BROOKE GLADSTONE: Something remarkable in the news this week. The mainstream media have risen in a body to remark on the Bush administration's longstanding insinuation that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks -- an insinuation that according to a recent Washington Post poll 7 out of 10 Americans now believe. No, the president never said it explicitly, but 9/11 and Saddam have made regular appearances in the same sentence, as on May 1st when the president said "The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States and war is what they got." But then on Wednesday the president said this: [TAPE PLAYS]
GEORGE W. BUSH: "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September 11th."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well you know what he meant. And Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said much the same this week. Some political analysts believe it was damage control after Vice President Dick Cheney who didn't get the memo went on Meet the Press last Sunday still vaguely pointing fingers at Saddam. The president's corrective has led to a flood of coverage on all the networks and cable news stations, also all the major papers. But only one paper fact-checked Mr. Cheney after his chat with Tim Russert. (Of course Tim Russert didn't.) The Washington Post did. And the Washington Post reporter who seems to have spent the most time fact-checking the president on his justifications for war is Walter Pincus who's seen wars in Korea and Vietnam and has plugged away at the Post for decades. I asked him why the press has been so cautious with presidential pronouncements since 9/11.
WALTER PINCUS: There's been a sort of underlying fear that tomorrow somebody could roll a hand grenade in a shopping mall in Omaha and we'd be off again, so nobody wanted to make that kind of mistake or be out on a -- on that kind of limb.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you would agree that the press for the most part has restrained itself in fact-checking this administration!
WALTER PINCUS:There's a phenomena to this that's not unusual. I can remember back in the Reagan administration, the first two or three press conferences President Reagan had we used to regularly take what he said and, and show how he either didn't understand the subject or misstated it, and the public was outraged!--and didn't want to hear it. And I think that has had an impact over the years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:As we read the papers and as we watch the television news programs on broadcast and cable, we see things that are notable by their absence and then notable by their sudden presence! We're suddenly seeing criticism and analysis that we haven't seen since 9/11! So what's changed?
WALTER PINCUS: Well I think part of what's changed is Iraq has changed the way people are looking at it, and I think slowly but surely it has come into people's mind to question why we're there. In the 1960s when Vietnam was on and what people forget is at a time when we're losing hundreds of soldiers a week, the public still was in favor of the war! It wasn't till less than a year before the war ended that the public at large turned around. There was, however, a very vocal center of opposition, both in the House and Senate who were regularly speaking out and could be quoted. You didn't have that here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So it really helps to have the Congress criticizing. It gives the press a little bit of cover and allows them to proceed in their investigations without perhaps attracting as much ire from the public that they might otherwise get.
WALTER PINCUS: I think to be honest there is that feeling, and to some degree the crusading which is what this used to be called has dropped out of favor. John Knight who used to run Knight newspapers ran an editorial of his own on the front page of every Sunday paper. Knight-Ridder now you, you don't know who the policymaker is except their concern is how much money they're making. And that's why in-- to put it due to him -- Rupert Murdoch's papers do what I think papers are supposed to do -- and that is they take a stand, and even if you don't agree with it, you have to respect their using those papers for the way I think American journalism historically was meant to be used.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other words objectivity is a myth. Best to lay it out there -- let the public know what your biases are and read with that information.
WALTER PINCUS: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about your paper, the Washington Post. We've noted on this program the Washington Post has been ahead of most of the mainstream press in fact-checking the Bush administration. How have they treated your particularly pointed investigations of the Bush administration's statements? You weren't always on the front page.
WALTER PINCUS: No. There was a period of time in the pre-war and in early in the war period when it was not on the front page, but at least the Post was publishing these stories. When they decided that a story was powerful enough and put it on the front page and began having impact, we had a whole run of them, and I think that's had a big impact, the Post, on the way other journalists look at it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:A recent piece in The Nation has you quoting something that Eugene McCarthy once told you -- that "The press is a bunch of blackbirds. All are on a wire and, and one will go to another wire and when that bird doesn't get electrocuted, all the birds will go to that other wire." So-- was the Post that blackbird that made it safe for the rest of the media or, or was it the administration itself, backing away from its own words?
WALTER PINCUS: Well you have it both ways. The Post did put it on the front page, and it did have an impact. The president himself saying it in a press conference but he said it only after he was pressed by a reporter -- he didn't volunteer it. They had been an administration that refuses to admit it's either made a mistake or changing course. When they decided to go back to the UN for aid in Iraq, they didn't say they're flipflopping. They just said they're modifying their views. The fact is, it's a reverse of policy, but they don't call it that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think now the media will be more diligent in following up the statements of the administration?
WALTER PINCUS:I think it all depends on what happens. I've always said from pre-war times to now the minute they find a chemical warhead or the minute they find Saddam Hussein, it all could change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Walter Pincus, thank you very much.
WALTER PINCUS: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Walter Pincus covers national security affairs for the Washington Post.