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2005 Wayward Press Awards

by Jeff Elliott

2004: The Year Of The Passive Press

  It happened Dec. 23, 2005: The Oakland (California) Tribune called for readers to send their battered, dog-eared copies of George Orwell's "1984" to the newspaper's office.

"When we get 537 of them," the editorial said, "we'll send them to every member of the House of Representatives and Senate and to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Feel free to inscribe the book with a note, reminding these fine people that we Americans take the threat to our liberties seriously. Remind Congress that it makes no sense to fight a war for democracy in a foreign land while allowing our democratic principles to erode at home."

We are fighting a war with no end to create a peace with no defined victory.

We occupy a foreign land that doesn't want us, while at home our civil liberties are discounted.

We are told that it's better not to know what our government is doing in our name, for security purposes. Meanwhile, our government is becoming omnipresent, spying on us whenever it deems it necessary.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

The newspaper missed another flaming example: Just ten days before, and with no hint of irony whatsoever, Secretary of State Rice announced that the Bush administration had created "The Edward R. Murrow Journalism Program" to "promote journalistic excellence around the world."

Murrow must be turning over in his ashtray. (And before you ask, yes, the famously chain-smoking journalist was cremated.) For this administration to name an honor after the hard-hitting Murrow is upside-down indeed; never have U.S. government officials shown such naked contempt for the public need-to-know.

From its payola schemes for newspaper columnists to peddling outright propaganda in the Iraqi media, the White House has shown its loathing of a free press. When you add in its persecution of whistle-blowers, cheap smear campaigns against opponents, and daily (non) press briefings by Scotty "Stonewall" McClellan, the truth meter shows that the Bush crew have far more in common with the detestable Joe McCarthy than the noble Murrow.

What newspapers don't need: a bigger dose of pop culture
At the same time, the American mainstream press hasn't exactly been acting like the heirs to Edward R.'s mantle. The New York Times remained stubbornly wedded to discredited writer Judy Miller, whose lingering presence at the paper until late in the year continued to damage the institution's reputation. The Times also made a questionable decision in deciding to squelch the NSA domestic spying story for a full year -- in part, because they apparently feared pre-2004 election disclosure might help the Kerry campaign. And to add a crowning touch of disgrace to the year, editor Keller and publisher Sulzberger refused to answer questions about that decision asked by the paper's very own ombudsman.

These are also scary times in newsrooms, as publishers seek to keep their stockholders happy amid continuing declines in readership. Over 2,000 newspaper jobs were lost this year, and the renowned Knight-Ridder chain will likely soon be sold. A Carnegie report earlier this year pegged the average age of a newspaper reader at 53, which started a new round of hand-wringing over the need to be relevant to today's youth. Many assume that translates into the need for more pop culture in their offerings. Several dailies are set to start Japanese-style manga cartoon strips shortly, and in mid-December, the Dayton Daily News simultaneously crossed editorial, advertising, and entertainment borders by turning the layout of the front page into an ad for the Hollywood blockbuster, King Kong. And yes, newsstand sales of that edition were up slightly.

Such efforts are headed in the wrong direction. As discussed in our August 404 report, the way to make print media competitive in today's world is simple: make a newspaper a better newspaper. Hire more reporters and editors instead of firing them; offer longer articles instead of simplified, in-brief coverage; explore fully the background of important stories; refocus on the primary job of newstelling -- laying basic facts in front of the public. It is absolutely appalling that almost 1 in 4 Americans (22 percent) still believe at the end of 2005 that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Over 65 million people. The media may not be entirely to blame for this ignorance, of course, but they're also not entirely blameless, either.

And then there are the important stories that aren't covered at all, stories that are orphaned after initial reports, and stories where the reporting's just plain wrong. Below are our picks for 2005's worst news media clinkers. (In most cases, links within the items below provide even more background through Albion Monitor coverage. Some articles are available to subscribers only. Here is information on how to subscribe.)


"We cannot kill all our enemies"

-- Bill Clinton interview in Le Monde, August 9

"I have never seen such an outpouring in the 32 years I've been in Congress of support and people with tears in their eyes, people walking along clapping when I'm walking through the halls of Congress, saying something needed to be said"

-- Rep. John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania) on Meet The Press, November 20   (MORE)

"The invasion of Iraq I believe will turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in U.S. history"

-- Former NSA head and retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, now a scholar with the Hudson Institute. Lowell [Massachussets] Sun, September 29

"We're at the point where jihad is self-sustaining"

-- Michael Scheuer, former CIA analyst in charge of the hunt for bin Laden, on the fading importance of al-Qaeda in the global insurgency. Scheuer told AP July 9 he forsees "endless" war, but "I don't think it's even started yet"

"There was no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the attack of 9/11. I've never said that and never made that case prior to going into Iraq"

-- President Bush interview on PBS' Online NewsHour, December 16

"For FISA, they had to put down a written justification for the wiretap. They couldn't dream one up"

-- A government official, who spoke to the Washington Post December 22 on the condition of anonymity, saying that the administration complained bitterly that the FISA process demanded too much: to name a target and give a reason to spy on it

"It was the Camelot of counterterrorism...and it was fun"

-- A former counterterrorism official recalling the post-9/11 heyday of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, when the staff quickly ballooned from 300 to 1,200. Key to the operations was the Rendition Group, which kidnapped suspects and took them to Agency-run "black sites" or prisons in friendly countries. Washington Post, December 4

"The President is more determined than ever to stay the course, [but] he doesn't feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage 'People may suffer and die, but the Church advances'"

-- A former defense official, quoted in The New Yorker, December 5 issue. Bush has become detatched, leaving more issues to Rove and Cheney, according to the source. "They keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway"

"This is very good indeed ... Encouraging ... Not like the crap we are all so used to getting out of CIA"

-- Notes by Cheney found on the margin of a pre-Iraq invasion report by Doug Feith claiming proof of links between Al Qaeda and Saddam. National Journal, November 22

"A whole generation of children just died"

-- Nauman Jahangir, a MD just returned from the Himalayan earthquake region, where UNICEF estimates 17,000 were killed in the Oct. 8 quake, which hit just as the school day was starting. "We didn't see many children between the ages of 7 and 15," Jahangir told the Las Vegas Review-Journal November 7

