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Who Knows Where
The Truth Goes?

by Wendy Smith

The Bush administration and its supporters will detest Frank Rich’s scathing litany of the overstatements, evasions, and outright lies with which the president’s team prepared the way for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But the folks who really ought to be embarrassed by The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth are the journalists who failed to question the government’s assertions about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s imaginary ties with Al Qaeda—and even more so the editors at their newspapers who buried stories by an intrepid few who dug up the actual facts and the television news executives more interested in flag-waving than reporting.

The majority of the American people, who supported the invasion at first (though they don’t now), get off slightly easier in Rich’s assessment. His snapshot of our country in the summer of 2001, obsessed with non-events like a show-biz publicist plowing her SUV into a crowd outside a nightclub and the disappearance of a D.C. intern who may have had an affair with a congressman, depicts "an overheated 24/7 infotainment culture that had trivialized the very idea of reality (and with it, what was once known as ‘news’)." Nonetheless, Rich decides, the average citizen "has a better excuse than the smart guys within the Beltway…Americans trusted George W. Bush. They were no more expert on Iraq than he was, but they assumed he’d do his homework."

How wrong they were. Instead of taking the tragedy of September 11th as a spur to investigating the causes of terrorism and figuring out how to eradicate it, Rich argues, the Bush administration "unfurled a brilliant scenario…to mobilize a shell-shocked country desperate to be led. The story was often at variance with the facts that were known at the time, let alone the facts that have come to light since." In chapter after relentless chapter, the author traces the appalling disconnect between reality and government mythology (crafted largely by Karl Rove, the book’s evil genius). The spin began almost immediately. When the army let Osama bin Laden slip through its fingers in the Tora Bora caves in December 2001, his name disappeared from Bush’s speeches. Almost simultaneously, Vice-President Cheney asserted that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met before the attack with "a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service." Three weeks after that announcement, Judith Miller’s article claiming that the Iraqis were renovating secret facilities for biological chemical, and nuclear weapons ran on the front page of The New York Times.

No matter that a CIA briefing distributed to Cheney in September 2001 found "scant credible evidence" of collaboration between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Or that a CIA polygraph administered three days before Miller’s story appeared branded her source a liar. (Rich uses government reports and criticisms by Republicans as often as possible to support his case, presumably to deflect charges that he’s just another tool of the ‘liberal media.’) Fifteen months before the invasion, the Bush administration was already ignoring or manipulating any intelligence information that didn’t bolster the case against its real target: not terrorism, but Iraq.

Government officials succeeded in convincing the American people that Iraq played a role in the September 11 attacks, and was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, because the press let them get away with it. Rich gives example after well-known example—the leak that revealed the identity of a CIA agent married to former ambassador Joseph Wilson, the reporting on CNN of unnamed officials’ innuendos about antiterrorism expert Richard Clarke’s sexual orientation, the Swift Boat Veteran commercials portraying decorated war hero John Kerry as a wimp and near-traitor—of the administration’s desire to punish and/or neutralize anyone it regarded as a threat, facilitated by media all too willing to print or air the most unsavory material. Rich, himself a New York Times columnist, dutifully notes the leading role played in this shameful tale by Miller, but it’s the bare minimum, and he never addresses the question of why their employer, the most distinguished newspaper in the country, did such a poor job for so long in covering Iraq. (He’s much happier giving equally well-deserved lumps to Bob Woodward at the rival Washington Post.)

Gluttons for punishment can read the 80-page appendix featuring paired timelines: one showing what the administration knew, and another showing what it was saying. In far too many cases, reports pointing out the discrepancies between the two appeared months or years later, or ran mid-section while stories trumpeting the administration’s claims appeared on page one. (Needless to say, they weren’t on TV at all.) The main text, which amply makes the same case, would be unbearable to read if it did not close with even Karl Rove being unable to put a plausible spin on the worsening situation in Iraq or the total inadequacy of the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. By 2005, as The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart sardonically noted, the White House press corps had been "secretly replaced…by actual reporters"—actually doing their job: evaluating the government’s claims in light of the facts, revealing the human consequences of bureaucratic failures and misguided policies.

The Greatest Story Ever Sold (Penguin Press) is a disheartening and cautionary case study that amasses a broad array of already-published information—on the Enron scandal, the government’s assault on civil liberties, the manipulation of terrorism alerts and other subjects in addition to the Iraq mess—into a single, coherent narrative that makes a central, scary point. In Rich’s view, corporately owned television networks, reality TV, Internet bloggers and the whole world of infotainment have so blurred the distinctions between truth and fiction that the American public was an easy mark for the Bush administration’s skewed version of reality. He scants the complicity of his own medium; plenty of newspapers and magazines were just as willing to "print the legend" (as John Ford once put it). Rich’s conclusion, however, is unassailable: "Politics is cyclical in America, and the Bush cycle may well be in its last throes. But the culture in which it thrived still rides high, waiting to be exploited by another master manipulator." •

from the September-October 2006 issue