It depends on what the meaning of “all” is

Yesterday, I said it will be interesting to compare the degree to which the MSM reports on Scott McClellan’s new book, including its discussion of the Iraq war, with the negligible extent to which it has reported on Douglas Feith’s inside look at the same war, as well as the overall war on terrorism. The early returns are now in, and they come as no surprise.

As this report by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post shows, McClellan’s book is a topic of intense discussion not just at the Post but at USA Today and the New York Times. The latter two organs have refused to report on Feith’s book (the Times turned down three separate stories by star reporter James Risen), and the Post has refused to review it. Yet, for reasons discussed below, there can be little question as to which book is more valuable when it comes to understanding why we went to war in Iraq and whether it made sense to do so.

Kurtz refers to McClellan’s book as an example of the “tell-all” genre. Now, it may be true that McClellan is revealing all of his current opinions about, say, the war in Iraq, along with whatever he happens to know about the decision-making relating to that war and the evidence supporting the ultimate decision. But whether this amounts to a “tell-all” depends on how much McClellan actually knows, and this is the subject of considerable doubt. Though I haven’t read his book, I do know that it is devoid of footnotes, endnotes, and supporting documentation. Nor, as John has pointed out, do McClellan’s media appearances suggest that he’s knowledgeable enough to have written a tell-all, at least on this subject.

Feith’s book stands in sharp contrast. First, unlike McClellan, Feith was at the center of the policy-making at issue. Second, his book provides detailed accounts of key meetings based on contemporaneous notes. And it includes more than 30 pages of original source material plus almost 90 pages of endnotes. Readers can thus determine for themselves whether the author is providing a reliable account or merely settling scores and/or trying to make a buck (Feith, by the way, is donating all proceeds from his book to help Iraq war veterans). Yet the MSM is breathless over McClellan’s book, while it continues studiously to ignore Feith’s.

For Kurtz and the rest of the MSM, then, the concept of “tell-all” has little to do with the amount of actual information revealed, or its quality. The key, instead, is the amount of vitriol directed at (in this case) a president the MSM dislikes.

Though newspapers were once thought to be in the information business, politics, not information, seems to be the touchstone when it comes to dealing with books by public figures. I can think of no other explanation for the disparity in the treatment of the recent works of McClellan and Feith.

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