"Before, I sold water, flowers, shoes, cars -- but not weapons. We didn't know anything about weapons"

-- Ziad Cattan, a former used-car dealer before U.S. authorities made him procurement chief for the Iraq Defense Ministry. Cattan, who has fled the country and is facing corruption charges by the Iraq government, paid nearly $1.3 billion in sacks of cash for questionable military equipment. LA Times, November 7

"God, they're an odd bunch, these Republicans"

-- Nancy Sladek, editor of Britain's Literary Review, which has an annual contest for bad sex writing in fiction, commenting on passages from a 1996 novel by I. "Scooter" Libby. "The Apprentice" includes a description of a 10 year-old girl forced to have intercourse with a trained bear. The New Yorker issue of November 7

"At least once a week, it seemed, Powell trooped over to the Oval Office and cleaned all the dog poop off the carpet. He held a youthful, inexperienced president's hand. He told him everything would be all right because he, the secretary of State, would fix it... It wasn't enough, of course, but it helped"

-- Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 through 2005. LA Times, October 25   (MORE)

"Just let us have our constitution and elections in December and then we will do what Saddam did - start with five people from each neighborhood and kill them in the streets and then go from there"

-- Iraqi Army Sgt. Ahmed Sabri, among the mostly-Shiite armed forces vowing to take revenge on Sunni Iraqis. "Thousands and thousands of Shiites are being killed, which is why they're joining the army." Knight Ridder, October 12

"This is like Chicago in the '30s: You don't like somebody, you drop a dime on them"

-- Col. Austin Schmidt, who oversees Camp Bucca, one of three U.S. prisons in Iraq. Schmidt estimates a quarter of the 10,600 people behind bars "were just snagged in a dragnet-type operation" or were victims of personal vendettas. Washington Post, August 24

"I don't think that they outright detested him -- until now"

-- Peter D. Hart, on of the pollsters on the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey that found only 2% of African Americans approve of Bush job performance, the lowest known rating of any president. After 9/11, the same poll found Blacks approved of him by 51%. Washington Post, October 13

"Sometimes the problem with being a Democrat is being a Democrat"

-- Political consultant and pundit James Carville, on the Democratic party's belief that it has to endorse a laundry list of causes and special interests to win elections. The Demos should drop the "Kumbayah crap," he told students at Northwestern College, October 7

"How many of you, I wonder, have heard a friend or a family member in the last few years remark that it's almost as if America has entered 'an alternate universe?'"

-- Al Gore at the "We Media" conference in New York, October 5

"Some days we would just get bored, so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did it for amusement"

-- An Army sergeant who is one of three former members of an elite division that has told HRW they routinely beat and abused Iraqi prisoners in 2003 and 2004 with full knowledge of their commanders. ""As long as no PUC's [persons under control] came up dead, it happened," the sergeant is quoted in the report released September 23. "We kept it to broken arms and legs"   (MORE)

"I think it's a concern that Bush disappears during times of stress. He spends so much time on his ranch. It's very frightening"

-- Dr. Justin Frank, a psychiatrist and author of "Bush On The Couch: Inside The Mind Of The President," quoted in a September 21 National Enquirer article claiming Bush has resumed drinking because of stress. Frank told the tabloid that he believes the charge is true

"You run down the list of things we thought we could accomplish and you have to wonder what we thought we were thinking"

-- A four-year veteran of the Bush Administration quoted by The American Spectator, September 19. "You get the impression that we're more than listless. We're sunk"

"How is he behaving? Has the place blown up?"

-- President Bush Sept. 13 to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on U.S. ambassador John Bolton, who once said ten floors of the UN building could disappear without making a difference. Washington Post, September 15

"FEMA hired the best of the best firefighters, got them together and gave them secretary jobs"

-- Thomas Blomgren, one of several hundred firefighters waiting days at the Atlanta airport hotel and now told that they will be sent to South Carolina to do paperwork. "On the news every night you hear [hurricane victims say], 'How come everybody forgot us?' " said Joseph Manning, another firefighter. "We didn't forget. We're stuck in Atlanta drinking beer." AP, September 7

"We were expressly told that we were just waiting for someone to climb on an APC. After a day or two, a 12-year-old climbed on one of the APCs. There were a lot of guesses about his age. First they said he was eight, later that he was 12. In any case, he climbed on an APC, and one of our sharpshooters killed him"

-- Moshe, a whistleblower and former sergeant in the Israeli military describing the "pressure to get kills" as his unit was ordered to set up ambushes in Gaza during May 2003. "So kids got killed. For a soldier it means nothing. An officer can get a 100 or 200 shekel [$23-47] fine for such a thing." UK/Guardian, September 6

"If he'd met with me, then I would have gone home, and it would have ended there"

-- Cindy Sheehan to AP, August 30. "I look back on it, and I am very, very, very grateful he did not meet with me, because we have sparked and galvanized the peace movement"

"He's got heart disease, but the disease is not restricted just to that part of his body. He grunts a lot, so you never really know what he's thinking"

-- Rep. Charles Rangel (D - NY) on Dick Cheney. NY Daily News, August 27

"The version they give me when we're on the air is gung-ho, we're doing the right thing, everything is moving along. The version they give me off the air is, Rumsfeld is crazy"

-- Hardball talk host Chris Matthews, August 1. "What I keep doing here is asking people on and off camera who come on this program, high-ranking officers, enlisted, former officers. I get sometimes, not all the time, two different versions"

"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda"

-- President Bush at a May 24 "town hall" held in Greece, NY

"We hold people accountable when there's abuse. We take steps to prevent it from happening again"

-- White House spokesman Scott McClellan, May 25. 2005. The following day, the Pentagon ruled that a U.S. soldier who shot two Iraqis 60 times 'in self-defense' will not face murder charges

"But they had flowers in their minds"

-- Doug Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, arguing that the invading Americans weren't greeted with flowers because some Iraqis were still too intimidated by the remnants of Saddam's Baath Party to express their emotions openly. New Yorker, May 9

