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Washington's 'Ricky Proehl Syndrome'

By Robert Parry
February 8, 2005

For years now, the Washington pundit class has suffered from what New England Patriot fans might call the “Ricky Proehl Syndrome,” an embarrassing tendency to make boastful pronouncements that turn out to be 180 degrees off target, often amusingly so.

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 Rams.

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.

Pundit Talk

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.

Supportive Columns

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 [2002] and January [2003] 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 skeptical.

“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, March/April 2004]

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.”]

Missing Iran-Contra

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 inconsequential figure.

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 naïve 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 Ruling Robbers.”]

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 Bush administration.

Chastising Democrats

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.

Piling On

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 foreign policy.

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 humility.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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