WATCHING THE NEWS

Bad News Bearers
The media won't defeat America by fighting the last war.

BY JAMES TARANTO
The American Spectator, February 2006

In October the U.S. government released a letter found in Iraq and purportedly written by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's No. 2 man, and addressed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terror group's leader in Iraq. "More than half of the battle is taking place on the battlefield of the media," Zawahiri wrote. "We are in a media race for . . . hearts and minds." He added, "The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam--and how they ran and left their agents--is noteworthy."

They say that generals always fight the last war, and the same seems to be true of terrorists--and journalists. But the media today do not have the power they had during the Vietnam era--the power to lose a war.

Here's an example that illustrates both the media's anti-war attitude and their powerlessness: In October the Baltimore Sun ran a story under the headline, "Little Outcry Raised on Iraq." The subhead read: "Md. deaths push toll near 2,000, but public is distracted, experts say."

Consider what this headline tells you about the assumptions that prevail in the newsroom. "Little Outcry Raised on Iraq." Why is the absence of an outcry a story? News consists of the unexpected--man bites dog, not dog bites man. "Little Outcry Raised on Iraq" means that, in the view of the Baltimore Sun, an outcry is to be expected when the country is at war. If there isn't much of one, it means something is wrong: "public is distracted, experts say." The so-called mainstream media are following the Vietnam script, according to which a war is supposed to become a quagmire, which provokes opposition and leads to American withdrawal.

If there is in fact "little outcry," as the Baltimore Sun acknowledges, the media will do their part to help generate such an outcry. So, last summer, we met Cindy Sheehan, whose protest outside President Bush's ranch made her a cause célèbre. Her son, Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, had died in the liberation of Iraq. She opposed the war and believed he had died in vain. The media portrayed her as a grieving everymom; Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times that "the moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute."

Dowd didn't really believe this, of course. The parents of fallen servicemen are a diverse group, but it seems safe to surmise that on average they are more pro-war than the public as a whole. In fact, if the Sheehan protest was news, it was because of the man-bites-dog aspect of it: Her position was at variance with what you would expect from someone who had lost a son in the war.

The problem, though, is that her views were at variance with those of any sane person. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Cindy Sheehan is an anti-American crackpot--and "anti-American crackpot opposes Iraq war" is a dog-bites-man story if ever there was one.

In April, Sheehan had appeared at a San Francisco State University rally in support of Lynne Stewart, a radical lawyer who is awaiting sentencing after conviction on charges of giving material aid to terrorists. There Sheehan opined that "we might not even have been attacked by Osama bin Laden," referred to America as a "morally repugnant system," and said: "This country is not worth dying for."

During her August protest, she gave a speech to an outfit called Veterans for Peace. According to a transcript on the group's website, she said that if the President agreed to meet with her:

I'm gonna say, "And you tell me, what the noble cause is that my son died for." And if he even starts to say freedom and democracy I'm gonna say, bullshit. You tell me the truth. You tell me that my son died for oil. You tell me that my son died to make your friends rich. You tell me my son died to spread the cancer of Pax Americana, imperialism in the Middle East. You tell me that, you don't tell me my son died for freedom and democracy.

Cuz, we're not freer. You're taking away our freedoms. The Iraqi people aren't freer, they're much worse off than before you meddled in their country.

You get America out of Iraq, you get Israel out of Palestine.

In September, after Hurricane Katrina had brought her 15 minutes of fame to an end, Sheehan wrote on the Huffington Post website: "George Bush needs to . . . pull our troops out of occupied New Orleans and Iraq."

All these comments were easily available on the Internet, yet they were seldom mentioned in the news coverage of Sheehan's protest. They didn't fit the script--a script in which Sheehan was playing the role of an ordinary American whose personal tragedy had turned her against the war.

Where did this script come from? Howard Fineman of Newsweek got at it in a provocative essay he wrote in January 2005, after CBS News released the findings of its independent investigation of the phony 60 Minutes story about President Bush's National Guard service. Fineman argued that the journalistic establishment had, in effect, transformed itself into a political party: he called it the American Mainstream Media Party, or AMMP. "The notion of a neutral, non-partisan mainstream press," Fineman wrote, was "pretty much dead":

The seeds of its demise were sown with the best of intentions in the late 1960s, when the AMMP was founded . . . (ironically enough) by CBS. Old folks may remember the moment: Walter Cronkite stepped from behind the podium of presumed objectivity to become an outright foe of the war in Vietnam. Later, he and CBS's star White House reporter, Dan Rather, went to painstaking lengths to make Watergate understandable to viewers, which helped seal Richard Nixon's fate as the first president to resign.

The crusades of Vietnam and Watergate seemed like a good idea at the time, even a noble one, not only to the press but perhaps to a majority of Americans. The problem was that, once the AMMP declared its existence by taking sides, there was no going back. A party was born.

