When Spin Explodes
CNSNews.com and NewsMax insisted NBC debunked the story about missing explosives in Iraq -- but NBC didn't. They continued to claim the story was debunked anyway.
By Terry Krepel
You can tell how potentially damaging an accusation is to the Bush re-election campaign by how furiously the ConWeb tries to spin it.
So it goes with the revelation in the New York Times that 380 tons of explosives are missing from a former military installation in Iraq that was not guarded by U.S. troops.
The spinning by the ConWeb on this story has hinged on a report by NBC News that an embedded reporter that arrived at the Al Qaqaa installation with the 101st Airborne just after the fall of Baghdad in 2003 claimed that the explosives weren't found at that time.
CNSNews.com generated seven stories Oct. 26 on the missing explosives, most of them trying to use the NBC report to debunk the Times story -- on the NBC report itself; on a White House claim that the explosives were not a "nuclear proliferation risk"; on a claim that John Kerry's mentioning of the story means his campaign is "becoming desperate" (a theme CNS has forwarded previously); a claim made by "some Republicans" (though only one Republican is mentioned in the story) that Kerry's use of the incident in his campaign is "baseless and ironic"; a story headlined "Kerry Clings to 'Missing Explosives' Story on Tuesday"; a story on the Times defending its report; and a story quoting the Media Research Center's Brent Bozell as saying the Times and CBS News (which is planning to broadcast a version of the story) is, surprise, liberally biased. Not only does the story fail to note that the MRC is a conservative group (something CNS has a problem with), it even fails to note that the MRC operates CNSNews.com.
The MRC, as Bozell's quote suggests, denounced the story as well on Oct. 26, additionally noting that the NBC report "suggested a political motivation in the timing of the disclosure about something which occurred at least 18 months ago." It also issued the press release that the CNS story quoted from (though can't the CNS folks just go down the hall to chat with Bozell?)
NewsMax, meanwhile, enmeshed vice presidential candidate John Edwards and the Times in one big smear: "The novice legislator who wants to be one heartbeat from the presidency either is too stupid to understand the phoniness of the New York Times' latest fiction about Iraq or thinks the American people are too stupid." WorldNetDaily has thus far stayed away from it.
But wait! It turns out all these ConWeb histrionics were in vain -- the NBC report, at least as the ConWeb reported it, was incomplete. A new report by the same NBC correspondent who reported the original item detailed the reason those U.S. troops didn't find the explosives -- they didn't look for 'em. According to the report by correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, "those troops were actually on their way to Baghdad, [and] they were not actively involved in the search for any weapons." While there, they looked at only a small fraction of the buildings at the huge Al Qaqaa installation and may not have even known where the explosives were to specifically look for them.
By Oct. 27, NewsMax had given up trying to prove that the story was false and simply declared that it was without offering any evidence to replace the distorted NBC report. It then moved right on to conspiracy, alleging -- again, without evidence -- that Democrats "concocted" the story "with their media allies" and approvingly quoting the Weekly Standard's William Kristol as saying that "the pro-Democrat New York Times and pro-Democrat CBS" are "'colluding' and 'conspiring' with Sen. John Kerry to topple President Bush."
(Hey, remember NewsMax's statement that how proud it was that it appeared that "the Bush-Cheney campaign is using NewsMax Magazine as its campaign playbook"? Sounds more a little like "collusion" to us.)
CNS, meanwhile, spent Oct. 27 insisting that the Kerry campaign was "on the defensive" over the allegations, along with the campaign's "liberal media allies"; that term was linked to a statement by the Times defending the story.
The story, by Susan Jones, claims that "Republicans and some media watchdogs accuse Democrats -- including the New York Times, CBS News, and the Kerry campaign -- of ignoring the facts in their desire and haste to attack President Bush's leadership in the final days of the campaign." (The words "media watchdogs" is linked to the Oct. 25 story quoting Bozell. To be accurate, Jones should have replaced "some" with "conservative.") But Jones -- who wrote four of the seven Oct. 26 stories -- ignored the fact that the Oct. 25 NBC story that backed up those stories was not the definitive debunking that her Oct. 26 stories claimed. In fact, Jones cites that NBC story again but adds the more-accurate-but-still-spinned caveat that "the compound is so large, NBC said, the explosives might have been overlooked -- if they were there at all." Another Oct. 27 story also cites that NBC piece.
Jones also brings up the liberal-conspiracy spin again, noting that "Bush's defenders see the story -- particularly its timing -- as additional proof that the liberal media is doing its part to defeat President Bush by turning public opinion against him." As if CNS' sympathetic coverage of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and its refusal to fact-check anything the Swifties had to say had as its goal anything other than "doing its part" to "turn public opinion against" Kerry.
The MRC spent Oct. 27 calling CBS' coverage of the story "the same strategy employed when CBS News came under fire for the forged memos."
Oct. 28 at NewsMax began early with a summary of a "former GI with the 101st Airborne Division who was among the first Americans on the scene at Saddam Hussein's Al-Qaqaa weapons depot" making the conservative rounds claiming he didn't see any of the missing explosives. That's questionable; the commander of the 101st Airborne Division brigade that stopped at Al Qaqaa told the New York Times that his troops didn't search the facility.
This was followed by another NewsMax story claiming that satellite photos of trucks at the facility "could further discredit" the story. Not necessarily, since we don't know what was in those trucks. But here's a surprise: a story posted late Oct. 28 states that "a Minneapolis TV station is claiming that a news crew it had embedded with the 101st Airborne Division filmed 'bunker after bunker' of explosives at Iraq's Al Qaqaa weapons depot on April 18, 2003."
The torrid pace had also slowed at CNSNews.com on Oct. 28, when it produced just one story with an unusual spin -- to attack the Duelfer Report, the CIA weapons team's examination of Saddam's weapons programs. That report concluded that Saddam's programs to make nuclear, chemical and biological weapons had "progressively decayed" since 1991 and were not active at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. But the expert CNS dug up claimed that if it was easy to spirit away 380 tons of explosives, it would be even easier to hide a chemical or biological weapons program.
The MRC's Tim Graham also issued a "Media Reality Check" that called the story a "late hit" and a "dirty trick." Gee, we don't remember Graham saying that about Sinclair Broadcast Group's original plan to show a discredited anti-Kerry film. Some "dirty tricks" are more equal than others, apparently.
Throughout all of this, none of these organizations have gone back to correct what they originally reported Oct. 26 in claiming that that NBC report definitively debunked the story. Only one article -- the MRC on Oct. 27 -- even bothered to report what NBC's Tom Brokaw said about the conservative reaction to the report on the Oct. 26 NBC Nightly News:
We did not conclude the explosives were missing or had vanished, nor did we say they missed the explosives. We simply reported that the 101st did not find them. ... For its part, the Bush campaign immediately pointed to our report as conclusive proof that the weapons had been removed before the Americans arrived. That is possible, but that is not what we reported.
And then the MRC called Brokaw "on the defensive" for saying that.
That is one major problem with the ConWeb -- they very rarely admit the mistakes they made. Yet they still plow forward because spin is more important than truth.