Like many other long-time National Public Radio listeners, I’ve been both troubled and puzzled by the apparent loss of its journalistic integrity over the past few years. While it’s been long pilloried by conservatives as a part of the “elite liberal media,” a recent study from Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting indicates that Republican government sources had a 3 to 2 advantage over Democrats, and that representatives from “right of center” think tanks outnumbered “left of center” representatives by 4 to 1.
So it was with some dismay but not complete surprise that I encountered Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon’s take on Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11 in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, July 27.
Simon takes Moore to task for the same laundry list of reasons that have been coughed up on TV, radio talk shows, and the Internet. He’s a liar. He’s not a journalist. The movie isn’t a documentary.
The first paragraph of Simon’s article ends by comparing Moore to Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and Jack Kelly, all writers who filed completely fabricated stories. Simon is dead wrong in placing Moore with that particular trio, and as someone who ostensibly deals with news, he ought to be able to discern between what he later accuses Moore of and the type of total creation of someone like Stephen Glass.
Simon continues: “Trying to track the unproven innuendoes and conspiracies in a Michael Moore film or book is as futile as trying to count the flatulence jokes in one by Adam Sandler.” How droll. You’d think that if you were going to write an article to WSJ about how intellectually dishonest someone’s filmmaking is, that you might at least try to count them. Simon instead uses the next three paragraphs to set the stage, citing Moore’s penchant for stretching the truth, invoking the ghost of Pauline Kael’s review of “Roger and Me”, and making innuendos like Moore “prefers innuendo to fact.”
Good to know that Simon can read Moore’s mind, that means he must be telling us what Moore really believes, not just what he thinks Moore believes.
Simon launches into his article with this codwhalloper: “The main premise of Mr. Moore’s recent work is that both Presidents Bush have been what amounts to Manchurian Candidates of the Saudi royal family. Mr. Moore suggests (he depends so much on innuendo that a simple, declarative verb like ‘says’ is usually impossible) the Saudi government, having soured on their pawns for unstated reasons, launched the attacks of Sept. 11.”
Speaking of innuendo (a word Simon falls back on a number of times in the article), note the words “Moore’s recent work” above. Simon opens the door for himself to talk not about Fahrenheit 9/11 but the book Dude, Where’s My Country? He goes on to discuss a question Moore poses in Chapter 1 of the book, asking why — since bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis — Saudi Arabia hasn’t been held responsible. Simon, two paragraphs after castigating Moore for “editing with poetic license rather than accuracy,” strips out the comparison Moore makes other countries: “If fifteen of the nineteen hijackers had been North Korean, and they had killed 3,000 people, do you think the headline the next day might read ‘NORTH KOREA ATTACKS UNITED STATES'”?
In his book, Moore questions whether simple flight school training would have been enough to enable someone to fly a commercial airliner at more than 500mph into a relatively low-lying building like the Pentagon. Simon cites the wording of Moore’s query without apparently giving a second thought to it himself. It might be an important piece of data to know, whether the Saudi royal family was involved or not.
Simon’s elucidation of the “main premise” of Dude and F911 is a gross misstatement. Neither claims that George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush is a puppet of the Saud family (assuming Simon’s got that The Manchurian Candidate reference correct). There are well-documented ties between the Bush and Saud families for several decades, however. They’ve operated in the oil business and the governments of their respective countries for three or more generations. The countries themselves are tightly bound by oil and money.
Irregardless of that fact, Moore’s point in the passage of his book that Simon cites was that there are thousands of Saudi princes and that some of them are far more in tune with the goals of Osama bin Laden than with America, the Bush family, or even the ruling members of the Sauds. A trip to the history shelf might reacquaint Simon with the various wars fought in Europe right up to World War I, mostly between countries ruled by people who were related to each other.
Perhaps Simon can’t perceive how the Bush and Saud families might have long-standing ties that influence their decisions about how to run the countries that they govern, but those ties have been well-documented in books like Craig Unger’s “House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties” and Kevin Phillips’s “American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush.” Two days after Simon’s article was published, John Kerry’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention contained this line: “I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation not the Saudi royal family.”
The linchpin of most anti-F911 opinion is repeated in Simon’s article.
Central to Mr. Moore’s indictment of the current President Bush is his charge that the U.S. government secretly assisted the evacuation of bin Laden family members from the U.S. in the hours following the Sept. 11 attacks, when all other flights nationwide were grounded. He supports this with grainy images of indecipherable documents.
But on our show on Saturday [January 24, 2004], Richard Clarke, the government’s former counter-terrorism adviser and no apologist for the Bush administration, told us that he had authorized those flights, but only after air travel had been restored and all the Saudis had been questioned. “I think Moore’s making a mountain of a molehill,” he said. Moreover, said Mr. Clarke, “He never interviewed me.” Instead, Mr. Moore had simply lifted a clip from an ABC interview. Perhaps Mr. Moore just didn’t want to get an answer that he didn’t want to hear. (See how useful innuendoes can be?)
Indeed. Although this analysis doesn’t actually refute anything Moore says. The government did assist the evacuation of bin Laden family members and Saudi royals during the days between the time airspace was locked down on September 11 and the point three days later at which a flight was allowed to carry them out of the country. Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador, specifically asked for help to get them out of the country for their safety, at the request of King Fahd, as reported by both The New York Times and CBS back in September 2001, and shown in the Larry King interview with Bandar in F911 right after Moore mentions the flights. Was it special treatment? Arabs and Muslims without ties to the Saudi upper class have been held incommunicado for extremely long periods in the three years since September 11 without charges against them. Brandon Mayfield, a Portland, Oregon lawyer and Muslim convert was recently held for three weeks as a material witness in the Madrid bombing even though Spanish police had told U.S. authorities that their fingerprint identification was incorrect. These news reports aren’t exactly hard to find. Yet somehow, Simon believes that, in the two days after three thousand people had been killed, the same agencies somehow managed to determine that nearly one hundred and fifty foreign nationals had absolutely no knowledge that might be of interest to the investigation of the attacks — whether they were personally involved in al Qaeda or not — and to do so without some sort of special instructions.