"Unfortunately, the mainstream media in the United States was too busy with wall-to-wall coverage of a 'runaway bride' to cover a bombshell report out of the British newspapers"

-- Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) May 2 statement calling for Congressional inquiry after the London Sunday Times printed a memo apparently confirming that Bush and Tony Blair had secretly agreed in the summer of 2002 to attack Iraq

"During the days of Saddam, I used to make one coffin a day. Now, I make scores of them"

-- Hussein Mohammed, a Baghdad coffin-maker. "The demand increases with every suicide car bomb that explodes," he added. AFP, April 25

"For the first time in our history, the weird, the stupid, the coarse, the sensational and the untrue are becoming our cultural norm -- even our cultural ideal"

-- Journalist Carl Bernstein, doubting that he and Bob Woodward would have backing to pursue a story like Watergate in today's newsrooms. Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World, April 16

"It's just another seedy attempt by the liberal media to embarrass me"

-- House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, after the NY Times revealed April 6 that his PAC and campaign committees have paid his wife and daughter over $500,000 since 2001

"We've been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture"

-- Pastor and parent Ray Mummert, who supports the Dover, Pennsylvania school board's requirement that high school biology teachers dispute evolution. Other parents have sued to overturn the decision. "If we continue to indoctrinate our young people with non-religious principles, we're headed for an internal destruction of this society," Mummert was quoted by AFP, March 27

"It turns out that we were all wrong"

-- Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, forgiving himself for telling Congress in 2001 that Bush tax cuts were justified because the economy was about to boom. "Just for the record, we were not all wrong," Sen. Hillary Clinton shot back to Greenspan at the Senate hearing, March 16

"We didn't criticize you when you fired those reporters at CBS"

-- Vladimir Putin comeback to Bush criticism about freedom of the press in Russia. Reported in the March 7 issue of Newsweek

"I haven't denied anything"

-- President Bush, when a friend remarked that Bush had publicly denied using cocaine. The future president was secretly taped by Doug Wead, an author and former aide to Bush's father. "If nobody shows up, there's no story. And if somebody shows up, it is going to be made up," Bush said, about concerns that cocaine rumors might arise. New York Times, February 19

"It's an amazing media error, a huge blunder. I'm sure the Bush administration is thrilled by this spin"

-- Democratic party adviser Robert Weiner on the widely-repeated claim that 60% of eligible Iraqis voted in the January election. The number is meaningless because no one actually knows how many people were eligible to vote, or even how many Iraqis are adults. Weiner quote from the Washington Post, February 1

In one of the strangest media moments of our times, editors at leading American newspapers actually started a fistfight with their readers over a three year-old British memorandum.

The item in question was the "Downing St. Memo" (there are actually six or eight reports, depending how you count, but we'll continue to use the singular here). The Memo -- a July 2002 report from a British diplomat just returned from Washington -- made much stink in England after it was published in the London Sunday Times May 2, just four days before the national vote on Prime Minister Tony Blair. "Military action was now seen as inevitable" by U.S. officials, the Memo says. Most damning was a section claiming, "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Aside from a passing glance in a NY Times update on the British elections and a short Knight-Ridder item picked up by a handful of newspapers, the U.S. mainstream media ignored the story. But starting around mid-May, several unusual things happened. All types of media found their mailboxes awash with letters demanding coverage of the Memo; Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler reported over a thousand in one week alone, which spurred him to peevishly complain about the volume of mail. Ombuds from the NY Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution also commented on the size of the mailbag and attempted to justify their newspaper's Memo snub. We were too busy and anyway, we mentioned it briefly in that British election story, wrote the Times. The AJC ombudsman defended the paper by noting that they run plenty of other stories about Iraq, and anyway, they'll soon have a reporter and photographer embedded with the troops.

It's blue-moon time when newspapers run letters about stories they haven't covered, or editors defend their failure to keep readers informed. But even stranger yet, the conservative wing of the media began to crow about the poor coverage of the Memo story. In the very first page-one item about the Memo to appear in the U.S, the Chicago Tribune wrote that the story is "fizzling in U.S." because "the public generally seems indifferent to the issue." Fox gloated that the Memo "has received little attention in the mainstream media, frustrating opponents of the Iraq war." Like the defensive ombuds, the Trib and Fox assumed that its audiences knew about the Memo, albeit from a media source other than themselves.

Rarely is a passed-over story resurrected by the press, but mirabile dictu, a trickle of stories began to appear in the Washington Post, LA Times, and other major papers. Molly Ivins and Paul Krugman wrote columns. While most of the U.S. press still kept mum, the story now clearly had legs. When Bush was directly asked a question about it at a June 7 news conference, the Memo was finally mentioned for the first time on network news and many American front pages. Oddest of these debuts was the USA TODAY offering, which ended with a quick recap of the Memo's lightweight media coverage and the excuse that they hadn't mentioned it for the previous five weeks because they couldn't get "explicit confirmation of its authenticity" from the Brits. It was the strangest apology to appear in an American newspaper since -- well, ever.

The main reason the Downing St. Memo was shunned can probably be found in a June 8 column by the Washington Post's Dana Milbank: "In part, the memo never gained traction here because, unlike in Britain, it wasn't election season, and the war is not as unpopular here. In part, it's also because the notion that Bush was intent on military action in Iraq had been widely reported here before, in accounts from Paul O'Neill and Bob Woodward, among others." In other words, Faithful Reader doesn't need to be told about the deceits of 2002 because F.R. already knows about them. Or should.

To Milbank, the new discovery of the old British government memo has no relevance except as a historical footnote. Milbank also makes the mistake of linking the Downing Street Memo to the British election story; why on earth would anyone care to rehash pre-election stories now that the election's over? By defending the poor initial U.S. media coverage, Milbank and the others are, essentially, arguing against the American public's right to know whether the reasons for war were trumped up by the Bush White House. That's simply amazing.

The Secret Way To War

For The Brits, A Smoking Gun - For The U.S. Press, A Bother

More on Downing St. Memo media coverage


Want another example of how to improve your daily newspaper? Offer readers regular installments about developing stories that have complex backgrounds. In this alt universe, papers would have mesmerized readers in 2005 by reporting the latest developments in the Abramoff scandal.

