Accuracy in Media

Led by the Associated Press (AP), the media have falsely reported that President Bush acknowledged the existence of CIA “secret prisons” in a speech on Wednesday. News flash! The President never used the term in the speech. 

But type in the words “secret prisons” in the Google search engine for current news and see how many hits you get in connection with the Bush speech. Some say Bush “admitted” or “confirmed” the existence of “secret prisons.” But notice that Bush’s acknowledgement, admission, or confirmation is never presented in quotation marks. That’s the tip-off that he didn’t say what the media claim he said. Our media lied. 

Leave it to Bob Schieffer, the former CBS Evening News anchorman, to admit the truth as he was being interviewed about the speech by new anchor Katie Couric on the Wednesday broadcast. “He never used the term ‘prison,'” said Schieffer.

But if the President didn’t use the word, then how can the media report that he did so? It’s called “interpretive reporting.” It’s been taught in journalism classes for decades. 

Left-wing blogs, even some supposedly devoted to being media watchdogs, are already citing the erroneous news accounts of the Bush speech as “proof” that “secret prisons” existed. They didn’t bother to check the actual text.  

All of this, however, is secondary to the fact that a secret CIA program to interrogate terrorists, including the architects of 9/11, did exist and should never have been the subject of stories in the media in the first place. But because of the exaggerated media coverage and attention given to the story, as well as a flawed Supreme Court decision about how to handle terrorists, the architects of 9/11 have now been transferred to the Guantanamo prison, once described by Amnesty International as the “gulag of our times” but which now serves Big Macs and offers first-class medical and dental care. 

The distortions about what Bush said on Wednesday should be a lesson to news consumers to not accept what they see, read, or hear in the major media. Another lesson is not to trust the liberal blogs which accept anything negative about Bush they can find in that same media.  

For the record, the President acknowledged that the CIA has maintained an interrogation “program” in which “a small number of suspected terrorist leaders and operatives captured during the war have been held and questioned outside the United States?” Bush said, “This group includes individuals believed to be the key architects of the September the 11th attacks, and attacks on the USS Cole, an operative involved in the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and individuals involved in other attacks that have taken the lives of innocent civilians across the world. These are dangerous men with unparalleled knowledge about terrorist networks and their plans for new attacks. The security of our nation and the lives of our citizens depend on our ability to learn what these terrorists know.” He referred to them having been “held in CIA custody.”

Bush added, “Many specifics of this program, including where these detainees have been held and the details of their confinement, cannot be divulged. Doing so would provide our enemies with information they could use to take retribution against our allies and harm our country.”

Those details are precisely what Dana Priest of the Washington Post was trying to expose in her November 2, 2005, Pulitzer Prize-winning story alleging that the “secret prisons” existed. Priest was attacked on various grounds for that story. Some suggested she should never have revealed the existence of such a program. AIM contended, and still does, that the story was essentially false, and that her prize should be revoked on that basis.   

In addition to using the phrase “secret prisons,” Priest’s tabloid treatment of the controversy included calling it a “covert prison system,” a “hidden global internment network,” and a “secret detention system.” At the request of the administration, the Post agreed to delete certain country names from her article, but she retained the rhetoric in the very first paragraph about some al-Qaeda captives being kept at “a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe.” 

That phrase provided an important insight into her motivation. She was trying to compare U.S. treatment of terrorists to Soviet mistreatment of dissidents. In fact, when Priest later gave an interview on the subject, she did not dispute the use of the term “secret gulags” in referring to the “secret prisons.” 

What Priest did was pull a Dick Durbin, the liberal Illinois senator who earlier, in June 2005, had compared Guantanamo to the Soviet gulags and suggested that U.S. personnel interrogating suspected terrorists were acting like Communists, Nazis and Pol Pot. While Durbin eventually apologized for his remarks, Priest won an award for her story, which caused European leftists to go crazy with investigations of the CIA. 

