By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tom Ricks and the hazards of live TV

Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks has been everywhere recently, talking up his new book, “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.” Ricks comes across as moderate, pro-military and shocked at the incompetence that led to the war and that has defined the subsequent occupation. You should listen to interviews he did with Tom Ashbrook and Christopher Lydon (joined by Noam Chomsky!) if you get a chance.

This month, Ricks also learned a lesson in the hazards of shooting your mouth off on live television. In an Aug. 6 appearance on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” he made an assertion that he has come to regret. In the section that follows, he’s being questioned by the host, Howard Kurtz, who happens to be the Post’s media reporter. From the transcript:

KURTZ: Tom Ricks, you’ve covered a number of military conflicts, including Iraq, as I just mentioned. Is civilian casualties increasingly going to be a major media issue? In conflicts where you don’t have two standing armies shooting at each other?

RICKS: I think it will be. But I think civilian casualties are also part of the battlefield play for both sides here. One of the things that is going on, according to some U.S. military analysts, is that Israel purposely has left pockets of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, because as long as they’re being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations in Lebanon.

KURTZ: Hold on, you’re suggesting that Israel has deliberately allowed Hezbollah to retain some of its firepower, essentially for PR purposes, because having Israeli civilians killed helps them in the public-relations war here?

RICKS: Yes, that’s what military analysts have told me.

KURTZ: That’s an extraordinary testament to the notion that having people on your own side killed actually works to your benefit in that nobody wants to see your own citizens killed but it works to your benefit in terms of the battle of perceptions here.

RICKS: Exactly. It helps you with the moral-high-ground problem, because you know your operations in Lebanon are going to be killing civilians as well.

Last Friday the New York Sun reported (via Romenesko) that former New York mayor Ed Koch had reacted with outrage at Ricks’ “blood libel,” and that Post executive editor Leonard Downie had taken Ricks to the woodshed. Downie wrote to Koch, “I have made clear to Tom Ricks that he should not have made those statements.” And Ricks told the Sun: “The comments were accurate: that I said I had been told this by people. I wish I hadn’t said them, and I intend from now on to keep my mouth shut about it.”

Now, you could defend Ricks on the grounds that he was merely passing along what he learned in the course of his reporting. After all, he was careful to attribute his extraordinary claim to “U.S. military analysts.”

But was that the case? CAMERA, the Boston-based organization that monitors the media for what it considers to be anti-Israel bias, has published the text of a note that he wrote to Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell in which he said that his comments “were based on a long conversation I had with a senior Israeli official a couple of years ago.” He also said that, following his CNN appearance, he had “since heard from some smart, well-informed people that while such a strategy might be logical, that the Israeli public just wouldn’t stand for it. And they were pretty dismayed that I has passed on the thought.”

I am a little concerned that I can’t find Ricks’ note anywhere on washingtonpost.com. But I have no reason to believe CAMERA got it wrong.

I wish Downie had been a little more willing to defend his reporter. After all, Ricks’ comments were not based on nothing, and the standards for blabbing on live TV are not the same as they are for writing a news article. But obviously Ricks wishes he had been more precise. And given that he was basing his remarks on a years-old conversation, he probably shouldn’t have said anything at all.


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9 Comments

  1. Stella

    DK: “I wish Downie had been a little more willing to defend his reporter.”Sorry, chum, the Washington Post was gelded as soon as Kay Graham released the reins.

  2. Anonymous

    I wouldn’t take anything CAMERA says at face value. After their “jihad” against WBUR (and NPR in general) showed that they were willing to do or say anything to make their supposed point, regardless of how true (or at least taken wildly out of context) what they were saying was.If what they say can be independently verified, fine. All well and good, I’ll be right alongside them in vilifying Ricks. But until then, I got nothing but skepticism.(mind you, this is SOLELY in regard to their publishing the note…even if that note is fake, I agree that Ricks said something pretty boneheaded. Boneheaded enough that I don’t blame CAMERA for being riled up about it.)

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 11:58 — I agree with you on the importance of not taking anything at face value, regardless of the interest group. However, CAMERA posted the Ricks note on Aug. 9, and I can find zero evidence that he’s denied having written it.

  4. Anonymous

    Leaving aside the issue of the “propriety” of Ricks’ statements, and the timing of his communications with his source or sources, is anyone concerned to know whether or not the assertion is true? Is everyone assuming that it is false, that the Israeli government could not conceivably act in a manner that endangers civilians in the short run, based on a calculation of long-run advantage? If so, this seems quite naive. Wasn’t the entire Lebanon operation based on the view that exposing Israeli civilians to increased danger in the short term was an acceptable price to pay for advancing Israel’s longer-term interests (as perceived by the Olmert government)? Otherwise, why initiate a full-scale month-long war? Because TWO soldiers were abducted? It certainly wasn’t because of the number of Israelis killed over the last several years by Hezbollah missile attacks — since, before July 16, that number was zero. As for CAMERA, they have no credibility as serious media critics. Their position is simple: any deviation from the official version of events preferred by the Israeli government is an anti-Israeli smear. I would challenge anyone to find a single example of their “media analysis” that suggests otherwise. What scares me about this piece is the political reality it reflects for American journalism: that any reporter who engages in candid criticism of Israeli policy is subject to harsh rebuke, regardless of the merits of the case, and held firmly accountable for any journalistic error. Conversely, the sloppiest journalistic practices, and the most inflammatory statements, are accepted without question — as long as the commentary is in praise of Israeli policy and in opposition to Israel’s enemies.

