American Pie 19.08.04

Somewhat belatedly, some American newspapers are taking a new look at the way they covered the build-up to the war in Iraq – particularly the reports of weapons of mass destruction. The Washington Post now concedes that at least one of its top reporters put together stories questioning the claims by the White House. But they never made page one. Only after assistant managing editor Bob Woodward – who was researching a book on the subject – intervened, did the paper run a story, but relegated it to page 17. Says Woodward now: “We did our job but we didn’t do enough. I blame myself for not pushing harder.” The paper itself concurs. After looking back in the files and talking to more than a dozen reporters and editors, The Post claims it did run a number of stories challenging the White House but rarely on the front page. The paper admits its coverage of the build- up to Iraq was one-sided. Altogether in the six months before the war started the Post ran 140 front page stories, they mostly reported the White House rhetoric against Iraq. Several other news organisations here have also been taking a second look. The NY Times admits it was too intent on looking for scoops to weigh its stories carefully. Leading magazines such as The New Republic also confess they were remiss. Whether a more quizzical approach by news organisations would have made much difference even The Post can’t say.

The court ruling that could put Time magazine’s White House correspondent Matt Cooper in jail for contempt of court (Press Gazette 13 Aug) has sent chills through the American press. The refusal of Cooper and his magazine, which faces a $1,000 a day fine, to name the informant in the now notorious investigation into who in the White House leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer, may have a farreaching effect. Unless there is a reversal of the ruling it could undermine the longstanding right of American journalists to protect their sources. It would almost certainly affect a reporter’s willingness to promise his sources confidentiality, and equally, a source’s willingness to talk to journalists off the record. The stakes are high, not only for American journalism in general but for Cooper himself, who faces 18 months in jail.

Once the undisputed king of the American porn publishers, Al Goldstein has hit hard times. Unlike his contemporaries, Hugh Hefner, who still has his luxury Playboy mansion in Los Angeles, and Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse, who hangs tenuously on to his marble-walled Manhatten mansion, Goldstein is on his uppers. The 68-year-old former publisher of Screw sleeps these days curled up on an orange rug, in the cramped front room of a relative’s modest home in a New York suburb. His company, Milky Way Productions, which in addition to Screw produced a long-running cable show called Midnight Blue, went into bankruptcy last year. His mansion in Florida with its 11-ft high replica of a raised middle finger in the garden, was sold to pay debts. In Florida he spends his time either in a shelter for the homeless or sleeping in the back of a borrowed car. But he hasn’t given up his hope of making a come-back. He told the NY Times: “All I need is a new soap box”.

The NewYork Times has told reporters working in dangerous places such as Iraq and Afghanistan to stop charging “gunmen and firearms” on their expenses. The paper’s accountants, it seems, thought the item too explosive.

By Jeffrey Blyth

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