Talking Points by Terry M. Neal

Drowning Out the Real Issues

By Terry M. Neal Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005; 6:28 AM

A certain and clear pattern has emerged when a damaging accusation or claim against the Bush administration or the Republican-led Congress is publicized: Bush supporters laser in on a weakness, fallacy or inaccuracy in the story's sourcing while diverting all attention from the issue at hand to the source or the accuser in the story.

Often this tactic involves efforts to delegitimize the entire news media based on the mistakes or sloppy reporting of a few. We saw this with the discrediting of CBS's story on irregularities in President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service in the 1970s. Although the CBS "scoop" was based on faked documents, the administration's response and backlash from both conservative and mainstream media essentially relieved Bush of having to deal with the story. In other words, the allegedly "liberal" media dropped the story like a hot rock.

We saw ex-members of the Bush administration -- former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill, former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John M. Shalikashvili and former director of faith-based charities John J. DiIulio Jr. --  similarly attacked by conservative bloggers and columnists. The mainstream media eventually backed away from coverage of their claims as well.

And of course, we saw this most recently with the Newsweek debacle, in which the news magazine repeated an accusation that military interrogators had flushed a Koran down a toilet. The Newsweek report was used by militants in Afghanistan to incite violent protests in which 17 people died. The ensuing backlash among conservative critics has included accusations that the report proves that media hate the military, hate the United States, hate George W. Bush and purposefully lied to hurt all of the above.

The National Review's Rich Lowry wrote Newsweek "bought into shady assumptions, partly because of the media's dire view of the U.S. military.  And so the media party continues its decline." The Wall Street Journal editorial opined that the error stemmed from media's and Newsweek's "mistrust of the military that goes back to Vietnam." And conservative media watchdog L. Brent Bozell III wrote that it was "tragic that the liberal media are willing to believe the most exotic rumors about the depredations of President Bush and the U.S. military, long before they've been verified and long after they've been retracted."

This particular "exotic rumor," of course, comes post-Abu Ghraib and in the wake of reports from the International Red Cross going back at least two years about mishandling of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay.

Some liberal Web sites and bloggers have been no less breathlessly hyperbolic, accusing the entire "corporate" mainstream media of caving in to conservative and White House pressure -- a far-fetched notion given the extent of reporting about Abu Ghraib and other abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

The liberal Web site has been screaming about Newsweek's retraction for a week. Liberal writer Greg Palast wrote in his blog: "But I don't want to leave out our President. His aides report that George Bush is "angry" about the report -- not the desecration of the Koran, but the reporting of it. And so long as George is angry and Condi appalled, Newsweek knows what to do: swiftly grab its corporate ankles and ask the White House for mercy."

True, the Newsweek story was based on a single source, who turned out not to  be as reliable as Newsweek thought he or she was. But the conservatives who view the Newsweek report as proof positive that a cabal of liberal baddies is out to persecute powerless conservatives are conveniently ignoring the fact that the main Newsweek reporter in question, Michael Isikoff, was among the people most responsible for Bill Clinton's impeachment. (It was the Drudge Report's item about Isikoff's spiked story and his subsequent stories that set off the Monicagate frenzy.) Also, Isikoff's questionable use of a single source is fairly standard practice among Washington journalists of all ideological stripes.

For conservatives and liberals alike, attacking the media has become a cottage industry, the very thing that drives both talk radio and blogs. Delegitimizing the media is seen as a legitimate way by some to protect those you support politically from the media's critical eye.

To be clear about something, the Bush administration's attacks on Newsweek don't represent a new phenomenon. The Clinton administration often attacked its accusers and criticized unflattering media reports. The big difference is that the Clinton administration didn't have any such supportive echo chamber of talk radio and blogs that now exist to amplify it.

It was almost surreal listening to White House spokesman Scott McClellan describing the fallout from the now-retracted Newsweek.

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