Accuracy in Media

One might think, in the wake of the New York Times/Jayson Blair scandal, that the media would be a bit more careful about making up quotes. The July issue of Vanity Fair has made headlines around the world because it suggests that the U.S. cited the issue of weapons of mass destruction in going to war with Iraq because it was politically expedient or convenient. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is quoted as saying, “For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”

But the Pentagon recorded the conversation between Wolfowitz and Vanity Fair author Sam Tanenhaus, and that precise quote is not in it. The actual Wolfowitz quote is: “The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason, but ?there have always been three fundamental concerns. One is weapons of mass destruction, the second is support for terrorism, the third is the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people. Actually I guess you could say there’s a fourth overriding one which is the connection between the first two.”

The preceding quote was interrupted by a telephone call, but it is clear that Vanity Fair concocted a quote that was similar only to the first part of what Wolfowitz said. Vanity Fair omitted the other reasons cited by the defense department official. This is terrible journalism and a violation of basic ethics. If Vanity Fair wanted to paraphrase what Wolfowitz had said, that was of course possible. But it put quotation marks around something that he did not say.

CNN’s defense correspondent Jamie McIntyre is to be commended for airing a story setting the record straight. His article on the CNN web site noted what Tanenhaus had quoted Wolfowitz as saying, but it also included the actual tape-recorded quote. CNN reported, “The Pentagon says a full reading of the transcript of the telephone interview Wolfowitz gave the reporter May 9 does not support that interpretation of the deputy secretary’s comments.” CNN quoted a Pentagon source as saying, “Vanity Fair only used a portion of the deputy secretary’s quote. Their omission completely misrepresents what he was saying. The complete quote makes clear that there were multiple reasons for the use of military forces against Iraq.”

Wolfowitz was in Singapore when a reporter said to him: “There was an article published yesterday in Vanity Fair which quoted you as saying that weapons of mass destruction were chosen for bureaucratic reasons to justify war in Iraq.” Wolfowitz responded, “I’m sorry, first of all, that isn’t even the way the article puts it, but if you want to know what I actually said I would suggest you read the transcript of the interview which is on our website.” He then went through the reasons for war he cited.

The Vanity Fair article is another attempt to undermine the credibility of the administration on why the U.S. went to war in Iraq. But it’s the credibility of the magazine and author Sam Tanenhaus that has been undermined.

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