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Media takes heat from administration over Iraq

As news from Iraq gets darker, the U.S. administration has shown an increasing desire to portray the coverage as too negative -- a move some see as a hedge against disaster. Blame the media -- Brave New World.
Major General Geoffrey D. Miller, who took command of the Abu Ghraib prison in April, talks to reporters at the prison outside Baghdad last week.Damir Sagolj / Pool

On one thing Iraq war supporters and opponents agree: The news from Iraq beamed, served and delivered to Americans since the beginning of the year has been abysmal. Soaring U.S. casualties and costs, abuse in U.S. jails, assassinations of top Iraqi allies, the dual Sunni and Shiite risings, a scandalous lack of armor for American vehicles, defecting coalition allies and, most ignominiously for those who designed this war, a sheepish collapse back into the arms of the United Nations. Oh, and did we mention: Osama bin Laden is still at large.

Confronted with this drumbeat of dismay, senior administration officials are lashing out at American journalists, adding their official voices to the chorus of talk radio, conservative Web site and newspaper columnists for whom there is no more filthy three syllable word than “media.” From seemingly casual asides in remarks by President Bush to outright attacks and boycotts orchestrated by Bush administration allies, a strong subtext is being transmitted with the normally optimistic line of the day — that the media is undermining support for the war.

“Call it a fallback strategy: the media lost the war,” says Tom Rosenstiel, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent who now runs the non-profit Project for Excellence in Journalism. “It’s very convenient politically for an administration that’s under fire for its war policy to blame the messenger. But realistically, what is the problem now? It is the increased violence in Iraq, the prison scandal — which is no media creation — and the huge question of whether the entire policy was wrongheaded from the start.”

Nattering nabobs
In recent weeks, several top officials joined in this campaign.

To date, there has been nothing like the broadside unleashed in 1970 by Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, who decried the “doom and gloom” over Vietnam and said: “We have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. The [media] have formed their own 4H Club, the ‘Hopeless, Hysterical Hypochondriacs of History’.”

But high-level talk of the media as a force undermining the war effort can be viewed as something of a right-wing ideological hedge against geopolitical disaster in Iraq or political disaster at the polls in November.

With a mix of spontaneous remarks, carefully crafted press releases and interviews with friendly outlets, the quiet, private disdain for the media has come out of the White House closet.

Last week in interviews granted to an administration friendly paper, The Washington Times, White House chief of staff Andrew Card and Secretary of State Colin Powell attacked the media’s frequent references to Vietnam in stories about Iraq.

"The press is fixated on Vietnam," Powell said. "Everybody says, 'Powell and all those generals still suffer from Vietnam Syndrome.' No, I don't."

Card went further, claiming that “the media, in my opinion, kind of wants to relive the Vietnam experience."

This echoed Bush’s own remarks in early March when he answered a reporter’s question about the Vietnam comparison by saying, “I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops, and sends the wrong message to the enemy.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, being interviewed by the notoriously anti-Bush lefties at FOX, lashed out at Brit Hume for suggesting that Iraq was on a downward trajectory.

“Look, we're in a war and it’s tough, and it’s dangerous, and no one’s trying to put a smiley face on anything,” he said. “But by golly, when you've got that many Iraqis, 100,000, now providing for their own security, where you have a Governing Council and a bunch of ministers, and you have a central bank and you have a new currency, and you have all the universities and colleges open, and the hospitals are open, and there was not a humanitarian crisis — sitting around wringing your hands and saying, ‘It’s horrible, it’s horrible, everything’s terrible,’ is nonsense. It isn't all terrible. There's some darn good stuff happening.”

Similarly, Vice President Dick Cheney recently offered the news media some advice of his own with regard to coverage of the Iraq prison abuse scandal:  “Don Rumsfeld is the best secretary of defense the United States has ever had,” Cheney said in a written statement as pressure for Rumsfeld’s resignation built. “People ought to get off his case and let him do his job.”

No news is good news
Ironically, as conservatives denounced the new scrutiny being applied to the administration, the increasing friction between the White House and the media — particularly inside the cozy world of Washington press corps — is viewed as long overdue in the industry.

A report released Monday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that most journalists feel the Bush administration got a free pass after the attacks of Sept. 11. In a poll of journalists and news executives, Pew reports that “the poll finds that many journalists —­ especially those in the national media — believe that the press has not been critical enough of President Bush. Majorities of print and broadcast journalists at national news organizations believe the press has been insufficiently critical of the administration.”

Conservatives, no doubt, will merely regard this as more evidence that the media is, in the words of John Hawkins, the founder of the conservative Web site Right Wing News, “so biased that they've essentially allowed themselves to become the most powerful weapon in our enemy's arsenals.”

But journalists see this quite differently.

“Blaming the media is a tried and true method charlatans use to distract from bad news,” says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics & Public Policy. “They certainly were not complaining when the media was reporting nothing but good news. But the good news turned bad and we’re reporting it and now they don’t like it.”

As the administration begins the search in earnest for scapegoats other than their ideological blueprint for the Iraq war, the media clearly will give them a very large and time-tested target. As the Pew report points out, those in the national media identify themselves, increasingly, as centrist or left-of-center.

“In terms of their overall ideological outlook, majorities of national (54 percent) and local journalists (61 percent) continue to describe themselves as moderates. The percentage identifying themselves as liberal has increased from 1995: 34 percent of national journalists describe themselves as liberals, compared with 22 percent nine years ago.”

Two-way street

More recent criticisms of media coverage — like the under-reporting of the use of sarin gas in a roadside bombing recently — also will play in any future “who lost Iraq” argument. As Rosenstiel points out, the sarin story didn't jibe with the “master narrative” of the moment — which is Iraq spinning out of control. “We used to call this pack journalism, and it is a real problem. That was under-reported. There is no doubt about that.”

So, too, will controversial judgment calls, like the significantly higher level of play given to the Iraq prison photos vs. the beheading of American contractor Nicolas Berg, or the decision of ABC News “Nightline” to devote an entire hour to a photo montage of American soldiers killed in Iraq.

If there is any hopeful sign in the recent deterioration of relations between the media and the Bush administration, it may be that while the “media as the enemy” theory may be all the rage at the White House, the media is not the problem in the eyes of the military.

Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, confirms in his new book, “Battle Ready,” what generals and other senior commanders began telling this column in the winter of 2002: Iraq was the wrong move at the wrong time.

“Guys like [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz were given a lot of rope on this, and somehow in this administration, they don’t manage to hang themselves with it,” says a long-time defense department official.

Wolfowitz, like most national security officials these days, has limited his public appearances to what is perceived to be friendly territory — military colleges, conservative think-tanks and the pro-Israeli lobby, to name a few recent events.

At one such talk recently, at the National Defense University, he faced deep skepticism from a cadre of American military officers there. “He was unbelievably arrogant,” says a senior instructor who attended the lecture. “He refused to take any questions. He just spat his ideas at us, then left. He made it clear there is no room in their view for the idea that they have made errors. The blame, to them, lays elsewhere. My students — and these are high ranking guys — they were shocked.”

At the risk of being branded as one with an obsession, it bears noting that many senior officers who cut their teeth in Vietnam are to this day deeply disturbed about the role the media played in the erosion of U.S. public support. In Iraq, however, military officials whose jobs are not on a Washington career path are not of that mind.

“What's gone wrong here is not about perception,” says the Pentagon official. “The uniformed guys warned about it and were told to can it. The problem is bigger than that.”