  5. Steve

    My view of CAMERA is differs sharply with the two (or is it one?) Anonymice above. CAMERA’s focus on anti-Israel media bias is way too tight for some, but they are not journalists, they are media critics. And while sometimes I find their criticism is a reach, they are always fact-based and well-documented. Consequently, people bluster that “they have no credibility”, but they rarely make substantive criticism about the elements of CAMERA’s analysis.Their signature work about the bias in NPR’s coverage is a fine example. The most substantive portion of that analysis was quantitative – just totalling the minutes Palestinians are heard and the minutes Israelis are heard. And when the Israelis are heard, how many are Likud, how many are not Likud. (There was rarely any anti-Fatah viewpoint at the time.) The bias in time alloted to Palestinians was clear and indisputable. Likudniks were hardly ever heard.In this vein, their analysis was similar to Alterman’s in “What Liberal Media”, in rebuttal to Goldberg’s “Bias”. While Goldberg pointed to the fact that the mainstream media was overwhelmingly liberal-leaning, and thus their coverage was inevitably biased, Alterman looked at the coverage itself, and convincingly argued from a quantitative viewpoint that no liberal bias actually existed.

  6. Anonymous

    (anon 11:58 here again, and it’s two of us, steve :-)Dan, it’s possible I’m reaching here, but the thought that occurred to me was that lack of a denial is not the same thing as a confirmation. Isn’t this a collolary of “innocent until proven guilty”? CAMERA’s been known to make wild claims on scant, or even faulty, evidence before.Steve, in regards to WBUR/NPR…I agree that CAMERA created a methodology and then followed through on it. But I don’t really agree with their methodology in the first place. As far as I understood it, they basically just counted the minutes each type of speaker was given. That doesn’t necessarily mean bias towards a given “side”. Maybe the Likudniks all sounded like raving lunatics; most producers don’t want to put a guy on the air who sounds like a homeless dude who’s screaming at an imaginary voice. Even if the message is genocidal madness, if it’s made in a calm, rational voice…it’s got a better chance of being on-air. This is, I understand, something Osama Bin Laden has used to remarkable effect in past interviews; passion is rarely rewarded on air when you’re the interviewee.That’s just one example. There are lots of others…for example, some people either have (or have learned) to have voices that are damn hard to edit (on tape or more likely on computer) and still have it sound like it wasn’t edited. Most of what you hear on the air is the result of heavy editing beforehand.It’s also entirely possible that some of that time difference was simply because the Israelis were more succinct than their Palestinian counterparts. I have seen lots of anecdotal evidence of that…you see a guy who’s on TV and suddenly he feels he has to squeeze in every point he can think of during his 15 seconds of fame.The point is, “what do you want the numbers to say?”. I remember being able to shoot a lot of holes through CAMERA’s methodology back when they were on the offensive. Ever since then, I don’t have a lot of respect for them.

  7. steve b

    Tom Ricks actually seems to be the one at fault here. If what he said to Howard Kurtz isn’t in his book, why haven’t we seen more writing from him about it? If I were Len Downie, I’d take him to the woodshed too for saying it on TV before printing it in my paper. Knowing the Post, though, they probably wouldn’t print it for the reasons the anonymous poster about so eloquently spelled out. If the American press were working anywhere near the level it says it does, shouldn’t the “firestorm” have actually been the number of journalists with names like Hersh, Lichtblau, Pincus, Priest and Risen who were tipped off by this story and calling all their sources to try to get confirmation. The very least you would think you would see is a question thrown to Tzipi Livni, Condi Rice or Don Rumsfeld. We haven’t seen that, though, because we’re supposed to think that Israel is defending their territory after an enemy incursion — the 2 troops’ kidnapping — and thereby doing everything possible to wipe out enemy forces because that’s what they say we’re doing? Tom Ricks shouldn’t take that at face value. Given Israel’s stated desires for the expansion of their territory and the public opinion required to keep an already poorly-conducted war worth it for the Israelis, The Washington Post shouldn’t take their public claims at face value, and, by extension, there is no reason the American people should either. We shouldn’t even hold to having to compare between the inflammatory statements that are accepted without question, given that this is such a retreat from the normal behavior of a press that has shown itself willing to devote countless air hours, pages in print and “expert” correspondents to covering this war.

  8. Steve

    I have usually found CAMERA’s facts to be sound, if sometimes selective. So, anon 11:58, give me some examples of where CAMERA has made “wild claims on scant, or even faulty, evidence”.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Steve — Thought I’d jump in here to second that. Like any interest group, CAMERA has an agenda, but I find its research to be pretty solid. A few years ago I heard a BBC anchor just go off on Tzipi Livni. WBUR wouldn’t give me access to the tape; CAMERA actually had a copy, and I was able to listen to it there. Not that that proves anything, but I think CAMERA performs a valuable service.

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