The tale of Jack Abramoff is the stuff of epics; you might have to reach back to Crassus and the fall of the Roman Republic to find a single power-broker with such influence over a great nation. An intimate to the top echelons in the Republican party, his association with Karl Rove goes back to college days. Abramoff can be found as a key player in probably every Republican party scandal that's tumbled out of the Beltway in recent years.

While Abramoff is best known for milking large donations from Indian casinos and sending millions of dollars to GOP politicians and front groups, he is also a major supporter of right-wing causes -- among them a sniper school for Israeli colonists living in the West Bank. Other parts of the Abramoff story reads like a red-meat paperback thriller, complete with an unsolved, gangland-style murder of a partner following a shady business deal.

As of this writing, Abramoff is under attack on two fronts; his former partner Michael Scanlon recently pleaded guilty and offered to cooperate with prosecutors, and Washington is abuzz with speculation that he will roll-over as well, likely implicating several members of Congress. He also faces trial on fraud and conspiracy charges in early January over the Florida casino deal that left the previous owner shot to death.

There are so many characters and plot twists that the story is almost impossible to follow without a good running start. Required background reading includes, "The Ringleader: How Grover Norquist keeps the conservative movement together" in the Aug. 1, 2005 New Yorker, and Working for Change has a very useful Abramoff primer. The Washington Post also recently published an excellent 4,000 word feature on Abramoff as well as a useful graphic showing Abramoff's connections to key members of Congress.

Alas, the newspapers blew it; with rare exceptions such as the end-of-year Post coverage, reporting has been spotty and focused narrowly on only the most current events. What the story cried for was daily, or at least weekly, special-section feature coverage. You know -- the same kind of hot-spotlight used a few years ago on the unfolding Monica Lewinsky affair.

Abramoff Scandal Highlights Right's Moral Bankruptcy

Widening Abramoff Scandal Exposes GOP Cronyism

The GOP's Summer Of Scandal

The K Street Boys

Ralph Reed Political Plans Tripped Up By Abramoff Scandal

Bush Scandals Everywhere You Look

Lobbyist Abuse Of Non-Profits Widespread


The Iraq "Oil For Food" investigation wrapped up in October, and investigators found pretty much what everyone expected to find: because Saddam was allowed to select the contractors for the humanitarian program, he raked in tons of cash from bribes. Nearly half of the 4,500 companies involved were paying kickbacks; among them Volvo Construction Equipment slipped Saddam an extra $317,000 to get a $6.4 million contract, and DaimlerChrysler paid an additional $7,000 on its $70,000 contract. All in all, $1.8 billion was illegally paid under the table to Iraq between 1996 - 2003.

The UN administered the program, and the blue-ribbion panel accused the program's former chief of taking nearly $150,000 in kickbacks, while another official pleaded guilty of soliciting a bribe. A third UN official was fired for revealing details about a contractor, but was later cleared by an appeals panel and reinstated in November.

Of course, the Right had spent more than a year promising that the investigation would bring down the UN by implicating Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose son worked for a Swiss company that obtained a contract. Alas for the UN-haters, no evidence was found that son Kojo acted improperly, and he even won "substantial" damages from the London Times in a libel case on the allegations.

American newspapers wrote frequently about the investigation when it looked like the UN's blood was in the water. More than 1,000 op/eds and articles about "UN corruption" appeared this year alone, over half of them mentioning Kojo Annan's alleged crookedness. Some typical headlines: "Annan's blind eye" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), "Kofi Annan's slick answers won't suffice now" (Dallas Morning News), "For sale: UN, big bldg, riv vu" (Chicago Tribune).

It would've taken lots of ink and airtime to balance that year's worth of attacks against the UN's integrity, yet strangely, those same editors couldn't find any space for updates when investigators found the UN angle was much ado about not much. News about Annan's son winning the libel suit merited a one-paragraph "News in Brief" mention in only the Philadelphia Inquirer and NY Times. NEXIS doesn't show a single paper that picked up any of the short wire service stories about the exoneration of the only man fired by the UN.

Because the mainstream press told only part of the story, readers and viewers were left with the impression that the UN was guilty as charged, and the credibility of the world body was severely undermined; a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found for the first time that fewer than half of Americans have a positive view of the UN -- a drop of 11 points from earlier this year. Thus the United Nations finds itself weakened just as U.S. ambassador Bolton launches his mad campaign to destroy the institution. Could anything make the wingnuts happier?

Far-Right Prepares All-Out Attack On UN

Oil-For-Food Scandal Involved 2,000+ Companies

Top French Officials Linked To Oil For Food Scandal

Heads Roll In Iraq Oil-For-Food Probe

The Oil-For-Food Non-Scandal Scandal

"Hell No," I Won't Resign, Says UN Chief

Is List Of Saddam's "Oil Bribes" More Forged Evidence? (2004)

UN, Kofi Annan Dismiss Right-Wing Calls For His Resignation (2004)

Right Wingers Target Kofi Annan And UN (2004)

Oil-For-Food Blame Game Heats Up (2004)


While the hounds of the press were biting at the heels of Annan Père et fils (see item above) the real Iraq scandal went almost completely unreported: The disappearance of $8.8 billion in Iraqi funds.

As part of the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration seized the remaining money in the oil-for-food account, anything it could find from Iraqi assets overseas, plus funds held in limbo by U.S. banks since Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. Some was earmarked specifically for use in reconstuction efforts, but most of the money went into a slush fund administered by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) intended to be spent on running the country.

As early as October 2003, alarms were going off that the money was disappearing, as the British charity Christian Aid charged that hundreds of millions of dollars slated for reconstuction had vanished. By the time that the CPA closed operations in June 2004, an audit by the CPA's inspector general inspector general found $8.8 billion could not be accounted for.

Where did all that money go? Shipped weekly to Iraq in shrink-wrapped bales of $100 bills, almost all was handed over to government ministries, whose ranks swelled overnight with legions of "ghost" employees. This included salaries for 74,000 security guards, although the actual number of workers could not be validated; in one case some 8,000 guards were listed, but only 603 real individuals could be counted. The ministries also paid billions to U.S. contractors, Halliburton being the largest single recipient.

