The Magic of Journalism

A reader asked Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks in an online chat (WashingtonPost.com, 5/8/07; cited in Editor & Publisher, 5/8/07) why we were hearing so much about Iranian weapons in Iraq, but “we hardly ever see the press actually ask about the pretty well-known trail of money that leads from Saudi Arabia to the insurgents.” Ricks’ answer was instructive:

Your question goes to one of the vulnerabilities of journalism. There was a lot of quiet talk among U.S. officers in Iraq about the role Iran was playing in Iraq, especially with sophisticated bombs, but you didn’t see much talk in the media about the Iranian role until top U.S. officers and the Bush administration started talking about it.
Likewise, if they started talking about the money trail from Saudi Arabian citizens, you’d see more stories about it. But they don’t like to talk about it. It is something that many journalists ask about, but you have to have something to print beyond rumor.

Just yesterday I asked a Defense official about this and got almost nothing from him.

Actually, Ricks exposes not the “vulnerabilities of journalism” but the failures of journalists in his response. Clearly, Bush administration officials are interested parties with a long track record of dubious intelligence claims. Somehow, though, if they say something previously said by less politically invested people on the ground—who are in a better position to know the facts—it magically transforms from “rumor” into something worth publishing.

If your job is to inform the public, that makes no sense; it only follows if you see your role as transmitting the official line. —J.N.