More Moore, Less Clarke - June 22, 2004 -

Times Watch for June 22, 2004

More Moore, Less Clarke

Sunday's Arts section brings an interview of leftist documentary filmmaker Michael Moore and a sort of fact-check/review of "Fahrenheit 9-11" from intelligence reporter Philip Shenon, titled "Michael Moore Is Ready for His Close-Up."

A subhead asks: "Will the Facts Check Out?" The Times' answer: Basically, yes. Though Shenon questions some of Moore's points, he also goes out of his way to defend Moore (in an oddly defensive manner) on others.

"Mr. Moore's previous films generated a cottage industry of conservative commentators eager to prove sloppiness and exaggeration in his films; a handful of mainstream critics have also found flaws. But if 'Fahrenheit 9/11' attracts the audience Mr. Moore and his distributors are predicting, Mr. Moore may face an onslaught of fact-checking unlike anything he-or any other documentary filmmaker-has ever experienced. After all, White House officials and the Bush family began impugning the film even before any of them had seen it."

But as professor Cori Dauber notes, that's a bogus argument: "If this movie is, as the Moore camp describes, an 'oped' then it is a movie with an argument. And that argument is being repeated and described all over the press. Should the White House not comment when those arguments are circulating through the media, when they are getting maximum attention and coverage, but instead wait until it's actually released?"

Shenon finds Moore's fact-checking basically credible: "So how will Mr. Moore's movie stand up under close examination? Is the film's depiction of Mr. Bush as a lazy and duplicitous leader, blinded by his family's financial ties to Arab moneymen and the Saudi Arabian royal family, true to fact?....After a year spent covering the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, I was recently allowed to attend a Hollywood screening. Based on that single viewing, and after separating out what is clearly presented as Mr. Moore's opinion from what is stated as fact, it seems safe to say that central assertions of fact in 'Fahrenheit 9/11' are supported by the public record (indeed, many of them will be familiar to those who have closely followed Mr. Bush's political career)".Mr. Moore charges that President Bush and his aides paid too little attention to warnings in the summer of 2001 that Al Qaeda was about to attack, including a detailed Aug. 6, 2001, C.I.A. briefing that warned of terrorism within the country's borders. [Editor's Note: Moore and Shenon are peas in a pod in that regard.] In its final report next month, the Sept. 11 commission can be expected to offer support to this assertion. Mr. Moore says that instead of focusing on Al Qaeda, the president spent 42 percent of his first eight months in office on vacation; the figure came not from a conspiracy-hungry Web site but from a calculation by The Washington Post."

The Times vaunted nose for nuance fails it here. A president hardly takes a vacation as most people would know it. Besides spending 54 days at his Texas ranch, Bush also spent 38 days at the presidential retreat Camp David (and of course, early September is the tail-end of summer vacation season anyway, which would skew the numbers).

A more skeptical view of Moore comes from the left. As left-wing pro-war writer Christopher Hitchens notes in a withering review of "Fahrenheit 9/11" posted on Slate, "President Bush is accused of taking too many lazy vacations".But the shot of him 'relaxing at Camp David' shows him side by side with Tony Blair".A meeting with the prime minister of the United Kingdom, or at least with this prime minister, is not a goof-off."

Shenon notes: "The most valid criticisms of the film are likely to involve the artful way that Mr. Moore connects the facts, and whether he has left out others that might undermine his scalding attack."

Then Shenon challenges Moore on the question of the Bin Laden family flying out of the country: "As the Sept. 11 commission has found, the Saudi government was able to pull strings at senior levels of the Bush administration to help the bin Ladens leave the United States. But while the film clearly suggests that the flights occurred at a time when all air traffic was grounded immediately after the attacks"the Sept. 11 commission said in a report this April that there was 'no credible evidence that any chartered flights of Saudi Arabian nationals departed the United States before the reopening of national airspace' and that the F.B.I. had concluded that no one aboard the flights was involved in Sept. 11. In conversation, Mr. Moore defended the scene, saying his goal was to show how the White House was eager to bend and break the rules for Saudi friends-in this case, the extended family of the terrorist who had just brought down the twin towers and attacked the Pentagon. And as reporters have found, the White House still refuses to document fully how the flights were arranged."

(Shenon fails to point out that Times hero Richard Clarke has admitted to arranging those flights for the Bin Laden family, and said "he'd do it again.")

For Shenon, it's the quiet moments that are the most effective against Bush: "Mr. Moore makes extensive use of obscure footage from White House and network-news video archives, including long scenes that capture President Bush at his least articulate. For the White House, the most devastating segment of' 'Fahrenheit 9/11' may be the video of a befuddled-looking President Bush staying put for nearly seven minutes at a Florida elementary school on the morning of Sept. 11, continuing to read a copy of 'My Pet Goat' to schoolchildren even after an aide has told him that a second plane has struck the twin towers. Mr. Bush's slow, hesitant reaction to the disastrous news has never been a secret. But seeing the actual footage, with the minutes ticking by, may prove more damaging to the White House than all the statistics in the world."