The inspector general's report was offically released in January (more about that later) to little outrage; the only time it came up in Congressional hearings was during Wolfowitz' February testimony about the status of the occupation before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The architect of the invasion quoted former Iraq czar Paul Bremer's justification for the lack of oversight with the excuse that they couldn't delay paying Iraqi public servants "until we had fully modern pay records...[it] would have been destabilizing and would have increased the security threat to Iraqis and to Americans." To that Wolfowitz shamefully added that it wasn't our money that was gone missing, and hey, we were really helping the Iraqis by giving back the money as soon as possible. Suckers.

Nor did the issue stir much interest in the press, with short articles appearing deep inside the New York Times and LA Times when the report was released, and NEXIS showing that a handful of papers picked up the Associated Press item. A few passing mentions can be found scattered throughout the following year in op/eds and and articles about related Iraq issues. Like the presumption of reporters that everyone knew that Bush had ginned up reasons for war before disclosure of the Downing St. Report, the $8.8 billion was a detail dropped into the narrative with the expectation that the reader already knew plenty.

It is astonishing that a sum as large as $8.8 billion can go missing without serious attention paid -- as Senator Robert Byrd (D-W Virginia) put it at the Wolfowitz hearing, it represents "$8.80 for every minute since Jesus Christ was born 2,000 years ago." The thin media coverage rankled Al Franken, who told of a remarkable encounter in a May blog entry:

The Sunday morning after the White House Correspondents dinner, I ran into Senator George Allen at a brunch thrown by John McLaughlin and his wife. Allen had never heard of the missing $8.8 billion, or at least that's what he told me. And he's on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Stunned, I went up to Susan Page of USA Today and her husband Carl Lubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News, two veteran Washington political reporters, and told them about Allen's ignorance of this huge scandal, which has no doubt contributed to hatred for America and the deaths of our troops. There's less electricity in Iraq now than there was before we invaded Iraq.

Turns out that Page and Lubsdorf had also never heard of the unaccounted-for $8.8 billion. For a moment I thought that maybe I had been imagining things.

Then I spotted my friend Norm Ornstein, scholar from the American Enterprise Institute. "Would you believe it if Norm Ornstein told you about the $8.8 billion?" I asked Susan and Carl.


I brought Norm over, and indeed I had not been imagining things. "It was a huge story," Norm told them.

"Was it in the New York Times?" Carl asked Norm.

"Yes," Norm assured him.

What in God's name is going on?

What's going on is another example of the Passive Press, of course, with newsrooms expecting an NGO or someone in Washington would do the research necessary to develop the story. The only nod for original reporting goes to Newhouse News Service reporter David Wood, who pointed out the important detail that the Pentagon did not release the inspector general's full report -- Halliburton was allowed to edit it first. Wood's report appeared only in the July 4 edition of the Seattle Times.

Billion$ Missing From Iraq Trust Fund Managed By U.S.

$9 Billion Found Missing From Iraq Accounts

U.S. A Key Player In Oil-For-Food Scandal, Ex-UN Aide Says (2004)

U.S. Has Mishandled Billion$ In Iraq, Audits Show (2004)

'Staggering Amount' of Cash Missing In Iraq (2004)

U.S. Now In Control Of Iraq Multi-Billion $$ "Oil For Food" Program (2003)

U.S. Hasn't Accounted For $4 Billion In Seized Iraq Cash (2003)


2005 witnessed a triple-header of humanitarian disasters, including the aftermath of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Can you name the third? Kudos if you're an American who recalls the million left homeless after the Oct. 8 Himalayan earthquake -- almost no substantial coverage of the victim's plight has appeared in the mainstream U.S. press since the initial reporting.

From Nov. 1 to the end of the year, a NEXIS search reveals only 13 full-length stories (600 words or longer) describing the desperate situation currently facing people trying to survive winter in the mountains with little shelter or supplies. And of those baker's dozen articles, seven were written by LA Times Staff Writer John M. Glionna alone.

MONITOR has offered continuing coverage via the stories from the UN's IRIN news agency, describing how freezing weather and snow has blocked rescue efforts from all but the easiest to reach areas; what horrors may be found next spring in the more remote villages is the stuff of nightmares.

But the scope of the Pakistan quake story is far more than the race to get survival gear into the hands of the needy; the issue has serious, long-term implications for Bush's Terror War that Americans should know about.

Pakistan's infamously corrupt military is running most of the multibillion-dollar relief and rehabilitation program, bypassing the government and local elected officials, as a growing chorus of NGOs are complaining that there's no way of tracking how the money's being spent. The White House has no complaint with this situation; since 9/11 it has cultivated Pakistan's President Musharraf as an anti-terror ally, despite his government's tolerance for the Islamic extremist movement.

And as described in another report in the MONITOR, it is a safe bet that Osama's kith and kin are fast making friends with their humanitarian work. The quake, which hit on the border of the Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, was home to several banned jihadi militant groups that quickly setup field hospitals and provided food and other aid, including establishing a much-needed orphanage. Independent of Pakistan's military government, Jamaatud Dawa, the parent organization of the banned militant outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba (Soldiers of God), says it has begun a massive reconstruction plan that includes the building of 400 mosques, 17,000 homes and 121 schools.

Meanwhile, frustration mounts in the official refugee camps run by the Pakistan military. According to IRIN, the perception that the outside world may be deserting them has added to the panic among some survivors. "We are preparing ourselves for the worst, because it could be ugly," a UN aid worker said, while maintaining that preparations for any situation that might arise were fully in place.

The story of al-Qaeda's birth teaches us that whatever happens in the winter of 2005-2006 in those remote, ruined towns may well set the course of history for a generation or more. We ignore such developments at our peril.

Pakistan's Corrupt Army Controls Quake Cash

Pakistan Quake Victims Struggle To Survive Freezing Conditions

Supporting Corrupt Pakistan The Main Reason For U.S. Quake Aid

Extremists Earn Legitimacy Through Pakistan Quake Relief

Pakistan Quake Victims Mob Hospitals As Freezing Weather Sets In

500,000 Himalaya Quake Survivors Face Winter Without Shelter

INDEX to Oct. Earthquake coverage


Anyone who follows business news heard or read about it: In mid-December, DuPont agreed to pay a $10.25 million fine for hiding health risks involved with making Teflon and other products. As even the shortest squib mentioned, it was the largest penalty of its kind ever obtained by the EPA. But as our February 404 report punned, any settlement only scratches the surface.