Despite the fact that they’ve been vilifying Richard Clarke as a turncoat for the past several months, Moore’s critics have been quick to turn to his signature on the authorization of the Saudi evacuation flights, and Simon’s analysis follows that line. In his rush to disprove Moore’s point, though, Simon even manages to mischaracterize and misquote Clarke’s interview on his own program.
In the quote from Simon’s article above, he talks about how Clarke had authorized Saudi travel only after flights had resumed and interviews had been conducted. He quotes Clarke as saying “He never interviewed me.” Below is a transcript of the segment of Clarke’s interview where F911 and Moore are discussed (between 4:10 and 5:10 in the clip)
Scott Simon: Mr. Clarke, let me ask you a nuts and bolts question that came up at the press conference. Those flights of Saudi nationals out of the United States including members of the bin Laden family that took place after air traffic was resumed, they were authorized by you, is that correct?
Richard Clarke: They were authorized by me after the FBI said it was alright with them.
Simon: So, you were, you know this is a major point in Michael Moore’s film, Fahrenheit 9/11, you were interviewed at length for that film, did you tell that to Mr. Moore in that film?
Clarke: I wasn’t interviewed for that film. What the Moore people did was take interviews that I gave on ABC News and just put them into the film. I’ve never met Moore or his people. And I think he’s made a mountain out of a molehill with regard to the Saudis getting out of the country. As the commission report says, the FBI to this day has no desire to talk to those people who left the country on those flights. They knew a lot about them in advance and they knew they had nothing to do with terrorism.
Typically, when you put quotes around something like “He never interviewed me,” you’re directly quoting your subject, not paraphrasing. Clarke never mentions any interviews of Saudis. Oddly, Simon appears to have the impression that Clarke was interviewed by Moore for the film. Clarke’s longest on-screen time is a Q&A session with ABC’s Charles Gibson, who is unmistakably not Michael Moore. Most other interview footage in the film is assembled from third-party sources, a common-enough practice for documentaries covering historical events. Why did Simon even bring the matter up? Has he seen the film?
More specifically, why is the fact that Clarke authorized these flights supposed to make it OK? Clarke says it’s no big deal, but then he’s the person whose name is on the document; he’s got some personal interest in whether it looks like a stupid move or not. There are plenty of reasons it might have been a better move to sequester the Saudis for their safety, but not to let them go immediately, particularly given the recalcitrance the government has shown in investigations of other terrorist acts like the bombing of Khobar Towers.
Simon continues on in a scattershot approach, acknowledging the distressing scene of a woman crying in front of her family’s house but ultimately dismissing it:
But reporters who were taken around to see the sites of civilian deaths during the bombing of Baghdad also observed that some of those errant bombs were fired by Iraqi anti-aircraft crews. Mr. Moore doesn’t let the audience know when and where this bomb was dropped, or otherwise try to identify the culprit of the tragedy.
Simon seems to think that the only bombing done took place prior to George Bush’s announcement of “Mission Accomplished” over a year ago. Coalition planes are still dropping bombs on Iraq. There are no longer working anti-aircraft guns (as opposed to shoulder-fired missiles). No, Moore doesn’t identify the specific event, but considering that hundreds of civilians were killed in pacification attempts (including bombings) after the deaths of four American contractors in April in Fallujah alone, it hardly matters. Simon should know this, he interviewed Patrick Graham, a freelance journalist who visited Fallujah in the spring and wrote an article for Harper’s.
Mr. Moore tries hard to identify himself with U.S. troops and their concerns. But he spends an awful lot of effort depicting them as dupes and brutes. At one point in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” someone off-camera prods a U.S. soldier into singing a favorite hip-hop song with profane lyrics. Mr. Moore then runs the soldier’s voice over combat footage, to make it seem as if the soldier were insensitively singing along with the destruction.
Music is one of the oldest forms of communication, according to PBS’s Song of the Earth with David Attenborough, and it has a strong emotional component. Song has been used in one form or another during battle for probably thousands of years, to promote group solidarity or strike fear in the enemy. One of the most stirring scenes in Apocalypse Now is where helicopters attack a village while “Ride of the Valkyries” blasts over speakers mounted by the crews. It’s one of the most famous scenes. In June, papers (including The New York Daily News) reported that hundreds of U.S. troops in Ramadi psyched themselves up by listening to “Ride” before they went on raids to round up suspected Iraqi guerillas. Is so foreign to Simon’s ken that soldiers might choose to listen to something and perhaps sing along while they’re in combat, whether it’s to keep their fear at bay, to take their mind off what they’re actually doing, because they’re keyed up and it helps them keep their head, or just because they listen to music in a tank the same way someone driving along the highway might? Why wouldn’t a soldier sing “insensitively” during combat? Can you sensitively shoot people?
It’s difficult to know what Simon’s point is. He claims Moore is “more McCarthy than Murrow,” but McCarthy was never able to back up any of his claims with actual facts. Moore’s movie may be flawed in many ways, but it’s more factually-based than Simon gives it credit for, and in many ways it’s more factual than Simon’s own analysis.