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Feb. 16, 2007

Speech by John Walcott to the World Affairs Council of Hilton Head Island, S.C.

First, I'd like to talk a little bit about how we and other news organizations are covering Iraq today, what we're covering, what we're not covering and what the situation there is, the ground truth, if you will.

Second, I'm going to talk some about the media's coverage of Iraq prior to the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, and in the immediate aftermath of the very swift fall of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

Finally, I'm going to try to touch on some of the reasons why I think many of us in the media got the Iraq story wrong - dead wrong - for a very long time, from the very beginning of 2002, at least, until very recently.

Last, I'll touch on two much broader themes that I believe may help to answer that last question.

The first is the collapse of the 150-year-old, mass market business model of the newspaper industry, which I'll mention only in passing because its been in the news a lot with the sale of my former employer, Knight Ridder, to my current employer, the McClatchy Co.; the uncertainties about the futures of Tribune Co. and its biggest paper, The Los Angeles Times; and assorted other write-downs, fire sales and crises.

The second broad theme, and the one that may be newer to you and perhaps somewhat controversial, is the idea that the very concept of truth-that some things are true and that other things are not true, and that by using rational methods of inquiry, we can distinguish what is true from what is not true - has taken a beating lately, first from liberals and more recently from conservatives. I hope you'll understand that I am somewhat passionate about this because if truth is merely relative - if one person's truth, in other words, is as good as another's - then my work, and Kent's career as an intelligence officer and much of the work that many of you did and are doing, is meaningless.

I'd like to start, however, in Baghdad. McClatchy's bureau there is quite similar to those of the other news organizations that still operate in Iraq, despite the costs and the dangers. We have an American bureau chief, Leila Fadel, whom we hired from the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, one of our papers. Her father worked for the Arabian-American Oil Co. in Saudi Arabia, and Leila was raised there and in Lebanon, and she went to college in Boston. She's a Shiite Muslim, like most Iraqis are, and she speaks Arabic, as have her two predecessors, both women, Nancy Youssef and Hannah Allam.

In addition to Nancy, we have reporter Tom Lasseter, who in my judgment is the finest war correspondent of this war, and certainly one of the bravest. He's on his fourth rotation in Iraq, as are some of our troops, and he spends virtually all of his time in the field embedded with American soldiers. He also did one embed with an Iraqi unit in Baghdad, which was, shall we say, enlightening, and he was in the middle of the battles in Fallujah and Ramadi, at one point trapped for some hours in a Bradley armored vehicle with the corpse of the commander of the company he was embedded with lying on the floor between the two rows of seats.

Leila and Tom are joined right now by Rich Mauer from the paper we own in Anchorage, Alaska, who cut his teeth, as I did, in Beirut in the early 1980s. Rich is there in part because there are a lot of soldiers from Alaska in Iraq right now, and we believe that our highest duty is to report on what they're doing for their mothers and fathers, their husbands and wives and their sons and daughters back home. Even in the age of instant messaging and cell phone cameras, there's something special about seeing your husband's picture or reading a quote from your wife in the paper.

Rich is just finishing a story about the still somewhat mysterious fight between U.S. and Iraq troops and what apparently were the members of a Shiite cult outside the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. A U.S. helicopter was downed early in that encounter, and 12 American soldiers rushed to the scene of the crash to prevent the bodies of the two dead aviators inside from falling into the Iraqis' hands and being paraded around like the bodies of our soldiers in Mogadishu were a decade ago. The 12 Americans held off we're not sure how many Iraqis - perhaps 50 or more - for two hours, until help arrived.

In addition to Leila, Tom and Rich, we have Kev. Kev is a former British Royal Marine Commando who is our security advisor in Baghdad. Our reporters never venture out, except with American troops, without Kev and a follow car. Kev is heavily armed; in fact, I just gave him the go-ahead to buy another Glock 9-mm pistol to add to the McClatchy arsenal of automatic rifles, hand grenades and handguns.

Our offices and living quarters are in a Baghdad hotel that we share with NBC News, The Los Angeles Times, the Times of London and a dwindling number of other Western news organizations. It's outside the Green Zone where U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work, but it's surrounded by two blast walls topped with concertina wire, and we have blast film on all our windows. It did its job when the hotel was hit by two simultaneous car bombs a while ago. We also have an armored Mercedes Benz, which is necessary just to make the run along what the military calls "Route Irish" to Baghdad International Airport, formerly Saddam Hussein International.

