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What The Hell Happened To Tom Friedman?

Tom Friedman almost caused a fistfight at my supper table a few weeks ago.

No, I wasn't dining with the celebrated author and New York Times columnist, just my brother and his girlfriend. But during the after-dinner conversation I did share my view that based on Friedman's enthusiastic support for the Bush administration's tragic march to war in Iraq, Andrew Rosenthal, who heads the Times' editorial page, or Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who runs the whole operation, should consider firing their putative foreign policy expert, or at least reassigning him to a regular reporting gig so he can get his facts straight about the Middle East.

You'd think this would be a fairly reasonable stance. I mean, what exactly is a firing or reassigning offense for a columnist beyond pulling a Mike Barnicle and just making shit up?

The trouble is Friedman fans, my brother among them, are incapable of seeing past their allegiance to their cheerfully misguided globetrotting prophet. So what if one of the country's foremost specialists on Middle East affairs used his high profile pulpit to help cheerlead the nation into the worst foreign policy fiasco in our history? So what if utopian daydreaming turned him into another naïve sucker for Karl Rove's Machiavellian spin machine? Hey, it was just one man's opinion. How was he supposed to know it would all go so wrong?

But after watching Bill Moyers's brilliant PBS documentary Buying the War Wednesday night, it's clearly well past time for Rosenthal and Sulzberger to question why they've handed Friedman such valuable journalistic real estate. Unfortunately, considering the Times itself comes off looking rather poorly in the film, and neither the paper's encompassing Arts or Politics sections even deigned to review it for their readers, it's doubtful that anyone over on West 43rd Street has suddenly become alarmed by the crap flying off of Friedman's keyboard.

They should be.

Of course columnists have the right to be wrong in their opinions. But honest columnists also should be willing to answer serious questions about the conclusions reached in their pieces. Friedman, however, ducked those tough questions by simply refusing to speak to Moyers. Nevermind Friedman's prominent role in promoting the intellectual rationale behind the Iraqi boondoggle, or the historical significance of getting to the bottom of this administration's manipulation of the press - as a journalist, passing on this interview was an unpardonable sin.

Questions are a reporter's stock in trade. When I'm working on a news story, I'm often forced to rely on people I've just met to answer a few reasonable questions and help me understand what happened. Sometimes an important participant in a story refuses to speak to me and the truth, or at least the version of the truth I'm able to present, suffers. But most journalists I know have far too much respect for the truth and your right to understand it to ever refuse a legitimate interview request from someone like Bill Moyers to discuss our role in such a crucial story. It would go against everything we believe in and stand for as reporters and citizens of this country. I guess Friedman doesn't feel the same way.

Moyers's 90-minute prosecution of all facets of the media obliterated the myth that the reporters and columnists who supported the march to war in 2002 and 2003 were simply working from the facts that the Bush administration provided. The reality of the administration's lying charade and the accompanying looming potential for disaster were readily available to any enterprising journalist on the story who was willing to pick up the damn phone. Instead, ignorance, political ideology, and a paralyzing fear of being attacked as unpatriotic by partisan Republicans resulted in the Washington press corps' almost universally fawning coverage of the administration's war plans.

For example, Moyers spoke to Bob Simon of 60 Minutes, who in December 2002 reported one of the few major skeptical stories during the run-up to war, exposing as hype the administration's claims that Saddam Hussein was close to acquiring nuclear weapons. How'd he manage to pull it off? I'll let him explain:

BOB SIMON: We were talking to people - to scientists - to scientists and to researchers and to people who had been investigating Iraq from the start.

BILL MOYERS: Would these people have been available to any reporter who called or were they exclusive sources for 60 minutes?

BOB SIMON: No, I think that many of them would have been available to any reporter who called.

BILL MOYERS: And you just picked up the phone?

BOB SIMON: Just picked up the phone.

BILL MOYERS: Talked to them?

BOB SIMON: Talked to them and then went down with the cameras.

BILL MOYERS: Few journalists followed suit. And throughout the fall of 2002 high officials were repeating apocalyptic warnings with virtually no demand from the establishment press for evidence.

Simon wasn't the only heavy hitter Moyers spoke to. Others included Tim Russert, Dan Rather, Walter Isaacson, and many more. Russert in particular looked horribly uncomfortable answering questions about how the administration used his Sunday morning roundtable, Meet the Press, as a marketing vehicle for the war. But at least he was willing to explain his journalistic thought process. I'm no Russert fan. But it took balls to sit for that interview, and history will thank him for it.

Which brings me to Friedman. If you look back at his foreign policy columns starting in late 2002, Friedman regularly provided intellectual heft to utopian neoconservative points of view. He was especially forceful in arguing that picking a fight with Iraq and diverting our attention from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan would give the U.S. the historic chance of remaking an oppressive Middle Eastern dictatorship into a flowering democracy. Then, once the war started to spiral out of control, he refused to backtrack, regularly positing that "the next six months" would be essential to determining if we'd be able to have a decent outcome in Iraq. Of course, on Friedman's calendar six months apparently can last nearly three years, because in more than a dozen instances from December 2003 through May 2006 Friedman floated his "six months" theory. (Check the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting for the entire list.)

But things just continued to get worse, and as we now know all of the rosy predictions about the war were proven to be naively wrong. The idea that a foreign power could invade a country and through extreme violence install democracy in an area that's been resistant to the concept for thousands of years is simply ludicrous. So it's not hard to see why Friedman wouldn't want to talk to Moyers. I'm sure Russert wasn't looking forward to the encounter either. But there's still no excuse for refusing the interview.

Take a look at the people Moyers said he wanted to speak to but couldn't: Roger Ailes, Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Judith Miller, William Safire...and Tom Friedman.

What the fuck is Tom Friedman doing on that list!

It's obvious why all the others refused to be interviewed. Ailes is the head of Fox News - there's no way he's ever talking to Bill Moyers. Ditto Bill Kristol, a neoconservative ideologue with ties to the Bush family going back to his days as Dan Quayle's chief of staff. Charles Krauthammer's one of the loudest braying mules in Rupert Murdoch's stable of conservative jackasses. Former Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail and ultimately lost her job because she was so closely tied to this mess. And former Times columnist William Safire, who predicted that Iraq would emerge as a beacon of democracy for the Arab world, actually received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year. Heckuva job, Billy!

As Euripides once wrote, "Every man is like the company he is wont to keep." When you look at the company Friedman's keeping here, it's a sad state of affairs for someone who once was so revered by so many writers and reporters. Unfortunately, the question now has become: Why on earth would anyone take him or his opinions seriously ever again?