DuPont is also required to fund another $6.25 million for R&D projects to study the known health risks of Teflon -- or more specifically, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the chemical used in making surfaces slippery. PFOA is called C8 by the chemical industry. C8 has been used in industrial and consumer products for over a half century and today, as DuPont's website boasts, "it's everywhere!" Besides non-stick cookware and stain-resistant carpet, it's used to coat windshield wiper blades, light bulbs, contact lenses, fast-food hamburger wrappers, microwave popcorn bags and myriad other products. It's also in you -- researchers estimate that 95 percent of all Americans have detectable levels of C8 in their bodies. You're in good company; it's also found in dolphins, polar bears, fish, fruit, and vegetables. The chemical does not break down over time, and no one knows why. Also unknown are the long-term effects of having it inside your body. Hopefully, the new research will discover answers to some of these important questions.

As another 404 report points out, discovery of DuPont's four-decade coverup of the health risks came about because of a class action suit against the corporation, and that suit was specifically pointed out as a heinous example of abuse during the conservative campaign to whip up support for the "Class Action Fairness Act."

To promote their cause, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), successfully created a new catch-phrase for the English language: "Judicial hellholes®" (yes, "judicial hellholes®" is actually their registered trademark.) Since they coined the term in 2002, it has appeared, sans trademark, in hundreds of articles and editorials to impugn any court that's plaintiff-friendly. The org produces an annual list of the worst judicial hellholes® that is reprinted widely, often without any attribution to ATRA at all or its mention pushed far back in the story, so readers didn't know who was making judicial hellhole® decisions.

Last year's ATRA report named the entire state of West Virginia as a hellhole because DuPont "was forced to settle a medical monitoring claim class action even though the plaintiffs offered no evidence that the substance at issue -- C8, which is a by-product of Teflon production -- is even dangerous or has the potential to cause any ill health effects."

But investigators found the company also knew in the early 1980s that some employees at their plant were having babies born with birth defects similar to the deformities in rats exposed to the substance. And the company knew at least since 1984 that water wells in West Virginia and Ohio were contaminated. Memos surfaced where DuPont executives schemed on ways to keep the public from knowing about the contaminated local water supply.

That's all quite a different picture than the injustice portrayed by ATRA; instead of revealing courtroom abuse, it shows a compelling reason why class-action suits are an essential tool to hold companies accountable for public harm. Yet not one of those newspapers that ran items from the hellhole list mentioned a single word about the celebrated case that was the main reason West Virginia was slammed.

DuPont Pays Record Fine In Teflon Case

Anatomy of a Class Action

Teflon Settlement Only Scratches The Surface

DuPont Denies It Withheld Studies Showing Teflon Health Risks (2004)


More than a few commentators lumped Bush's views on evolution with the administration's stance against the Kyoto Protocol and stem cell research to take a good, strong thwack at Bush The Science Ninny. Nothing wrong with that; "incurious George" is an apt nickname for the man. But all the Fourth Estate's criticism would be a lot more biting if they hadn't completely missed one of the top science stories of our lifetimes.

 Mars water
Click to enlarge

The big news was the discovery of water on Mars. On July 28, the European Space Agency announced they had found a huge frozen lake inside a crater at the north pole. Not surface formations that suggest water may have once existed on the planet, or scientific projections that water deposits might be found underground -- no, here was an actual lake (glacier, really) on the surface. The ESA even released a picture taken by their Mars Express spacecraft; that image to the side is not a computer simulation, and that big blue area is really frozen water, over 650 feet deep.

Although it was momentous news, it didn't appear on a single U.S. newspaper front page, despite that spectacular picture. It didn't appear inside those U.S. newspapers, either; not a single daily paper can be found that mentioned the discovery. There was no AP story, no Reuters or UPI coverage. All that can be found in the American mainstream press is a short item from the Bloomberg wire that was bundled with other items picked up by a few broadcast media websites.

The 404 report on the issue explored several reason why the story was probably ignored, including the generally dismal quality of science reporting in the mainstream press. By weird coincidence, U.S. researchers announced the very next day the existence of a tenth planet beyond Pluto, although there's some question whether it should be called a planet, and what meaning "planet" should have at all, considering there are probably many other underscovered objects like this.

The saddest part of this misadventure was the lost opportunity to rekindle the public's imagination. Americans read coverage that weekend about the discovery of a remote lump of rock, fuzzy in the best telescopes, and with the zen-like quality of being important only because it existed. Imagine instead that we opened our Sunday papers to a vision of colonized Mars a few years hence, complete with an artist's rendition of ice-skating astronauts.

When Is Science News?


In case you missed it (and you did, because there was absolutely no media coverage), there was an important hearing on Capitol Hill March 2nd. The topic: The secret government of George W. Bush. Never in American history has government been so eager to rubber stamp papers as "Confidential," or "Secret;" last year, 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean said that fully 75 percent of the materials reviewed shouldn't have been classified, and the secrecy hampered informaton-sharing by agencies with a need to know. But this recent hearing by the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations went beyond that, looking at how the Bush Administration is hiding information with new "pseudosecret" terminology, such as "Sensitive but Unclassified" and "Sensitive Homeland Security Information." Or, as more usually happens, the government agency simply ignoring the requests for documents or releases them with the entire page redacted.

The testimony by Thomas Blanton of George Washington University's National Security Archive is well worth reading. Last year the Archive asked for copies of FAA warnings on terrorism in the months prior to 9/11. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) refused to disclose anything on grounds that it was "Sensitive Security Information," including the unclassified titles and number IDs of the memos. "When we pointed out that the titles, dates, and numbers were listed in the footnotes to the number one best-selling book in the United States, the 9/11 Commission report, the TSA painstakingly restored those precise digits and letters in its second response to us, but kept the blackout over everything else," Blanton said.