This is not just a matter of "liberal bias." When it comes to matters of war and scandal, journalists see themselves playing a role that is not impartial but adversarial vis--vis the government. But the media's adversarial culture asserts itself far more strongly when a Republican is in the White House.

Yet the ability of the partisan media to shape events is self-limiting. In the 1960s and '70s, journalists had a reputation, built up over decades, for objectivity and fairness--a reputation they have, to a significant degree, squandered. When Walter Cronkite turned against the Vietnam War, it had an impact because he was known as "the most trusted man in America." Is there any journalist today who comes anywhere close to wearing that mantle?

Beyond the media's credibility and public esteem, however, this partisanship today threatens the ability of journalists to do their job. To understand why, consider the Valerie Plame kerfuffle.

To the Democratic left, and to some journalists, this was a combination of Vietnam and Watergate: a scandal that discredited a war and, they imagined, threatened to bring down an administration. The basic story is by now familiar: In 2002 Joe Wilson, a former diplomat, was sent to Niger by the CIA to investigate whether Saddam Hussein had sought to buy yellowcake uranium there. Wilson wrote a July 2003 op-ed piece for the New York Times in which he claimed that his findings discredited the administration's case for war. Later that month columnist Robert Novak reported--accurately--that Wilson had been recommended for the trip by his wife, Valerie Plame, who worked for the CIA.

Wilson denied that Plame had recommended him, a denial that turned out to be false. He also alleged that the administration officials who identified her to Novak had violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, a 1982 law designed to protect covert CIA operatives. This charge also was false. To be protected by the act, an operative has to have been stationed overseas within the preceding five years. In his 2004 book, The Politics of Truth, Wilson wrote that Plame's last overseas assignment was in 1997--six years before Novak's column appeared.

But the Angry Left, led by several bloggers and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, seized upon Wilson's charge. Meanwhile, the CIA made a routine request to the Justice Department to investigate the "leaking" of classified information. In September 2003, when that request was leaked to news organizations, a drumbeat began for a special prosecutor. A New York Times editorial in October called the revelation of Plame's identity "an egregious abuse of power" tantamount to "the disclosure of troop movements in wartime." On New Year's Eve 2003, another Times editorial cheered the Justice Department's decision to appoint Patrick Fitzgerald as special prosecutor: "The Right Thing, at Last," read the headline.

Here we had journalists applauding the investigation of government officials whose supposed crime consisted of providing accurate information to reporters. This seems a self-defeating position for the press--which depends on officials to leak information for stories--to take. In a February 2004 Times op-ed piece, Geneva Overholser, a journalism professor and former Times editorialist, gave away the game, explaining her colleagues' sudden hostility to "the public's right to know":

As a piece of journalism, the Novak column raises disturbing ethical questions. He apparently turned a time-honored use of confidentiality--protecting a whistleblower from government retribution--on its head, delivering government retribution to the whistleblower instead.
To Overholser, then, journalistic ethics apply differently depending on which side the journalist is on. Reporters are entitled to protect their sources, but only if they are against the government. At any rate, Joe Wilson is hardly a friend of freedom of the press. At an event outside the 2004 Democratic convention, Wilson suggested that his critics in the press--he singled out Times columnist William Safire and the Wall Street Journal editorial page--were part of a criminal conspiracy against him.

We live in a nation of laws, and legal principles must be neutral. Either journalists are privileged to protect their sources or they are not. Unleashing a special prosecutor to investigate a "leak" amounts to an endorsement of the idea that they are not, and it's hardly surprising that Fitzgerald sought to compel testimony from several reporters, including the Times's own Judith Miller.

With Fitzgerald threatening to throw Miller in jail, the Times did an astonishing turnabout. In February 2005 it published an editorial noting the "real possibility that the disclosure of Ms. Plame's identity . . . may not have violated any law." The paper had finally realized that the Fitzgerald investigation posed a threat to the practice of journalism. But it was too late. In July, Judy Miller went to jail.

From a journalistic standpoint, the result was about as damaging an outcome as was possible. The Times portrayed itself and Miller as making a brave stand for principle. It repeatedly editorialized that there was no point in keeping her behind bars, for she would never crack. Then, after almost three months, she cracked. As the influential blogger Mickey Kaus noted:

The message sent to every prosecutor in the country is "Don't believe journalists who say they will never testify. A bit of hard time and they just might find a reason to change their minds. Judy Miller did."
In the Plame kerfuffle, then, the mainstream media, and especially the Times, got so carried away with crusading against the Bush administration that they lost sight even of the institutional imperative to protect the ability of reporters to gather the news. As this article goes to press, the Justice Department has announced that it is investigating who leaked information to the Washington Post about alleged secret detention facilities in Eastern Europe and to the New York Times about telephone surveillance of Americans linked to al Qaeda leaders--matters that, unlike the Plame disclosure, do have serious national-security implications. Will prosecutors follow the Plame precedent and demand testimony from reporters on penalty of incarceration? If so, adversarial journalists will turn out to have been their own worst enemy.

