Accuracy in Media

The Rosie O’Donnell-Elisabeth Hasselbeck battle is big news. In a modern female version of CNN’s old Crossfire show, these panelists on ABC’s “The View” let the rhetoric fly on issues like the Iraq War. But there is more at stake than a clash of media personalities. Whatever happened to the media’s responsibility to get the facts right?

On May 17, Rosie implied that U.S. Government officials—and U.S. soldiers in Iraq—were terrorists, saying, “I just want to say something. 655,000 Iraqi civilians are dead. Who are the terrorists?” When Hasselbeck incredulously repeated Rosie’s statement, “Who are the terrorists?…Who are you calling terrorists?” Rosie attempted to clarify, saying, “I’m saying that if you are in Iraq and another country, the United States, the richest in the world, invaded your country and killed 655,000 of your citizens, what would you call us?” She later attempted to distinguish between supporting the troops while opposing the government that sent them to Iraq.

But where did this figure of 655,000 come from?

It’s based on a study released last October by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for the British magazine Lancet. The figure is said to be “excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war.” But this study was shown to be wildly off base, as I pointed out in a column last November.

From the political backgrounds and agendas of the authors of the study, to their methodology, to their ignoring the evidence that would suggest that in fact there has likely been a substantial saving of lives through better hospitals and medical care and a vastly increased average life span, this report was badly flawed and misrepresented in the media. Incredibly, the study gives the number of 655,000, but with a plus or minus 250,000. If such a study were accurate, it would suggest that in the 1,300 or so days between the start of the war and the release of the report, an average of over 500 “excess Iraqi deaths” were occurring every day, seven days a week. This is preposterous.

There have been some days when civilian deaths numbered in the hundreds, and these make big news. For example, after the Golden Mosque in Samarra was blown up in February, 2006, it set off what has widely been called the worst week of sectarian violence in the entire war, and the estimated figure was that 1,300 died in that week.

The figure of dead Iraqis is probably closer to 50,000 than 650,000. How many of them were terrorists? And of those civilian dead, a significant number, probably a majority, was killed by insurgents or jihadists.

Rosie makes no such distinctions, blaming the U.S. for deaths carried out by anti-American terrorists. It’s obvious that she has a visceral hatred for the American attempt to bring democracy and stability to Iraq and the Middle East. It may stem from her personal animosity toward Bush. Rosie has said publicly that she despises Bush because he opposes gay marriage.

This kind of propaganda from Rosie about the war does have an impact, especially on the millions of women watching the show. Of course, using misinformation as a weapon is what people like Rosie accuse Bush of doing. Bush is held accountable, as evidenced by the hostile questions at his Thursday news conference. But why isn’t Rosie being held accountable? Is it because she is assumed to be a know-nothing who utters nonsensical things for entertainment purposes only? Unfortunately, we can’t assume that’s the case. She may believe what she’s saying, and some who listen to her may believe it, too.

You may recall that Rosie also buys into the dubious theory that Building Seven of the World Trade Center complex must have been purposely destroyed by some sinister forces in the U.S. government. She said she believes this because steel had never been melted by fire. Has she ever been to a steel mill? Thousands of tons of scrap iron are melted by fire every day in steel mills all over the world, and then molded into beams, pipes and rods.

Here is what Rosie said on March 29 of this year: “I do believe it is the first time in history that fire has ever melted steel. I do believe that it defies physics for the World Trade Center Tower Seven, building seven, which collapsed in on itself, it is impossible for a building to fall the way it fell without explosives being involved, World Trade Center Seven. World Trade Center One and Two got hit by planes. Seven, miraculously, for the first time in history, steel was melted by fire. It is physically impossible.” When asked, again by Hasselbeck, who she believes was responsible, Rosie responded that she had no idea, “But it apparently wasn’t the terrorists.”

How this building collapsed has been analyzed by Popular Mechanics magazine, without a political axe to grind. Briefly, the building was hit by debris with “the force of a volcanic eruption,” and fires raged in the building for seven hours, seriously weakening the structural beams holding it up.

Rosie’s ideological soul mate and View co-host, Joy Behar, on the May 23 show, the same morning of the eruption between Rosie and Elisabeth, came forth with her own set of “facts,” as she called them.

Building off insinuations and outright claims from Al Gore and Jimmy Carter that Bush is the worst President ever, Behar said, “I don’t really understand why he’s still there.” She asked, “Does anyone have any idea why we can’t get rid of this guy who stole the election in 2000, killed the surplus with tax cuts?…Wanting to privatize social security.”

In fact, the 2000 election was decided by a fair and honest counting of the votes, supervised by state and federal courts, and Al Gore conceded the contest. The tax cuts stimulated the economy and produced more government revenue, and Bush’s Social Security plan was to let individuals keep a small portion of their Social Security taxes to invest on their own.

Her laundry list of alleged Bush offenses also included the claim that Bush “withdrew us from the Kyoto Treaty,” although we were never part of it and the pact was never ratified by the Senate, and a no-bid contract for Halliburton. The company also got a no-bid contract from the Clinton administration, as reported by the L.A. Times, and there are often extensions to already existing contracts that were won in open bidding. Another contract under the Bush Administration doesn’t prove anything.

Behar mentioned Abu Ghraib, the prison in Iraq where abuse of prisoners took place, as if this were a blot on the Bush record. But no evidence was ever produced showing this was a deliberate policy from higher-ups in the Pentagon or the White House. Those who abused the prisoners were prosecuted and sentenced. Behar is as irresponsible with her “facts” as O’Donnell.

Why does it matter what they say on “The View?” Because it has the ABC brand name attached to it, millions of women watch it, and Barbara Walters is its creator and a panelist. Walters used to be a respected newsperson. But her association with this show has clearly diminished her reputation as a serious journalist.

What’s worse, there is no interest at the show in putting out accurate information. Accuracy in Media spoke with a producer of “The View,” trying to get some factual information about Iraq to Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the token conservative on the show. But the producer wouldn’t even take down our information or a message.

The reaction to the show may help explain why the Iraq War is so unpopular. Fake “facts” with an anti-American slant go unchallenged and the exchange is treated as fun-loving entertainment. But there’s nothing funny about media personalities with millions of viewers spewing out misinformation to a national television audience.

If Americans are being subjected to misinformation like this, you can imagine the impact that Al-Jazeera and other hate-American media are having on the Arab/Muslim world. This is the part of the war that the U.S. is definitely losing. And we are losing it at home, thanks to programs like “The View.”

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