Saturday, October 30, 2004

Bill Gertz, a superb reporter at The Washington Times, interviewed a deputy undersecretary of defense and discovered one more reason to believe the New York Times-CBS story about missing explosives in Iraq is a sham.

The official, John Shaw, whose job is specifically to keep tabs on such things, said that Russian troops “almost certainly” shipped the material to Syria before the U.S. invasion. Why? The Russians probably produced the explosives and wanted to hide incriminating evidence.

“Almost certainly” doesn’t mean “certainly,” but Mr. Shaw said he is basing his assessment on reports from European intelligence agencies that have extensive data about Russia’s weapons dance with Saddam Hussein.

The original New York Times story — which has become the last-week centerpiece of John Kerry’s presidential campaign — was itself uncertain in its conclusions, although the unmistakable gist of it was that the explosives were heisted after the invasion owing to negligence by the Bush administration.

“Sure, there’s a possibility,” New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post when asked if the explosives might have been taken while Saddam was in power. “I don’t think we’ve ever claimed there was a definitive answer to what became of the stuff,” he is also quoted as saying.

The paper could not possibly claim as much — it could only broadly imply it, along with numerous suggestions of White House dishonesty — because the counterarguments are so persuasive. One of a number of possible examples: In a follow-up story, the New York Times itself quotes an Army colonel as saying that moving 380 tons of explosives could not have been accomplished without the use of dozens of trucks rolling down roads filled with U.S. divisions.

So what’s up here?

As someone who has been in the news business for 38 years, I can tell you that there is a widespread understanding among journalists that in the final days of a campaign, it can be irresponsible — even unethical — to print fresh accusatory material as news when it could have a major impact on an election outcome.

To do so, you need something very, very close to certainty because there is so little time for reply, for sorting things out, for further investigation by others who can demonstrate error even when your human, and therefore fallible, reporters thought everything was nailed down.

You also need to look carefully at the source, and in this case, the primary source was a United Nations official who has it in for the Bush administration.

And you need to frame stories in the right context, which is part of what is missing here. The U.S. military, far from being lax, has secured tens of thousands of tons of such explosives that could have been in terrorists’ hands if not for the invasion. Carry that thought to its logical conclusion and you have a further justification for the war.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the New York Times is the same newspaper that recently said in an editorial that a plan by Sinclair Broadcasting Group to air a documentary critical of Mr. Kerry on its TV stations was reprehensible in part because the election is so close. Shamefully, the editorial went so far as to say the Federal Communications Commission should consider yanking the TV licenses of this company — in other words, destroy the bums — if Sinclair did not yank its plans.

So what’s up is that the New York Times, once a reasonably balanced, reasonably fair newspaper, today demonstrates a bias that is shocking. It is not so shocking, however, as the bias as at CBS News. The network wanted to hold the story until as late as this coming Sunday — virtually Election Eve — when it would be almost impossible for President Bush to communicate a response to the public or for someone like Mr. Gertz to do his digging.

From what he told Mr. Kurtz, editor Bill Keller at least knew that was wrong. As for the decision-makers at CBS News, I would not issue a Times-like call for a government crackdown, but I would suggest something else is missing besides explosives.

Their consciences.

Jay Ambrose is chief editorial writer for Scripps Howard News Service.

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