Some of our most important work, however, is done by our staff of some 19 Iraqi reporters, translators and drivers, and by our Iraqi office manager. They are Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and they're some of the bravest people on earth-most of them can't use their names because they would be killed if it got out that they were working for Americans-and a growing number of them have sent their families out of the country for safety's sake or have been forced to flee for their own lives. We employ them in part because I believe very strongly that the one contribution that first Knight Ridder and now McClatchy can make to a free Iraq is to train and inspire a few talented Iraqis to become journalists, and to appreciate the importance of an independent press that speaks truth to power. Iraq has never had that, and I do not believe that any nation can be free without it, in one form or another.

We have been touched by tragedy repeatedly, as have many of our colleagues. Ban Adil, one of our reporters, had her husband, his mother and their seven-year-old daughter murdered by insurgents in 2004, presumably because her husband worked for the Voice of America. They were shot to death in their car. Their daughter had seven AK-47 rounds in her head. When they had finished off her family, the insurgents came for Ban and her infant son. We were able to get her a precious visa to come to the United States with her son, and they're now trying to build new lives here.

Yasser Salihee, an extraordinarily talented young doctor, gave up medicine to become a reporter for us. He went out one Saturday morning in 2005 to get gas for his car so he could take his daughter to the swimming pool. He got too close to an American military convoy. He was killed by a single shot to the head.

Shatha and Mohammed al Awsy are brother and sister. Shetha worked for us through eight months of her recent pregnancy, taking that dangerous airport road to work every day and literally dodging car bombs, gun battles and improvised explosives to help us tell the story of her country. She and Mohammed are leaving now, forced out of their home and their country by Shiite militiamen who told them that because they're Sunnis, their choice was to leave or to die. As Shetha left, she told Leila that there is no place for moderates in Iraq anymore, and when she left her home for the last time, she went into the backyard, lit a fire and burned everything that could link her family to the house. She burned CDs, books, Shiite books she'd picked up on assignment for us in Najaf. She burned the books on the American Constitution that her husband had bought on a trip to Washington.

Zaineb Obeid is on her way to Washington on a fellowship. A single mother, she, too, has been threatened with death, along with her two children, and with some effort we think we've been able to obtain visas for the three of them to come to America. At first, the State Department did not want to give her children visas because if they came with their mother, all three of them might try to stay in America.

A couple of months ago, we started a blog for our Iraqi staffers so that Americans could hear about their country directly from them. We don't edit it, even for grammar or spelling, and if you'll indulge me, I'd like to read you some of their recent postings, just as they wrote them:

"At work I try not to react to jungle outside, even if for a few minutes a day. Sometimes I succeed. But today the events came rushing in and rudely intruded upon my precariously sustained neutrality.

"I was called from home to be told that a nephew of mine was killed in the explosion in the city center. The explosion went off in a central, much frequented market, so there was no doubt it was targeting civilians. Then they called me to say it may not be him after all because there was no way to identify what was left ... only his cell phone in the pants' pocket.

"Now I'm waiting, fearfuly, for confirmation either way.

"The problem doesn't end there.

"If it isn't him, it's someone's son anyway. But if it is him...whom are we willing to risk going to the Morgue to receive the remains?? If and when we receive him ... where do we burry him?? Almost none who take the path to Abu Ghraib Cemetary return unscathed.
"Perhaps we should revive the tradition of burrying our dead in our gardens. It's certainly a lot better that loosing other members of our family on the way to the cemetary or on the way back.

"All this is contimplation. For I'm still waiting."

_Posted by Sahar

"We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed over. The young men of the family, as was customary, rose to go.

" 'NO!' cried his mother. 'Isn't my son enough?? Must we lose more of our youth?? You know there are unknowns who wait at the Morgue to either kill or kidnap the men who dare reach its doors. I will go.'

"So we went, his mum, his other aunt and I.

"I was praying all the way there.

"I never thought a day would come when it was the women of the family, who would be safer on the roads. All the men are potential terrorists it seems, and are therefore to be cut down on sight. This is the logic of today, is it not? To kill evil before it even has a chance to take root.

