As football enthusiasts may recall, Ricky Proehl
was a wide receiver for the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, which
was played on Feb. 3, 2002. The Rams – winners of a Super Bowl two years
earlier – were heavily favored to win again over the underdog New
England Patriots and their novice quarterback Tom Brady.
Before the game, Proehl turned to a camera and
declared “tonight, a dynasty is born, baby,” referring to his St. Louis
After scoring a tying touchdown with 1:30 left in
the game, Proehl was mugging to the cameras again. Celebrating the Rams’
comeback, he declared, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, baby.”
Both comments would prove prophetic though not as
Proehl intended. In the final 1:21 of Super Bowl XXXVI, Brady led the
Patriots down field setting up a game-winning 48-yard field goal by Adam
Vinatieri as time expired. The game indeed wasn’t over until it was
over, but the Patriots – not the Rams – had won.
On Feb. 6, 2005, Proehl was proved “right” again,
when the Patriots earned their third championship in four years. A
dynasty had been born on that night three years earlier, but it had been
the Patriots, not the St. Louis Rams. Possibly remembering the Rams’
boastful talk of “dynasty” before Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots have
virtually banned the word from the team’s vocabulary.
But one can almost sympathize with Ricky Proehl and
his excessive enthusiasm. After all, empty sports talk doesn’t have the
real-world consequences that pronouncements by political commentators
and editorial writers can have.
When they embrace a wrongheaded notion with utmost
certainty, they can help lead the country into a misguided war, massive
debt or other bad choices. There’s also rarely any accountability for
Washington pundits who make these mistakes.
Poor Ricky Proehl has to live with “ESPN Classic”
replaying his silly boast for years to come. By contrast, someone like
Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt has built a glowing
career despite botching one big story after another – from missing the
Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s to falling for George W. Bush’s bogus
case for war with Iraq in 2002 and 2003.
As the nation lurched toward that invasion, Hiatt
not only fell for the Bush administration’s claims about weapons of mass
destruction hook, line and sinker, Post editorials treated any dissent
toward that conventional wisdom as almost unthinkable.
After Secretary of State Colin Powell made his
now-infamous presentation of the Iraq evidence to the United Nations on
Feb. 5, 2003, Hiatt’s editorial page judged Powell’s WMD case
“irrefutable” and added: “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt
that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”
The Post also fell hard for the administration’s
claims about collaboration between Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and
Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
The impact of those Post’s editorial positions then
was amplified by a chorus of support from columnists appearing on the
adjoining Post opinion page, which also is under Hiatt’s jurisdiction.
Both the Post’s editorials and the opinion articles were heavily tilted
toward pro-war positions.
“The [Post] editorials during December  and
January  numbered nine, and all were hawkish,” wrote Columbia
University journalism professor Todd Gitlin. “This editorial mood
continued into February, culminating in a blast at the French and
Germans headlined ‘Standing With Saddam.’ Apparently it’s not only
George W. Bush who doesn’t nuance.” [American
Prospect, April 1, 2003]
After the U.S. “preemptive” invasion of Iraq and
the failure to discover evidence supporting the administration’s pre-war
claims, Hiatt acknowledged that the Post should have been more
“If you look at the editorials we write running up
[to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Hussein] has weapons of
mass destruction,” Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia
Journalism Review. “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to
say it.” [CJR,
The CJR article praised Hiatt’s “candor” as
“admirable,” but it would seem to be the most elementary lesson of
journalism that it is wrong to present something as fact when it is not
true or its truth is contested. That rule should be especially important
when lives are in the balance.
Yet, at the Post and many other U.S. news
organizations, no accountability seems to be expected when journalists
follow the lead of a conservative administration, even when the sloppy
journalism contributes to the deaths of more than 1,400 U.S. soldiers
and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Opposite rules apply to journalists who have made
mistakes that offend the current Bush administration or, for that
matter, its predecessors in the Reagan-Bush administrations of the 1980s
and early 1990s. In those cases, offending journalists can expect to see
their careers severely damaged if not ended. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Bush Rule of Journalism.”]
While Hiatt is only one of many successful
Washington journalists whose careers have benefited from not rocking the
Republicans’ boat, he does stand out as one with a particularly long
record of missing stories and getting rewarded for it.
Hiatt first came to my attention when I was with
the Associated Press in the mid-1980s. Starting in spring 1985, I had
been writing stories about National Security Council aide Oliver North’s
secret Nicaraguan contra support operations. These AP stories had
encountered fierce White House denials.
Adding to our troubles were two articles –
published in 1986 by the New York Times and the Washington Post –
purporting to explore the inner workings of the Reagan-Bush NSC. Neither
story made any mention of Oliver North. When I called a friend at the
Post to ask why North had been left out, I was told that the Post had
been assured by its White House sources that North was an
Yet, only months later, the Iran-Contra scandal
broke wide open, showing that North’s activities were not only
consequential but caused the most memorable scandal of the Reagan-Bush
era. The reporter for the Post article about the NSC – the story that
had failed to mention Oliver North – was Fred Hiatt.
