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That Saddam Had Stockpiles of Biological Weapons Was False
Journalism plays a minor part in the decision to go to war
Let’s start with one step. What is journalism? Wikipedia says, partly: “Journalism is the investigation and reporting of events, issues and trends to a broad audience. Though there are many variations of journalism, the ideal is to inform the intended audience about topics ranging from government and business organizations to cultural aspects of society such as arts and entertainment…. The field includes editing, photojournalism, and documentary
“In modern society, news media have become the chief purveyor of information and opinion about public affairs….” (Internet August 25,2012).
There is talk of an “ideal,” an ideal investigation, an ideal reporting. Let’s proceed to ideal investigation that consists of observation and reporting. Given that there is someone who observes and reports.
An observation is a construct. For example, a table. You see only one side of a square table but you assume that the other side looks similar to the one you are looking at. That is by construction. We employ construction from the electron level to biological weapon. There is an unpaired electron in a molecule involving oxygen that makes a compound poisonous that can be made into a weapon of war. There are unpaired electrons in 1,1-thiobis(2-chloroethane), a chemical warfare agent. It was first used by the Germans in World War I.
That is construction in the field of physics and biochemistry. But there is construction in the way we, or the journalist, observes things, persons, and events. This construction may be successful and may be erroneous. Here we are considering first hand observation. The journalist may be the first hand observer or s/he is relaying the observation made by somebody else, the source.
There are two levels where possible success in reporting or possible error occurs: at the first hand observation and at the relay.
Some years ago a rebellious policeman, Rizal Ali, took hostage of his superior, a police captain. He fired bazooka at the police headquarters resulting in the death of the captain. While this was happening a TV reporter, Jessica Soho of Channel 7, was around, reporting on it. The event was beamed live. (I happened to watch it on my TV set; subsequently Soho won a journalism award for this coverage). This was a case when the journalist observed an event first hand. She could have committed errors on matters of language but overall she would be highly accurate in her reporting. Those she missed to mention but within the range of the camera were seen by the televiewers. If she were not on the spot she would have to rely on accounts by witnesses.
Journalism versus science
Journalism lacks the precision of science in observation. Its first limitation is that journalism does not deal on replication and reenactment, unlike science. When it reports on science it is already second hand, from the scientist who is the source.
In some cases, the reporting of journalism can be verified. But the explosion of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945 cannot be verified because the explosion occurred only once and in a split second. So journalism relies on a second hand source, like a witness or a picture. (With the advent of computers verification against a picture is highly suspect. It could not be admitted as evidence in court unlike the old times of the black and white prints from films.)
Journalism also lacks precision in reporting because it uses language that is easily understood by the audience. Look at the levels of language from the easiest to the hardest to understand, given that the terms refer to the same thing: poison, biological weapon, mustard gas, 1,1-thiobis(2-chloroethane).
Observation and reporting can be colored by the beliefs, culture, training, loyalty, integrity, courage of the observer/reporter. Bob Woodward, with the reputation of being the best American reporter, is reported as having taken courses in history and English literature in college. We can say that these courses impact on his observation and reporting. I read two books by Woodward, “The Commanders” and “The Agenda.” It looks like Woodward lacks training in science. That is not to say that he does not know science. History belongs in the humanities but it has a scientific part that consists of observing and reporting facts.
But most of the reportage of Woodward is not based on first hand observation. As he said in his foreword he interviewed and re-interviewed a lot of people.
There is a method in journalism called triangulation. A journalist has to recheck his information with three sources. For example, when Ninoy Aquino was gunned down at the tarmac in August 1983, a reporter in the plane did not take it from just one who told him so. He had to recheck with two more sources. In science verification of a sentence, or report is always against a fact. Not against the statement of a resource person or government report (which was made by a person). If verifiable, a statement is true.
What is truth? A person’s reporting is colored by his version of truth. To most journalists, a statement agreed upon by several people is true. Another shade of truth: a statement made by a high government official is true.
For example, President George W. Bush said that Saddam had a stockpile of biological weapons.
Woodward believed President Bush. He said when interviewed in a mass media program that Saddam had stockpiles of biological weapons (Internet. August 24,2012). It turned out to be false. Saddam was captured, brought to the United States, convicted and hanged there for crimes he committed on his own people.
Why would a reporter believe President Bush? As president he has the power to get information through spies inside Iraq and by means of spy satellites. Satellites scan the earth and identify minerals, plants and animals on the surface and deep beyond the surface of the earth. That's how Saddam was traced in his bunker. The reporter presumes that President Bush used this power.
Accuracy is required of journalism. However, there are occasions when it falls short of accuracy. But there is a trade off that society is willing to deal with. Journalism works within the framework of freedom of the press. This freedom is an institution for self-healing of a society. Without this freedom secret deals detrimental to the society would prosper. That happens in dictatorships where the people are the victims. This happened during the Marcos dictatorship; he was stealing a lot of money from the coffers of the government without knowledge of the people because of the lack of press freedom.
Journalism tries hard to be accurate and while sometimes it cannot get to the truth it raises warnings or hints of wrongdoing. Other institutions take over where journalism cannot go or cannot get into legally. A journalist as journalist cannot arrest a thief he saw red handed. The police and the courts take over. Some citizens may have witnessed wrongdoings punishable by law or detrimental to the society but they are afraid to go to the police. They tell that wrongdoing to a journalist taken in confidence. The journalist reports it; he is shielded from revealing his source. That is why a reporter attributes his account to a source. The journalist may not be forced even by the court to testify on a felony of which he was informed by a source. There are cases when the source may want to surface, like Richard Armitage who tipped Woodward on the alleged existence of a spy within his organization.
Journalism partly influences a decision to go to war. However, the involvement of journalism is not the first consideration. Of course, the first consideration is the objective. Next to consider is the power to attain the objective. In war, the prime power is military. Journalism comes in as part of the persuasive power. For example, a president decides to go to war keeping in mind that he will have to involve journalism in getting support of the people. This is the usual case in democracies. A dictator has less need for the support of the people by definition and in practice.
Use of journalism
Journalism may be used for good or for bad. That is also the case with science. For example, E = mc2. Einstein believed Hitler’s Germany had developed a bomb based on this formula judging from the V-2 rockets the Germans unleased during the Battle of Britain. So he urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to built atomic bombs, two of which were dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. However, Einstein intended the bomb to be used on combatant soldiers. He was horrified when he learned that it was used on noncombatant Japanese civilians.
The practice of journalism is covered by ethics and laws. A reporter who is found to be sloppy in checking his facts will lose his job. An editor should be taken into confidence if a source of a story is not named. That is, the editor must know the source of the reporter. This was the practice in Washington Post when it was printing stories on Vietnam secret papers. If a source vouched for the story, the editor allowed its publication. The reason is that, on the legal aspect, if police or an investigating body checked on the story they would find a smoking gun.
If a libelous story is printed, both the editor and reporter are sure respondents of a lawsuit. Their shield from prosecution is the source. But there is always a risk that the source may want to con the reporter, editor, and others in the organization. How could Bob Woodward fail to report on the existence of stockpile of biological weapons in the arsenal of Saddam if his source is the President of the United States?. He has to say, “according to….”
He could not be forced to name his source. Fortunately for Woodward, Pres. G. W. Bush used the alleged arsenal of biological weapons as justification for the invasion of Iraq. It turned out to be false.