"When we got there, we were given his remains. And remains they were. From the waist down was all they could give us. 'We identified him by the cell phone in his pants' pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourselves. We don't know what he looks like.'

"Now begins a horror that surpasses anything I could have possibly envisioned .We were led away, and before long a foul stench clogged my nose and I retched. With no more warning we came to a clearing that was probably an inside garden at one time; all round it were patios and rooms with large-pane windows to catch the evening breeze Baghdad is renowned for. But now it had become a slaughterhouse, only instead of cattle, all around were human bodies. On this side;complete bodies; on that side halves; and EVERYWHERE body parts.

"We were asked what we were looking for. 'Upper half', replied my companion, for I was rendered speechless. 'Over there.' We looked for our boy's broken body between tens of other boys' remains'; with our bare hands sifting them and turning them.

"We found him millennia later, took both parts home, and began the mourning ceremony."

_ Posted by Sahar
This is not what President Bush had in mind when he set out, not long after the 9/11 attacks, to expand the war on terror to Iraq. Then Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said we'd be down to 30,000 American troops in Iraq by August 2003. His then-deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, a man I've known for 26 years, said the war would mostly be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues. One of Secretary Rumsfeld's closest friends, Ken Adelman, a man I've known for more than two decades, said the war would be a "cakewalk".

We soon will have more than 165,000 troops in Iraq, many of them on their third rotations. More than 3,100 have been killed and 20,000 wounded, some so grievously that they would have died in any previous war.

The war is costing us half a trillion dollars, give-or-take. Twelve billion dollars of that, the special inspector general for Iraq recently reported, has just disappeared. No one knows where it went.

Our Army and Marine Corps are grossly overburdened, and many of our National Guard and Reserve units are in even worse shape. Marine reserve units have been told that it will be four years before they can be reequipped, and many Army units are no longer able to respond effectively to natural disasters here at home.

Our Veterans Administration, as my colleague Chris Adams reported just this week, is unprepared and unable to care for all the new cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome for this war with no front lines, no rear areas and no distinctions between men and women, or between combat, combat service and combat service support.

Out troops in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, too, are doing a magnificent job, despite the debacles at Abu Ghraib prison and other incidents. Rich Mauer's story, which I mentioned earlier, describes Army medics treating wounded Iraqis after a daylong battle, and that's an example of the honor, courage and commitment of our soldiers.

But still we are not winning, and we cannot win. As the President, the CIA's new National Intelligence Estimate and others have said, and as the Army's new Counterinsurgency Doctrine holds, only a political settlement can end this kind of civil war-at least let's call it what it is, a war within a country, not between countries-and that's up to the Iraqis. I am not sanguine, because the Sunnis are embittered and disenfranchised, the Shiites have either 30 years or 1,400 years of scores to settle, depending on how you count and the Kurds just want to be left alone, preferably with the Kirkuk oil field that used to belong to the Sunnis.

How did it come to this, nearly four years after "Mission Accomplished". Rather than rehash all the arguments and investigations, which have only just begun, I will make one point and move away from the Bush administration and onto two other institutions that I will argue also failed us, the Congress and the media.

Before I do, however, I will say this: The Bush administration rallied the nation behind this war using three arguments that many of its own experts didn't believe-that Saddam Hussein had a working relationship with al Qaida; that he had secret bioweapons facilities; and that he had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program-and one that has turned out to be untrue - that he had stocks of chemical and biological weapons.

There was no meeting with Mohammed Atta in Prague.

There was no attempt to buy significant quantities of uranium from the African nation of Niger. It wasn't just Ambassador Joe Wilson who shot that one down: The top U.S. general in Europe, Carlton Fulford, also went to Niger and reached the same conclusion Wilson did. So did the U.S. ambassador to Niger. The State Department and the CIA quickly recognized the now-famous Niger documents as crude forgeries.

The aluminum tubes that the administration said could only be used to enrich uranium could in fact only be used to make artillery rockets, and the Department of Energy said so at the time.

And on and on.

But I think that we're in the mess we’re in Iraq-can't win and can't afford to lose—not only because invading Iraq as the administration did, without significant international support and by diverting resources away from the war against al Qaida before that war was won, but also because two other important institutions fell down on the job.

