorship to seek uranium. In fact, there was evidence in Wilson’s report that an Iraqi trade mission was pursuing commercial relations with Niger, in a development interpreted as an effort to explore uranium purchases.   

Both Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, would later emerge as supporters of John Kerry for president, making it crystal clear that the “scandal” was a media-hyped political influence operation. The role of other CIA officials in this scheme has never been investigated. 

Now we know that the leak to columnist Bob Novak came from former State Department official Richard Armitage, who was definitely not a part of the “neo-con” cabal that Frank Rich saw as running U.S. foreign policy. Armitage, who told Novak that Wilson’s CIA wife recommended him for his Africa trip, and disclosed where at the CIA she worked, considered this information to be relevant to the Wilson matter, and he was absolutely right. The role of Wilson’s wife in helping arrange the trip, which may have run afoul of federal nepotism laws, was later confirmed by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Armitage apparently saw the information as a juicy tidbit suitable for the Novak column, but there’s absolutely no evidence that Armitage was part of some White House campaign to get the Wilsons. In fact, he was known to be skeptical about going to war in Iraq.   

White House official Karl Rove and a CIA spokesman provided additional information to Novak about Wilson’s CIA wife. But Novak says he ended up getting her actual name from Who’s Who in the entry about Joe Wilson. It also turned out that Lewis Libby, then chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, had talked about the matter with Judith Miller of the New York Times. But she didn’t write anything about it and, in a bizarre turn of events, spent 85 days in jail rather than talk about the matter before the grand jury convened by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. Libby was subsequently indicted for lying because his recollection of conversations about the case with media figures such as Tim Russert differs from what they told the grand jury. Fitzgerald apparently puts more credibility in media figures, a move that could backfire if Libby’s trial takes place and he is not pardoned by President Bush. 

In the end, there was no charge that any official deliberately leaked information about Wilson’s wife in order to destroy her, her career, or her husband.

But here’s how Frank Rich saw it:

  • In a July 24, 2005, column Rich referred to “White House hands” involved in the “trashing” of the Wilsons. He referred to “those plotting against Mr. Wilson” and an “orchestrated assault on the Wilsons.”

  • In the same column, Rich found the administration guilty of “systematically” going after its “presumed enemies.” He saw evidence of this in the Novak column “portraying Mr. Wilson as a girlie man dependent on his wife for employment.”

  • In an October 16, 2005, column, Rich contended that “Mr. Wilson and his wife were trashed to protect that larger plot”-that of going to war in Iraq. This was a “conspiracy” much bigger than the “petty conspiracy” by Rove and Libby “to seek revenge on a whistle-blower” by “unmasking his wife?”

  • In an October 23, 2005, column, Rich referred to the “desperate efforts” of Rove and Lewis Libby to “take down” Joe Wilson.

  • In a November 6, 2005,column, Rich said the White House had waged a “smear campaign” against Wilson and was determined “to bring down Mr. Wilson because he threatened to expose its prewar hype of Saddam’s supposed nuclear prowess?”

Frank Rich wants the American people to believe the worst about anything and everything the administration has done. It is Bush-bashing for fun and profit but it is definitely not journalism.   

Rather than throw away your money on this silly book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, and make Rich even richer, consider purchasing Fouad Ajami’s new book, The Foreigner’s Gift, about the war in Iraq. Ajami, who was born in Lebanon and raised in Beirut, is the Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle East Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. 

In recent testimony before Congress, he described the choices we are now facing:

“Nowadays,” Ajami noted, “we are warned that the campaign for freedom in Arab lands ought to be abandoned, that in Iraq (as in Lebanon and Palestine) the cause of freedom ought to yield, that we best return to the stability offered by the autocrats. We have shaken up that world, it is said, only to reap a whirlwind.

“On the face of it, this argument is not without a measure of sobriety and appeal: the autocrats in Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia keep the peace, while the lands that flirted with elections and new ways (the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Iraq) seem overwhelmed and close to the abyss. But we have already been given a deeper truth about the wages of autocracy in Arab lands. It was the children of the autocracies who flew into our towers on a clear September morning five years ago, who set us on the road to Kabul and Baghdad, who gave us this overwhelming task of trying to repair an Islamic world that insists on our culpability in the sad story of its demise and retrogression.”

Ajami is not only more thoughtful than Frank Rich, he is a much better writer.

In terms of the big question-who’s ultimately right about Iraq-we have to consider the possibility that if Rich got the basic facts all wrong about the Wilson affair, perhaps he is also wrong about the war, which he denounces as “reckless and wasteful.” A relentless Bush-hater, he simply refuses to grasp the essential point that the war, which is admittedly difficult and was partly based on some questionable intelligence, is nevertheless a noble cause that can benefit Iraq, the Middle East and the world as a whole. 

An objective assessment of Frank Rich’s work to this point would have to conclude, based on his Lyndon LaRouche-type analysis of the Wilson affair, that he should go back to reviewing Broadway plays, which he did before being picked to write political columns for the paper. Indeed, if Frank Rich were a Broadway play, it would have been closed by now.

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