While Moore's credibility is up for debate, that of the New York Times isn't rock-solid either. David Letterman got into the media criticism act on the June 18 Late Show, which featured Moore as a guest:

Michael Moore: "I don't have the answer to this question, but it's a question that Bush needs to answer this year, before this election: Why did the Saudi royals and the bin Laden family get this special treatment?"

David Letterman: "And we absolutely can believe the sources that you've used in assembling this documentary?"

Moore: "Oh yes. It's the New York Times, it's the Wall Street Journal, it's the-"

Letterman: "Well the Times. [Audience laughter] Depending on what day it is."

Apparently, the idea of the Times as a reliable source has taken a hit among the general public as well.

For the rest of Shenon's "review" of "Fahrenheit 9/11," click here.

" Al Qaeda | Osama bin Laden | Richard Clarke | "Fahrenheit 9/11" | David Letterman | Michael Moore | Movies | Philip Shenon

Pro-Abortion Bias, from the Paper that "Calls Itself" Objective

Christopher Marquis pens "U.S. Is Accused of Trying to Isolate U.N. Population Unit," on the Bush administration's refusal to fund a UN group it believes assists in forced abortion in China.

Marquis writes Monday: "The Population Fund, known as Unfpa, has long been a favorite target of abortion opponents in Congress and in religious-based organizations, who contend that it assists in coercive abortions in China. The critics prevented American financing of the fund for most of the last two decades, and they have now set their sights on curbing its operations with other United Nations agencies. The administration's position has frustrated some United Nations officials and family planning advocates, who have complained that advances in education and awareness on reproductive issues are being undermined by the United States, where abortion is legal. Those critics, most of whom spoke anonymously because the United States government is the leading contributor to their agencies, charged that the administration was pandering to conservative supporters, and said that doing so placed the United States in alliance with tradition-bound Islamic countries and the Holy See."

Times Watch never thought the Times would ever criticize the Bush administration for being too supportive of Islam.

In another strange twist, Marquis lets a Democrat call Bush hypocritical for appealing to the United Nations for war help-something Democrats pushed Bush to do: "Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat at the fore of efforts to restore support to the fund, said the administration was jeopardizing programs in women's and family health that should not be considered contentious. 'When will the president's right wing be satisfied-when they close down the U.N.?' she asked, adding that the tough White House stance contrasts with its appeals to the United Nations for help in the Iraq war."

And here's a snotty description of one "conservative religious group" that supports Bush: "Conservative religious groups are keeping the pressure on the administration. A group leading the fight against the fund is the Population Research Institute in Front Royal, Va., which calls itself a research and education group that exposes human rights abuses in population control programs."

That dismissive formulation ("calls itself") comes off as an attempt to make a pro-life group appear illegitimate.

Marquis notes: "Supporters of the fund deny that it facilitates coerced abortions in China. They say it has made considerable progress in reducing the number of abortions through family planning programs in conjunction with the Beijing government. Two years ago, the administration appeared to agree. A fact-finding trip for the State Department in May 2002, led by William A. Brown, the former ambassador to Israel, recommended the release of $34 million in American payments. 'We find no evidence that' the Population Fund 'has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization' in China, it said."

As Times Watch noted in May 2003, that's a slanted take on what the report actually spelled out. The State Department may not have found evidence that UNFPA knowingly supported such programs, but it didn"t have to in order to withhold funding: "The team noted a system of extremely high fines and penalties imposed on families that exceed the number of children per family approved by the government. In this connection, even if UNFPA did not 'knowingly' support or participate in such a program, that does not mean that the Kemp-Kasten restriction would not be triggered, since that restriction does not rest on a finding of legal intent to fund the coercive program."

Finally, Marquis finds someone to compare Bush's move to (wait for it) McCarthyism: "Sterling Scruggs, a former official in charge of external relations for the Population Fund, said his agency was being singled out to make an 'ideological' point against abortion. 'It reminds me of the McCarthy era,' he said. 'We're blackballed. They've defunded us, and even that isn't enough. It's unbelievable.'"

Then Marquis chalks Bush's move to politics: Recent signs suggest that the administration is increasing pressure on the fund in the heat of an election season."

For the rest of Marquis on Bush vs. the UN Population Fund, click here.

" Abortion | China | Christopher Marquis | United Nations

Could Bush & Co. Have "Foreseen" 9-11?

Douglas Jehl makes a familiar (for him, anyway) argument that the Bush administration missed clues to 9-11. In Tuesday's story on Bush's speeded-up hunt for a new CIA director, Jehl writes: "The harsh criticisms that are expected to be levied against the White House in two forthcoming reports are also a factor in the decision making, the officials said. The Sept. 11 commission, whose final report is to be released July 26, has argued in 17 preliminary assessments that the attacks were foreseen, at least to a general degree, and might have been preventable."

Jehl made the same argument back in April upon release of the August 6, 2001 President's Daily Briefing, which he sold as a smoking gun warning of a terror attack, despite the vagueness of the actual document. You can judge for yourself whether the attacks were really "foreseen," to a general degree or not.

For the rest of Jehl on Bush and the CIA position, click here.

" Al Qaeda | George W. Bush | Douglas Jehl | Iraq War | PDB | Terrorism