Hiatt later was the Post’s bureau chief in Moscow
where some critics of Russia’s “shock therapy” privatization considered
Hiatt naďve about the corruption that pervaded the business activities
of some “Russian oligarchs” as they manipulated the sell-off of state
assets. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Russia’s
Still, despite this track record – or some might
say, because of it – Hiatt landed the prestigious job of editorial page
editor of the Washington Post, one of the influential positions in
American journalism. From that perch, Hiatt is still dishing out
political judgments that fit neatly with the political agenda of the
Most recently, Hiatt’s opinion pages have launched
what appears to be a new public relations campaign to punish any
Democrat who dares criticize – or even show insufficient support for –
George W. Bush’s policies. The new line is that critics of Bush are
guilty of negativity and/or cheap partisan politics.
In a Post column entitled “Bad News Donkeys,” Hiatt
chastised Sen. John Kerry as wrongheaded for criticizing Bush’s economic
policies during Campaign 2004. Hiatt wrote that “it wasn’t true” when
Kerry told voters that “the economy had tanked, jobs had fled and George
W. Bush (aka Herbert Hoover) ‘has caused these things to happen.’”
Yet rather than explaining how Kerry was wrong
about the relative strength of the U.S. economy, the government’s record
deficits or the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs overseas, Hiatt
simply dismissed Kerry’s comments with a wave of the hand. He then got
to his main point: that Democrats have no business criticizing Bush.
“Worst, at least from a political perspective, the
hectoring made Kerry look like a grump,” Hiatt wrote.
Hiatt also rapped Democratic knuckles for not
showing enough enthusiasm over recent developments in the Iraq War.
Indeed, Hiatt's message appeared to be that he expects only pro-Bush
cheerleading from the Democrats.
According to Hiatt, Kerry “grumped” his answer
about the Iraq election when the senator told NBC’s Tim Russert on Jan.
30 that “I think it’s gone as expected.”
Days later when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
pressed for a clearer exit strategy for U.S. troops, Hiatt judged that
her comments “sounded grudging and morose.”
In case Post readers hadn’t gotten Hiatt’s point,
it was that any criticism of Bush earns the Democrats the new dismissive
label, “pessimist.” He finished up his column comparing the Democrats to
the sad-sack character Eeyore in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.
[Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2005]
Hiatt’s column amounted to a shot across the bow
for Democratic leaders who are beginning to respond to rank-and-file
Democrats who believe that Bush got too much of a free ride during his
first term. While one might have thought that Hiatt would be chastened
after being suckered over the administration’s pre-war assertions, he is
showing no signs of second thoughts.
In a similarly themed message about Democratic
negativity on the same Post Op-Ed page, conservative columnist Robert D.
Novak warned of “Noxious Partisanship” from the Democrats. This time,
the offense was the opposition from 35 Democrats to Bush’s nomination of
Alberto Gonzales to be U.S. Attorney General.
In the column, Novak pretended not to know much about Gonzales’s
controversial role as White House counsel in opening the door to torture
scandals, to the president’s assertion of unlimited authority for
detaining American citizens without charge, or to the dismissal of the
Geneva Conventions as “quaint.”
While some Americans might think that elevating such a person to
become the nation’s top law-enforcement officer is alarming, Novak saw
the opposition from the Democrats only as sleazy politics tinged with
racism. He zeroed in on Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., for supposedly
betraying Gonzales after working cordially with him for four years.
“There was no revelation about Gonzales that caused scales to fall
from Schumer’s eyes,” Novak wrote. “Instead, the inner circle of Senate
Democrats determined that the previously non-controversial Mexican
American from Texas would be the prime target of President Bush’s
second-term nominations.” [Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2005]
Hiatt and other Washington Post opinion writers certainly have the
right to take as many cheap shots as they wish at Democrats or common
citizens who criticize President Bush. But this renewed determination to
demonize dissent invites another truncated debate like the one that
preceded the Iraq invasion over non-existent WMD. Reasoned debate is
again being replaced by the enforcement of consent.
It also should be increasingly apparent that the old right-wing saw
about the Washington Post as a cornerstone of the “liberal media” is
nonsense. For many years now, the Post has more often than not heckled
Democrats and cheered Republicans, especially on issues relating to
Given the history of the Post’s gullible WMD coverage, another
question might be why a reader should pay any more attention to Fred
Hiatt’s commentaries about politics and world affairs than one would
Ricky Proehl’s prognostications about Super Bowls.
Perhaps, Hiatt and the Post columnists should take a lesson instead
from the three-time champion New England Patriots and show a little more