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Monday, February 27, 2006

Time and Accountability

The incredible box of photos recently discovered by the Birmingham News gives an amazing view of the civil rights movement in Alabama during the 60s. The photos are both eloquent and haunting, and the decision by the paper to suppress them at the time (they thought they would be "embarrassing" to the city's white community) is something history will most certainly judge them harshly for.

Something like that could never happen now. Oh, wait, what am I saying. Over at Nieman Watchdog, Paul Pillar takes a look at the free pass given to the 9/11 Commission by the media, and wonders when journalists will begin to ask the appropriate questions:
The 9/11 Commission established as its goal the generation of enough public support to enact a reorganization of the intelligence community. Pursuit of that goal led it to produce a selective and misleading account of strategic intelligence on terrorism, obscuring the actual reasons US counterterrorist policy took the course it did prior to 9/11. The press was remarkably acquiescent in this; as Judge Richard Posner noted in his critique of the commission's work, a combination of political circumstances paralyzed criticism of the commission and led its report to be accepted unquestioningly as "holy writ." The politics of the Congressional intelligence committees have led them to delay repeatedly any public appraisal of how the administration used intelligence on Iraq (in the case of the Senate committee) or not even to attempt to address the subject (in the case of its House counterpart). The commission investigating intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction produced an otherwise useful report, but its White House provenance constrained it from exploring all the ways in which policy preferences affected the intelligence.

Vigorous and illuminating treatment by the press of similar situations in the future will require it to dig below the public rhetoric and explore the actual bases for policy decisions, which may or may not match the rhetoric and may or may not come from intelligence. It also will require going beyond the issue of "flagrant fouls" in the intelligence-policy relationship and considering the more numerous and more subtle ways in which intelligence can be politicized, both publicly and privately.
The long-lost Birmingham photos were extremely moving and quite inspirational. They document the struggle of incredibly brave people with no money who banded together to fight a powerful elite that controlled the media and did everything possible to keep their message from getting through. But time has a way of unraveling those conspiracies, and history will judge journalists who currently collaborate with power to perpetuate war with lies that go unchallenged just as harshly as it did those who thought it was a good idea to stick that box of photos in a closet some forty years ago.