Some might say that it doesn’t matter whether the terrorists were held at prisons, detention facilities, camps, or whatever. But it does matter if accuracy in the media is to be upheld and for Priest to retain her Pulitzer. This Dick Durbin-style of journalism is a disgrace.  

The word “prison” in the American context suggests something like Alcatraz, the federal penitentiary with guards and towers that was closed in 1963. It held as many as 300 inmates. The number of detainees in the “secret prison” system, according to the Post itself, was about 100 “at various times,” meaning the figure was usually much lower, and only 14, now transferred to Guantanamo, had remained. Bush referred to a “small number” in the CIA program. So how big of a “global internment network” was this anyway? A European politician investigating the matter told a Washington news conference earlier this year that he had heard reports that some of the terrorists may have been held in hotels or private homes. 

The basic disclosures from Bush were not a surprise. As I noted in an April column, the issue wasn’t whether CIA flights with suspected terrorists had landed in some foreign countries and that terrorists were detained on foreign soil. The issue is whether these constituted some “network” of “secret prisons” that rivaled those of the Soviet era. Priest exaggerated the program into something it was not in order to kill it.

One current factor in the distorted coverage is the desire to make Bush look bad by suggesting he has finally come clean about a controversial counter-terrorist program. Another factor, I suspect, is to salvage the reputation of Dana Priest herself, whose coverage had come under searing attack. Priest became an embattled reporter whose left-wing credentials, marriage to a prominent anti-Bush activist, and alleged use of a pro-John Kerry fired CIA officer named Mary McCarthy had become matters of public interest. It is still not clear what role that rogue elements in the CIA played in her “scoop.” Did they feed Priest disinformation? Or did she get the story wrong on her own? 

If Priest had simply reported that the CIA was holding a few terrorists and moving them around the globe, the reaction would have been ho hum. She would have been lucky to have gotten the story on page 15. But when the issue became “secret prisons” like the Soviet gulags, that got page-one treatment and helped to create an international controversy. Priest, in short, had created a stink. And that’s apparently what Pulitzers are for. But it’s the story that stinks. 

Another stinker was the first story I noticed erroneously reporting that Bush had “acknowledged Wednesday the existence of previous secret CIA prisons.” It was written by Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler and I called to ask about her claim. “My story speaks for itself,” she said. “I don’t want to do any interviews on what went into writing the story.” This exchange then ensued:

Kincaid: I’m asking you where the term prisons came from because it’s not in the speech. The term secret prisons just isn’t there.

Pickler: I don’t want to discuss this any further but if you want to talk to some of our spokespeople you can but this isn’t something I do-conduct interviews about what’s in my stories.

Kincaid: Can you just tell me where the term secret prisons came from in his speech? That’s all.

Pickler: I don’t want to discuss how my stories were written. No.

Kincaid: Well, your story is wrong. I think you ought to have the integrity to admit it. He did not use the term secret prisons. Why don’t you just report the facts? That’s all I’m asking you.”

Pickler: (Silence. Hangs up the phone). 

The truth will, of course, never catch up with the original erroneous reports, and my suspicion as the story developed over Wednesday night was that even some anonymous administration officials would begin to be cited as confirming the use of “secret prisons.” This is how “conventional wisdom” based on media misinformation develops, even though the facts may be something else entirely. 

In fact, on Thursday morning, Sandy Johnson, Washington bureau chief for AP, informed me that they checked the Pickler story with somebody at the White House, who said that the report about the President confirming the “secret prisons” was “just fine.” But the identity of the White House official, she said, will just have to remain secret. 

This is a strange way to report the news. The President is alleged to have acknowledged something, even though he did not do so, and the story is then checked after the fact with somebody who doesn’t object. That is supposed to be confirmation of what was originally reported. 

AP should have reported the President’s actual remarks and not lied about them. If the President had wanted to confirm the existence of “secret prisons,” he could have done so. 

AP seems to have perfected a method of reporting that avoids the facts and the need to correct mistakes. This bad journalism shows that AP-and those who carried the story and similar reports-can’t be trusted.

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