First the Congress. What we hear today, from some Democratic presidential candidates and others, is this: "If I had known then what I know today, I would never have voted to go to war."

My response is this: You should have known then what you know today. It was your job, and no part of your job is more important than a decision to send some of our finest young men and women to war. Let me quote my neighbor, Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican:

"What do you believe? What are you willing to support? What do you think? Why are you elected? If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes.

This is a tough business. But is it any tougher, us having to take a tough vote, express ourselves . . . than what we're asking our young men and women to do? I don’t think so."

Not only should you have known, congressmen, congresswomen and senators. You could have known.

If you had done your homework, you would have known that many of the real experts in the government, in the CIA, the DIA, the State Department, the uniformed military, the Energy Department and so on had grave doubts about this part or that part of the administration's case for war.

You would have known that the Secretary of Defense and the White House ignored them and relied instead on Iraqi exiles.

You would have known that the administration had no plan to secure Iraq after Saddam Hussein's fall, except for installing one of those exiles, Ahmad Chalabi, as the country's new leader, and that it threw out all the planning that had been done by the State Department and the Central Command.

How do I know that Congress could have known all that? Very simple: We knew it in what was then the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, and we wrote stories about it, over and over again:

_ In February 2002 about the president's decision to get rid of Saddam

_ In September 2002 about absence of a growing threat from Saddam

_ In October 2002 about the dispute over the aluminum tubes and about what we called the "grave reservations" many intelligence, Foreign Service and military officers had about "the administration's double-time march to war".

Now in fairness to our overworked legislators, who were buried under three- and even four-day workweeks, Knight Ridder was pretty much alone in such naysaying, and that brings me to the second institution that failed us, my own, the press.

If you paid attention to the Scooter Libby trial, which I hope and pray you did only if the weather here was too cold for golf or tennis, then you have a pretty good idea of some of the things that went wrong.

In short, too many members of the Fourth Estate in Washington are trying to move up the social ladder an estate or two. Being an outsider, a naysayer, isn’t as much fun as being an insider, and it won't get you on TV, which is where the money is, or on the lecture circuit-unless you know the right people, right, Pete?

But there were much bigger problems with the media after 9/11 than just too-cozy relationships with the wrong sources and timidity about challenging a popular president in the wake of an attack on all of us.

There was simple laziness: Much of what the administration said, especially about Iraq and al Qaida, simply made no sense, yet very few reporters bothered to check it out. They were stenographers; they were not reporters. Ahmad Chalabi is a highly intelligent man, and in some ways an attractive one, but many of the stories he spun also made no sense. One of his sources, for example, was a Kurd who claimed he had the run of Saddam's secret weapons facilities. As a test subject, perhaps. Another failed a polygraph test. Yet very few reporters checked out their stories, and a lot just ran with what they were handed.

There was intimidation, even allegations that dissent from the administration's policies was disloyal, even treasonous, that it offered aid and comfort to the enemy.

There was, some of my colleagues have said, the fact that the Democrats weren't challenging the administration on Iraq. I confess that I don't understand that one at all: What the Democratic Party does or doesn't do is irrelevant to us, unless we're writing about it, and the Democrats' dereliction of duty doesn't explain our own, much less excuse it.

There was, finally, the fact that most of the most elite news organizations in the country, led by The New York Times and The Washington Post, were seriously, overwhelmingly wrong about Iraq, and that too many others simply followed them, like lemmings, over the cliff. If we consider competition vital in other industries, why do so many Americans rely on the same one or two sources of information-even though many more are now available on the Internet?

This brings me to my final two points.

The first is that despite the Internet, concentration in the news business is getting worse, not better, especially when it comes to foreign and national news. Only a handful of newspapers-The Times, the Post, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press and McClatchy-still maintain significant foreign news operations. The Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday on Long Island are abandoning their foreign bureaus and cutting back in Washington.

It's a matter of economics. Circulation and advertising revenue, the underpinnings of newspaper and magazine economics since the middle of the 19th Century, are falling, in some cases precipitously, and newspaper company valuations and stock prices are falling with them. McClatchy bought the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 1998 for $1.4 billion and sold it recently for $531 million. The New York Times Co. just wrote down the value of its New England operations, mainly The Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram, by more than $800 million. Wall Street, as many of you know better than I do, wants 30 percent margins from publicly held newspaper companies-Knight Ridder was put out of business when it was returning a little more than 19 percent-Tribune's head is in the noose now and Morgan Stanley is pressing the New York Times Co..