The shroud of great secrecy extends far beyond supposed- national security issues like 9/11 and the handling of Terror War suspects, or big ideological showdowns like revealing the details of Cheney's 2001 energy task force (which is still flopping through the courts). This Administration is clamping down on everything it can, virtually down to office Post-It notes.

But it's not as if the mainstream press is breaking a sweat trying to pry this information loose. Blogger Michael Petrelis had the inspiration to file a Freedom of Information Act request asking for a list of all FOIA requests made to the Pentagon. The list is revealing: Of the 10,000+ requests made in the last five years, only about one percent came from America's largest newspapers. The LA Times made 42 inquiries, exactly twice as many as the NY Times. The Washington Post made 34 requests for info, two more than CBS News. The Associated Press was the leader of the pack with 73.

If the mainstream press has relinquished its job as watchdog on the government, who's watching out for you? (Sorry, O'Reilly fans, the big blowhard didn't ask for anything.) The vast majority of FOIA requests came from Blanton's National Security Archive, which filed 895 over those years. The Archive makes new reports available every few days, which are eagerly mined by news organizations. As such, it's a classic example of last year's "Passive Press" theme, showing how the media has come to expect independent groups to do the heavy lifting.

Bush Admin Spending Heavily To Keep Secrets

Attempts To Lift Bush Veil Of Government Secrecy

Robert Scheer: What We Don't Know About 9/11 Hurts Us

Now They're Feeding Us Actual Covert Propaganda

White House Tightens Homeland Secrecy Rules

The Day Ashcroft Foiled FOIA (2002)

Conservatives Try To Turn FOIA Into Weapon (2000)


Does the news media ever intentionally deceive? The answer is an easy yes: examples can probably be found in every newspaper, every day. A September blog posting found Alan Dershowitz griping that obituaries for William Rehnquist painted him as a warm, thoughtful man when he was anything but. "History requires truth, not puffery or silence, especially about powerful governmental figures. And obituaries are a first draft of history," wrote Dershowitz. He misses the mark; obituaries always lie, or at least don't tell the unvarnished truth. Rarely does a scoundrel die a scoundrel in the obits; only infamous criminals are called out for their crimes.

It's understandable that obituaries looked away from his personal failings, such as being known as a tyrant on the bench and short-tempered bully. Not so forgiveable is glossing over his professional record as an extremist who often guided the court to vote along ideological grounds rather than sound jurisprudence, most famously in deciding the outcome of the year 2000 presidential election.

As discussed in our September 404 report, his radical views were most on display when he was on the losing side and writing dissenting opinions that revealed his fuzzy thinking. He said flag burning should be outlawed because many people have "an almost mystical reverence" for the stars and stripes. He opposed affirmative action in college admission and a law that barred execution of the mentally retarded as "cruel and unusual" punishment. He voted against Roe v. Wade, writing "a transaction resulting in an operation such as this is not 'private' in the ordinary usage of that word."

The most newsworthy person to die in 2005 was Pope John Paul II, of course, whose declining health, death, and funeral, dominated all aspects of the media for weeks. Again, the obituaries did history a disservice by eliminating all warts from his flattering final portrait.

John Paul II was never viewed as responsible for the priest sex abuse scandals that roiled the church during his papacy, but he certainly set the stage for wrongdooing by his personal involvement with coverups. The first happened just days after he assumed the throne in 1979, when he intervened to conceal wrongdoings by an American Catholic order that had bilked millions from devout catholics in the U.S. Here was foreshadowed all that followed: the silence by the top echelons of the church, cash payouts to victims, wrongdoers protected and bailed out of trouble, guilty priests not punished. Far more serious was the later Vatican Bank scandal, where enormous sums of money from the cash-strapped church were secretly diverted to John Paul II's pet project, Poland's anti-communist Solidarity trade union.

Missing from the tens of thousands of articles eulogizing this pope was mention of either matter, except for a single AP story that gave passing reference to the Vatican Bank fraud. Also rarely mentioned was John Paul II's systematic destruction of the liberal wing of the church in Latin America.

Obituaries confabulate what truly happened, in part, because media producers don't want to kick dirt on the fresh grave. Letters, angry calls, threats, subscription cancellations may follow. But journalists always have an obligation to tell the whole story, not just the noble parts. Fairy tales may comfort, but history reveals.

The Vatican's Forgotten Scandal

God's Banker and the Pope's Covert War

Requiem For A Heavyweight Villain


(Like many other items here, this item first appeared, or is adapted, from a MONITOR "404 report," which is a regular feature offered on the Albion Monitor front page.)

Alberto Gonzales is now attorney general of the United States, and Americans may finally be able to answer that nagging question: "Could anyone possibly be worse than John Ashcroft?" If that answer turns out to be "yes," don't just blame the President -- hold some of your ire for nine Senate Democrats and the U.S. press.

Gonzales is no pious idealogue like Ashcroft, but he has another trait that may be even more worrisome: His unswerving personal loyalty to Bush. In a decade of job appointments by Bush, Gonzales seems untroubled by abusing his positions of power to act as a kind of consiglieri to his mentor.

The most recent example surfaced in January: Then chief counsel to Governor George W. Bush, Gonzales reportedly pressured a judge to excuse Bush from jury duty in 1996. The reason? As Governor, Bush might someday be asked to pardon the defendant -- a drunken driving case involving a dancer at an Austin strip club. The bizarre excuse was more likely a cover to prevent Bush from having to reveal in court his own 1976 DUI conviction, which was a major skeleton in the Bush closet. As discussed in the Monitor's post-2000 election feature "The Unexamined Man," Rove and Bush had good reason to fear that his future in politics would be over if the public saw him as a reckless drunk.

An even more shameful example of Gonzales' carrying Bush dirty laundry can be found in 2002. As discussed at length in an earlier 404 Report, the White House and the Republicans were obsessed with smearing the Clintons, even a year past the election, with charges that the outgoing Democrats had vandalized the White House and looted Air Force One. The GAO looked at the issue and found the accusations were untrue -- while there were some "puckish" tricks, there was no malicious damage and no expensive cleanup. Not mollified, a rabid Clinton-basher in Congress demanded the GAO do a full-blown investigation. It took a year to write, but the complete GAO report had the same findings as before: there was no malicious damage and no expensive cleanup. That wasn't what the White House wanted to hear, and Gonzales took the GAO to task for not documenting everything down to overturned chairs to graffiti in bathroom stalls ("What W did to democracy, you are about to do here").

