From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Every so often we like to do the anatomy of a significant news story. OOne such broke last week in the Washington Post describing a Pentagon briefing in which Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally of 70 years standing, was described as our nation's enemy and a kernel of evil in the world. It ran Tuesday on page one, above the fold, and by Tuesday afternoon Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was on the defensive himself, rejecting the story's premise, albeit none too forcefully.
DONALD RUMSFELD:Saudi Arabia is like any other country -- it has a broad spectrum of activities and things, some of which obviously, just like our country, that we agree with and some we may not. It is, nonetheless, a country where we have a lot of forces located and we have had a long relationship.
BOB GARFIELD: Joining us now is the author of the story, Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks. Tom, welcome to On the Media.
THOMAS RICKS: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:Let's talk about the story for a moment. The piece was about a briefing by an outside consultant connected with the Rand Corporation to the Defense Policy Board. What is the Defense Policy Board? It doesn't actually make defense policy.
THOMAS RICKS:No, it's a group of gray beards, wise men, basically retired senior military officers and former government officials, couple of speakers of the house, couple former defense secretaries, people like that.
BOB GARFIELD:So in comes the consultant, a guy named Laurent Murawiec and he is broaching the unbroachable thought that a key U.S. ally is actually a U.S. enemy, but it, it was one briefing - a foreign advisory panel with no actual power. Yet all the sort of body language of the story and its placement on page one suggested that a radical shift in U.S. policy may be in the offing. Was it overplayed or were those possibilities the reason it was played on page one?
THOMAS RICKS:You put your finger on the basic question my editors had about the story which is look this guy's an outsider; he's talking to a bunch of people who only advise the Pentagon so the significance of the story has to rest in how widely this view is held, how much it resonates. And I think the intensity of the reaction to it demonstrated to me actually that it was not overplayed. Rumsfeld, I thought, was most striking of all when he said that's not the dominant opinion in this government, which struck me as tacit admission that it was a minority opinion in this government. Also I would quibble a little bit with your reading of the story. I had in mind not the predictive notion that this portended some kind of radical shift in U.S. policy but rather something more concretely. The fact that this briefing had been given at the Pentagon and that the reaction of the advisory board had been to take it seriously indicated to me just how much the U.S. view of Saudi Arabia had changed since September 11th.
BOB GARFIELD:Now one way to tell how much a story resonates is to see how the rest of the press plays it. You obviously had a clean scoop on the New York Times, so you go through the New York Times the next day and you're looking to see what they do with it -- will they put it on page one and advance it somehow? Will they bury the story on A 14, or C) as it turns out, run not a word of it.
THOMAS RICKS:They're my competition, and I respect them a lot. All I would note is that in previous circumstances that I have had, the Times tends to keep its powder dry and then come back a week later as if it invented the story itself. For example I'd point to the story I did on pre-emption which picked up on the president's West Point speech, so I think we ran that on the morning of June 10th, and the Times didn't do anything and then came back a week later on Monday the 17th and led the paper with a story about hey! -- there's this new thing called "pre-emption."
BOB GARFIELD:Now there was another piece in Slate.com by Jack Schaefer [sp?] who was trying to find out who this guy was, this consultant. It turns out that the guy is of uncertain bona fides, certainly an extremist. Former connections to Lyndon Larouche and so forth. When you saw that piece, did it kind of give you a shudder of oh, my God -- who have I rested my story on?
THOMAS RICKS: No. It was not a piece about Lauren Murowicz. It was a piece about hey, this is being discussed seriously at the Pentagon.
BOB GARFIELD: So if it were Daffy Duck in there and the Defense Policy Board were listening, your story would still work.
THOMAS RICKS:Yes, cause it goes to the question my editors originally had -- how widely held is this view? That actually takes me to the origin of the story. I was sort of puzzling through the question of the Saudis, and so I was just trying to figure out what the relationship was, and one guy said oh! -- you should see this briefing. This really summarizes the answers to your questions.
BOB GARFIELD:Well listen I know the story can't be right because I've seen the commercials from Saudi Arabia -- they say they're our friends! I've seen the commercials!
THOMAS RICKS:It's funny you should say that, cause you could go mad trying to figure out the hidden agendas here, and you can't let yourself worry about this reporter. What struck me though was that a couple of agendas were served by the story -- the neoconservatives who would then have the story bubbling out there in their own publications like The Weekly Standard -- finally got this story in the political vocabulary of Washington. I think people at the State Department who have had some issues with Donald Rumsfeld were not entirely sad to be apologizing for the behavior of the Defense Department. And I also was wondering about Prince Bondar [sp?], the Saudi ambassador to the United States -- whether this enabled him to go back in Riyadh and say see? -- I've been telling you guys we've got a huge problem with the U.S. government. Now will you listen to me? There's a variety of agendas that could be served by such a story, and not all of those are evident even to the reporter.
BOB GARFIELD:Let me tell you what the whole thing looks like from a distance. It looks like the Washington journalistic community in general has sort of been champing at the bit to find a way to put a face on all these whispers and rumblings. Do you think there was an element of that in the play that this story got?
THOMAS RICKS:Yeah. I was trying to hear that almost dog-whistle level of sound about Saudi Arabia. What I had envisioned writing, ultimately, was a thumb-sucker as we call it in the business which is: I don't really have any hard news here, but boy, there's a kind of lot of quiet worry going on here.
BOB GARFIELD: Sunday, A 1 below the fold?
THOMAS RICKS:Exactly. And my editor's board is sort of ah, let's do Ricks a favor. It is probably worth laying down a marker, but he didn't really land a punch here. As it happened though, sometimes you get lucky when you're asking the big questions and you come across something more concrete.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom Ricks, thank you very much.
THOMAS RICKS: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:Thomas Ricks is the military correspondent for the Washington Post whose novel, A Soldier's Duty, has just been released in paperback by Random House.