The causes of this trouble are essentially two-fold, and as you might expect we're not blameless. Many of us ignored the Internet for too long, or arrogantly dismissed it, and now it's siphoning off readers and advertisers, especially classified advertisers. Compounding the problem are the sectoral woes in industries such as autos and homebuilding, traditionally important advertisers, and the wave of retail consolidation, which has left many papers with one advertiser where a decade ago there were half a dozen.

Back to journalism. The response to these circumstances has been to cut: Cut jobs, cuts bureaus, cut expenses, cut raises, freeze hiring, freeze pension benefits, cut newsprint costs. In other words, bleed the patient. In many places, but not at McClatchy, foreign news has been an easy target. It's expensive and you can buy it elsewhere cheaper than you can do it yourself.

Jack Welch said that's fine; you can get all that stuff from The New York Times, anyway. I think Mr. Welch, despite his accomplishments at GE, is wrong. Iraq is part of the reason I think that - $500 billion, Jack, $500 billion - and maybe we at least would have debated the wisdom of that venture if we hadn't all relied too much on The New York Times.

That brings me to my last point: Relying on The Times, or McClatchy or any other news sources, for the truth is infinitely preferable to the pernicious notion that there is no such thing as truth, that truth is relative, or that, as some journalists seem to believe, it can be found midway between two opposing arguments.

Halfway between say, slavery and abolition, or between segregation and civil rights, or communism and democracy. If you quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Winston Churchill, in other words, you must give equal time and credence to Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.

That idea that truth is a social construct first appeared in academia, as a corruption of post-modernism, but now it's taken root in our culture without our really realizing it or understanding its implications.

What began with liberal academics arguing that the belief of some Southwestern Indians that humans are descended from a subterranean world of supernatural spirits is, as one archaeologist put it, "just as valid as archaeology", has now devolved into the argument that global warming is a liberal invention.

As NYU philosophy professor Paul Boghossian puts it in a wonderful little book, "Fear of Knowledge":

" . . . the idea that there are many equally valid ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them, has taken very deep root."

All knowledge, in other words, Boghossian explains, depends on its social, political, religious or other context, an idea that evolved, if you will, from Kant, Hume, Nietzsche, Hegel and William James.

Although this kind of thinking, either relativism or constructivism, in the language of philosophy, started on the left, conservatives feel empowered by it, too, and some of them have embraced it with a vengeance, on issues ranging from global warming and evolution to the war in Iraq, which until very recently they insisted was going well and didn't appear to be only because liberal, anti-American journalists weren't reporting all the good news that they just knew was out there somewhere in Diyala province.

"Journalists live in the reality-based world," a White House official said to Ron Suskind, writing for The New York Times Magazine back in the headier days of 2004. "The world doesn't really work that way any more. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

I respectfully disagree.

The Church was wrong, and Copernicus and Galileo were right.

The Earth is not flat, and men did land on the Moon.

There is not one truth for Fox News and another for The Nation.

Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were wrong, no matter how devoutly they may have believed their own propaganda.

President Bush was wrong to think that it would be a simple matter to make Iraq the mother of all Mideast democracy.

Or, as Georges Clemenceau said when he was asked what he thought historians might say about the First World War: "They will not say that Belgium invaded Germany."

I'm not talking here about matters of taste or of partisan politics or, heaven help us, of faith: Whether Monet or Manet was a better painter; or whether Jesus was the Messiah, a prophet or a fraud. Those are personal matters: beliefs, opinions and preferences of which we, and hopefully our Iraqi friends, must simply learn to be more tolerant.

But as Harry G. Frankfurt, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton, puts it in his marvelous little book, "On Truth" (the sequel, I tell you truly, to his first classic, "On Bullshit"):

"It seems ever more clear to me that higher levels of civilization must depend even more heavily on a conscientious respect for the importance of honesty and clarity in reporting the facts, and on a stubborn concern for accuracy in determining what the facts are."

There you have it. That is why I do what I do.

I'll be more than happy to take your questions.

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