Media Culpa

Why is it so hard for some journalists to learn the lessons of rushing to war and political propagandizing?

In recent months, astute readers of the nation's two most influential daily newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, were treated to apologies – which were fairly well buried – from senior editorial staff for not covering the Bush administration's rush to war with appropriate skepticism and investigative thoroughness.

"We consider the story of Iraq's weapons, and the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business," concluded a May 26th, 2004, editorial in the Times, "And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight."

At the Post on Aug. 11, 2004, Howard Kurtz, a media critic and staff writer, wrote a lengthy column exploring why articles questioning the threat from Iraq repeatedly didn't make the front page. One answer, attributed by Kurtz to Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks, was, "There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?"

The reason to worry about all 'this contrary stuff' is the pro-war propagandizing hasn't gone away – it's become exhibit A in the president's re-election campaign. Just recall the recent Republican National Convention and then consider President Bush's "bounce" in the polls since he left Madison Square Garden.

If editorial writers, news analysts and war reporters at the top agenda-setting newspapers in the country turned a critical eye to the assertions made by Republicans leaders and the president himself during the convention – that only their party and this White House can deliver strong, decisive leadership in war and make the world safer – it's a fair bet the Bush bounce wouldn't have been so big. But that examination hasn't really happened, notwithstanding the mea culpas.

Republicans say the president's war record reveals everything they want to campaign on. So why not examine the Bush record – and the current campaign assertions based on it – in a critical but fair-minded way?

If, as the GOP says, this election is all about leadership and character, does it matter the president and cabinet repeatedly mischaracterized the Iraqi weapons threat? Surely, State of the Union speeches to Americans and U.N. Security Council speeches to the world declaring threats that failed to materialize do matter. Being wrong isn't being strong.

On the charge that only Republicans can be decisive (because the Democrats are "girlie-men"), who says making quick decisions is making smart ones? It was decisive of Paul Bremer, when heading the U.S. occupation, to disband the Iraqi Army. That decision, leaving thousands of men jobless, no doubt has helped fan the Iraqi insurgency.

Similarly, the decision by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Bremer to fully dismiss the State Department's post-war Iraqi planning, also was made quickly. These two decisions alone, were turning points in creating a vacuum that's since been filled with chaos, violence and American fatalities.

And on the question of whether Americans and the world is safer because of unflinching policies, one has to question whether the constant drumbeat of fear-mongering at home and hard-line anti-terror policies by U.S. allies abroad, notably Israel in the Palestinian territories and Russia in Chechnya, has created a climate where terrorism is ascendant or in decline.

There is a Bush administration record, just as there are real grievances held by terrorists. So why aren't influential journalists comparing the grandiose assertions we hear on the campaign trail with the realities of the past three years? That's not being girlie-men. That's being journalists.

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