Dec 1 2003

Letting Rumsfeld Set the Rules

The Washington Post (11/10/03) described an unusual arrangement between the Pentagon and 18 local TV stations across the country: In exchange for being allowed to interview Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the stations agreed to also air interviews with three or four other Pentagon officials, like Paul Wolfowitz and Paul Bremer.

One should always question when government officials dictate to news outlets how they will be covered. And particularly for local TV news, which rarely covers national politics, interviews with four or five different people giving the same point of view is a large price to pay for getting access to a public official.

But Rumsfeld is not just any official; he’s an official with a clear track record of obfuscation and denying reality. To cite just one example: In a September 25 interview, a reporter from Sinclair Broadcasting said to Rumsfeld, “Before the war in Iraq… you said they would welcome us with open arms.” Rumsfeld responded with a denial:

Never said that…. Never did. You may remember it well, but you’re thinking of somebody else. You can’t find anywhere me saying anything like [that]…. I never said anything like that because I never knew what would happen and I knew I didn’t know.

But on February 20, Rumsfeld was asked by PBS‘s Jim Lehrer: “Do you expect the invasion, if it comes, to be welcomed by the majority of the civilian population of Iraq?” And Rumsfeld responded: “There is no question but that they would be welcomed. Go back to Afghanistan–the people were in the streets playing music, cheering, flying kites, and doing all the things that the Taliban and the Al Qaeda would not let them do.”

Eric Rosenberg of Hearst Newspapers (11/9/03), who pointed out this contradiction, also noted that Rumsfeld has denied statements he made concerning Iraq’s supposed “large clandestine stockpiles” of chemical and biological weapons (House Armed Services Committee, 9/18/02); later, when asked whether he had been wrong to claim that Iraq had “extensive stocks” of such weapons (Pentagon briefing, 10/30/03), Rumsfeld retorted: “You go back and give me something that talks about extensive stocks…. I’d be surprised if you found the word ‘extensive.'”

If you can’t trust a person to acknowledge his own words, can you really trust him to accurately convey the complex reality of what’s going on in Iraq? Instead of following Rumsfeld with three or four of his subordinates, TV news should put on some independent experts who can set the record straight.