Although Gonzales' cover letter states "the President and the Administration... have no interest in dwelling upon what happened in the 2001 transition," make no mistake: his 76-page (!) letter reveals a flagrantly political agenda to build up Bush by tearing down Clinton, making the President appear victimized, yet gracious. Read that section of the GAO report (Gonzales' whine begins on page 83 of the PDF) and it appears that Gonzales' office ran a parallel investigation to the GAO's, seeking to collect enough details about Clintonista hullaballoo to generate a critical-mass for public outrage. But instead, it's his own pettiness that is striking; after a few pages, Gonzales begins to sound like a modern-day Captain Queeg, the mad captain in The Caine Mutiny, who was fixated on finding the sailor who ate a quart of frozen strawberries. You can't help but wonder: Didn't Gonzales' office have anything better to do in early 2002, what with the Terror War, 9/11 and all?

As it turns out, we would have been better off if Gonzales had spent more time fixated with Clinton's leavings. It was in January 2002 that he wrote a memo stating that parts of the the Geneva Conventions were rendered "quaint and obsolete" by "this new paradigm [of war]." We now also know, thanks to the Feb. 10, 2005 New Yorker, that the State Department and Gonzales' office were locked in battle over this issue: The White House counsel insisted that a country like Afghanistan in 2002 was a "failed state," and thus not covered by the Conventions. William Taft IV, the State Department legal adviser, said this was nonsense. "Our job is to keep the train on the tracks. It's not to tell the President, 'Here are the ways to avoid the law,'" he told the New Yorker. Gonzales' office was not swayed. Later, in August 2002, he went even farther and wrote the infamous "torture memo" for the Justice Dept. claiming Bush's "Commander-in-Chief authority" gives the President power to suspend "criminal prohibition against torture."

It is No Small Thing that the A.G.-designate was leading the cheer for torture, and the unanswered question was why. Is Gonzales a sadistic torture enthusiast who would have written these memos even if 9/11 and the Terror War had not occurred? (Very unlikely -- we hope.)

As a former jurist now giving advice to the most powerful man in the world, did Gonzales seek out the opinions of the best legal and ethical minds available to him before drawing these conclusions? Or, in the light of knowing that his office was simultaneously spending considerable time and effort trying to find ways to tar the Clintons, is the guy such a sycophantic toady that he was writing pro-torture memos simply because he was told to? If so, who's the architect of the torture plan? And for that matter, were there other memos on torture? The two that are known were leaked to the press, just like the Abu Ghraib photos and everything else that has come out concerning Bush-sanctioned torture.

But during his January confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales evaded answering such questions, and likewise waffled in 100+ pages of written responses, with answers such as, "I feel that the United States should avoid the use of such harsh methods of questioning if possible," and promising that Terror War suspects were always treated as if they were covered by the Geneva Conventions. The Committee also asked him for documents, but Gonzales couldn't be bothered to look for them. "We have a torture problem. The FBI says so. The Red Cross says so. The Defense Intelligence Agency says so. Additional allegations of abuse are being reported on a daily basis. Yet Mr. Gonzales can't remember any of the details of how it happened," Senator Kennedy jibed.

Only the full Senate vote stood between Gonzales and the Justice Department, and Democrats hoping to get straight answers from him had only one card left to play: the filibuster. Shutting down the Senate would show the Bush Administration that the Dems wouldn't play politics and compromise on such big issues and such an important post. And if they could stall long enough, perhaps the White House would even come clean on Gonzales' full role in drafting the memos; with luck, maybe the nominee would even commit to a simple yes-or-no answer as to whether the nation's top law enforcement officer intended to follow the Rule of Law.

Alas, the Democrats couldn't pull off a filibuster. Under Senate rules, 41 votes are need to launch the parliamentary event. The Democrats mustered only 36 votes against Gonzales; voting with the Republicans were Joseph Lieberman/Connecticut, Ken Salazar / Colorado, Mary Landrieu/Louisiana, Bill Nelson/Florida, Ben Nelson/Nebraska and Mark Pryor/Arkansas. Also sharing blame are the three Democrats who did not vote, for whatever reasons: Max Baucus/Montana, Kent Conrad/North Dakota and Daniel K. Inouye/Hawaii. (When is Lieberman finally going to come out of the closet as a Republican? He may not have Zell Miller's crazy hound-dog yap, but he always seems to be standing against fundamental Democratic ideals. Maybe the Dems could arrange a Cold War-style prisoner exchange for someone more principled, like John McCain.)

The Senate approved Gonzales 60-36. As such, he received six fewer "no" votes that Ashcroft got in 2001 -- the most opposition ever to an Attorney General nominee.

It's tempting to blame the filibuster's fizzle on those nine spineless Democrats (current Google results for "spineless Democrats:" about 15,300), but the U.S. press also did its usual miserable job, too. In the twenty-odd unique newspaper and wire service stories that appeared in the run-up to the Senate decision on Gonzales, not one can be found explaining what the Democrats would hope to gain from such a stunt. Very few even reminded readers about Gonzales' evasions at the hearings just a few weeks earlier.

Instead, the reports that mentioned a possible filibuster usually portrayed it as a delaying tactic -- as if bitter Democrats sought only to hassle Bush by dragging out Gonzales' approval. The losing team playing out the clock. As such, they made the Democrats appear crass and the Republicans look good by comparison -- which, of course, was also the objective sought by the White House three years ago, when Gonzales spent so much time rummaging through Clinton's old wastebaskets.

Gonzales Narrowly Wins Approval By Senate Committee

Gonzales Faces Stormy Hearing Over Torture Memos

Alberto Gonzales Controversial Choice For Attorney General

Robert Scheer: Backing Gonzales Is Backing Torture

Alberto Gonzales, The White House Captain Queeg

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Albion Monitor December 31 2005 (

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