The Other Big Lie
Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria Confronted
Mark Cramer (author of Old Man on a Green Bike: Chronicles of a Self-Serving Environmentalist)
In 2003 a bipartisan Big Lie was abetted by political pundits, and these pundits have paid no price for their journalistic malpractice.
All attention today rests on the Big Lie that the US presidential election was stolen. That lie, incessantly repeated by Trump and his enablers, triggered a wave of anger that flooded into the Congress to stop the final certification of the election on January 6.
“If you tell a big lie enough and keep repeating it,” said Hitler’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels, “people will eventually come to believe it.”
The big lie that led to the January insurrection was partisan in nature. The “success” of this lie is so striking that it tends to bury from our memory the other big lie of the 21st century.
The difference between the current Big Lie and the Big Lie of 2003 is that the 2003 Big Lie about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction was bipartisan, enabled by pundits from both sides of the USA’s narrow political spectrum. Yes, the Bush-Cheney administration authored the 2003 big lie, but a majority on both sides of the aisle became co-signers. The opposition put forward by a few notable exceptions like congresswoman Barbara Lee and senators Bernie Sanders and Robert Byrd (“I weep for my country”) was not enough to stop the manufactured tide of war.
Just as Fox News pundits were essential voices to make “stop the steal” a real thing, pundits from both liberal and conservative strongholds pushed the WMDs fiction and related lies.
Prior to the Iraq invasion, I was part of a group of Americans in Paris who sat down with Scott Ritter, former United Nations weapons inspector from 1991 to 1998. A lifelong Republican and former US Marine, Ritter told us that Iraq possessed no significant weapons of mass destruction and that the WMD argument was an excuse for going to war.
Supporting his argument was the UN’s most esteemed weapons expert Hans Blix, who found no evidence of WMDs in the period leading up to the war. Blix accused the American and British governments of dramatizing the threat of WMDs to strengthen the case for war. Blix and Ritter were the experts, but most politicians and too many major pundits chose not to listen.
The usual suspects from the right were joined by centrists and liberal neocons like Bill Kristol, Max Boot, David Frum and Judith Miller (infamously misreporting for the New York Times).
Among the pundits who made the mistake of the century, supporting the Iraq war, was Fareed Zakaria. He was rewarded with a prime-time Sunday commentary program called GPS, in which he tells us what’s on his radar and panders to guests from the military-Wall Street industrial complex. His guest list includes Tony Blair (Iraq war co-conspirator), Henry Kissinger, Larry Summers, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright and Tim Geithner. Occasionally Zakaria throws in a token renegade like Joseph Stiglitz.
Thomas Friedman Confronted
One of Zakaria’s recidivist guests has been Thomas Friedman, also a cheerleader of the Iraq war. The first line of The Progressive magazine’s article “Thomas Friedman’s Iraq Amnesia” (June 16, 2014) was: “Being a pundit means never having to say you’re sorry.”
In the early days of the Iraq war Friedman traveled to Paris, where he set up a meeting to pontificate to French students. Friedman had just written a column praising the patriotism of American soldiers who volunteered to fight in Iraq.
As a participant in the antiwar movement, I got to know many students at demonstration planning meetings. A group of French students invited me to attend the Friedman presentation, which was to take place in a funky broken-down arts center in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris. The students felt intimidated and asked me to give them a hand in confronting Friedman.
During the break preceding the Q and A session, several students asked me to suggest a good question for the New York Times pundit. (As a non-student, I was not allowed to ask questions.)
I whispered my suggestion: “Mr. Friedman, now that you’ve praised the patriotism of American volunteers in Iraq, do you have children old enough to volunteer? And if so, have you encouraged them to go fight in Iraq?”
Friedman took the question, stalling in his cool-guy way, until he conjured up the right words. He had two daughters who were indeed at the age where they could serve in the military, he admitted, and called it a fair question. His answer was breathtaking.
“Before the column you referred to,” he explained, “I wrote another column strongly criticizing Donald Rumsfeld’s conduct of the war. I do not want my daughters to work for Rumsfeld, so no, I have not encouraged them to enlist.”
Friedman is a master at talking his way out of a self-manufactured conundrum.
The Only Place Where Pundits Don’t Get Paid for Faulty Analysis
There’s only one place where you cannot talk your way out of a bad decision: the racetrack. Pundits like Zakaria and Friedman should be required to undergo retraining, taken to the horse races, given a racing form, asked to bet on each race based on their analysis, and forced to learn for the first time that they can only be paid when they make the right prediction. And that there’s a penalty for being wrong.
Such a training session should be in the job description for journalists at CNN, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Their pundits can make huge mistakes, get paid anyway, and suffer no consequences.
As Matt Taibbi has written:
“A lot of the people who made those mistakes are still occupying prominent positions, their credibility undamaged thanks to a new legend best articulated by New Yorker editor David Remnick, who later scoffed, ‘Nobody got that story completely right.’ ”
Taibbi’s response to Remnick went as follows:
“Nobody except the record number of people who marched against the war on February 15, 2003 — conservative estimates placed it between six and ten million worldwide (I marched in D.C.). Every one of those people was way ahead of Remnick.”
I also marched, in Paris among hundreds of thousands of protesters, with a contingent of 400 under the banner of Americans Against the War.
Today, many of us are hoping that Donald Trump and his enablers will pay the consequences for their Big Lie.
But let’s not allow for the Big Lie on the stolen election that conned a majority of supporters of one political party to overshadow the other Big Lie of the century, one that had bipartisan support and led to grave and ongoing human tragedies. And let’s not forget that our politicians cannot get away with a big lie without journalist enablers.
Journalists should not be punished for free speech, but they also should not be rewarded for gaslighting their readers.
Some of the same neocons who decry Trump’s big lie were enablers of the disastrous big lie in 2003.