It's easy to list examples of media bias against the war effort. Just from last autumn: The battle of Tal Afar got far less coverage than the artificial "milestone" of 2,000 Americans dead (which includes suicides and accidents as well as combat fatalities). In November, U.S. Representative John Murtha, a longtime war critic, received endless attention for his proposal of immediate withdrawal; Senator Joe Lieberman's declaration that he believed America was winning was largely ignored.

The Sunday after last Thanksgiving, NBC's Tim Russert hosted a Meet the Press roundtable with four Washington journalists: the Washington Post's David Broder and Eugene Robinson, NBC's David Gregory, and Judy Woodruff, formerly of CNN. Robinson captured the tenor of the discussion when he said "there's general agreement" in Washington "that there will be a mess in Iraq when U.S. troops finally withdraw." Russert suggested that the President should be "backing off his stated goal of democracy in Iraq," and none of the panelists disagreed. None of them acknowledged that elections in Iraq were two and a half weeks away. It was as if that news had not penetrated the Beltway media bubble.

It would be fatuous to deny that this dour drumbeat of defeatism has some effect on public opinion, which after all is driven by the most fickle members of the public. By last fall, polls consistently showed that a majority of Americans thought it had been a mistake to liberate Iraq, though some 70 percent had favored the war when the shooting began in March 2003. But a majority continue to oppose a precipitous withdrawal. Most Americans, it seems, do not want another Vietnam, which they understand to mean a self-inflicted American defeat.

The media's one-sided coverage may actually undermine the anti-war cause. It does a disservice to anti-war politicians by giving them the impression that the public is fully behind them--an echo-chamber effect similar to that which helped John Kerry lose the election of 2004 (see TAS, "Kerry's Quagmire," July/August 2005). Thus in December, when Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean responded to the media panic by declaring that "the idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that, unfortunately, it's just plain wrong," fellow Democrats scrambled to distance themselves from him.

And the media's adversarial approach has proved costly in public trust. In a Pew Center survey conducted in early November, just after the indictment of Scooter Libby, only half of those polled said the press was fair to the Bush administration. The President's approval rating in the same poll was just 36 percent, so this was far from a pro-Bush poll.

Little wonder traditional media are losing audience share to such opinionated "new media" as talk radio, Fox News Channel, and blogs. New forms of media would pose a challenge to old ones anyway, but the mainstream media are now getting competition on content as well. As a Wall Street Journal editorial put it in 2004:

For decades liberal media elites were able to define current debates by all kicking in the same direction, like the Rockettes. . . . But the last month [this was during the imbroglio over CBS's faked National Guard memos] has widened cracks in that media monopoly that have been developing for some time.
With the mainstream media facing a skeptical public and competition from those with other viewpoints, it seems unlikely that Iraq will turn out to be another Vietnam--a war lost in large part because of the media's opposition. Certainly President Bush is determined to stay the course. And it's quite possible that if U.S. troops are still in Iraq in large numbers by 2008, the presidential nominees for both major parties will promise to bring them home--and the winner, once in office, will find he cannot do so.

There's one wild card in all this: the possibility of another large-scale terrorist attack on America. It's natural to assume that the public would respond to such an attack the way it responded to 9/11: by rallying around the President with a renewed sense of militancy.

But would it? The difference between today and September 10, 2001, is that back then terrorism was not uppermost in most Americans' minds. We have now been having a debate for more than four years about how best to combat terrorism. President Bush's opponents have argued that his offensive strategy--fighting terrorists overseas, both directly and by attempting to reform the political culture of the Middle East--has actually encouraged terrorism. They would likely respond to another attack by claiming it had proved the failure of that strategy. This argument would be wrongheaded, but another terrorist attack would make it seem plausible.

Yet there is no going back to the status quo ante September 11. Another terrorist attack would create an irresistible public demand for a new strategy, especially if the Bush strategy is rejected wholesale. An offensive strategy having been found wanting, the likely response would be a defensive strategy--a retreat into isolationism and an emphasis on homeland security. Its elements could include genuine curtailments of civil liberties, an end to the taboo against ethnic and religious profiling, restrictions on immigration, and heightened security that introduces enormous inconveniences into everyday life while constraining the flow of people and goods into America.

This would be a nightmare for liberals, and for all of us who care about freedom, prosperity, and American engagement in the world. Those who are troubled by the Bush administration's aggressive approach to terrorism and tyranny in the Middle East should be careful what they wish for.

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