Hamlet may have exaggerated when he said that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” but he did hit on an important public-relations truth. And when it comes to the Iraq war, the conventional thinking these days is that we have gotten ourselves into something very bad indeed. Many parties share the blame for creating that perception, but none more than the mainstream media, which have exercised an almost prosecutorial zeal in impugning the war at every turn.
For too long, the Bush administration has seemed to let the media’s biases go unchallenged, even as support for the war dipped to new lows. That’s why we’re so glad to see the Bush administration fighting back. Donald Rumsfeld’s Monday speech at Johns Hopkins University about the media’s coverage of Iraq came not a moment too soon. Among his many excellent points was the following:
We’ve arrived at a strange time in this country where the worst about America and our military seems to so quickly be taken as truth by the press, and reported and spread around the world, often with little context and little scrutiny, let alone correction or accountability after the fact. I understand that there may be great pressure on many of them to tell a dramatic story. And while it’s easy to use a bombing or a terrorist attack to support that interest, it is not always the most accurate story, or at least not the full story.
Here Rumsfeld cited the notorious and unfounded Koran-flushing story, but he could have mentioned any number of examples. There was the media’s obsessive fixation on the abuses at Abu Ghraib; its anointing of John Murtha as a cause célèbre; its idolatrous attitude toward Cindy Sheehan.
Or, to take a slightly less well-known episode, there is the story of Jimmy Massey, an Iraq veteran who joined the antiwar movement upon returning home and told crowds that he had witnessed American troops committing unspeakable atrocities. Dozens of media outlets, including the Associated Press and the Washington Post, published stories on Massey without questioning the validity of his allegations. Finally, Ron Harris of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who had been embedded with Massey’s unit, took his calling as a reporter seriously and investigated Massey’s claims–each of which, he concluded, “is either demonstrably false or exaggerated.”
That not all reporters are biased, or that some excellent journalism has come from Iraq, we do not deny. But Ron Harris should be the rule, not the exception. Reporters often defend their refusal to give the military the benefit of the doubt by saying that any good reporter is skeptical. But what Rumsfeld noted–and what stories like Harris’s reveal–is that, for many in the mainstream press, that skepticism is a one-way street.
Nowhere is this more evident that in the media’s reports of President Bush’s recent statements on Iraq. Consider the Washington Post’s coverage of Bush’s speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday:
Bush also pointed out that more than half of the voters in Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital, voted in the October referendum for the constitution–although he did not mention that 56 percent of voters rejected proposed laws for a new Iraq. Just 10 percent more in that region would have doomed the constitution and forced Iraqis to go to the polls Dec. 15 not to elect a permanent government, as scheduled, but to select another interim government.
These tendentious insertions after Bush’s point amount to a partisan rebuttal in the guise of impartial reporting. Statements from the likes of John Kerry and Howard Dean are never coupled with similarly quarrelsome observations. One begins to suspect that the Kerrys and Deans of the world are given more generous treatment than the president simply because they are making arguments with which the reporters covering them agree.
Predictably, the press reacted to Rumsfeld’s speech with a defensiveness bordering on the paranoiac. Reuters reported that Rumsfeld “assailed” the coverage and “accused” journalists. Editor & Publisher declared the “gloves off” and compared Rumsfeld’s “attack” to Nixon’s strategy of blaming the media during Vietnam. Nearly all accounts of the speech focused less on Rumsfeld’s arguments than on reports that military contractors had paid Iraqi newspapers to place stories about U.S. and Iraqi successes against terrorism. (See NRO’s editorial on that subject.)
The media’s animosity tends to substantiate Rumsfeld’s critique. Rumsfeld’s speech wasn’t nearly as condemnatory as these reports imply. If anything, he was restrained: He granted the “good intentions of the people in the media”; he did not accuse them of having a political agenda; and he concluded simply by asking them “how history will judge [their reporting] some decades from now when Iraq’s path is settled.”
The historical judgment of a journalist’s work is, of course, not his primary concern. But the success or failure of our venture in Iraq is something in which all have a stake–and if we still have a will to victory, we should care a great deal about whether the media are doing a good job of what is their primary concern: telling the whole truth.