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On Iraq, Pointed Questions With an Edge

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2006

Have the media declared war on the war?

In increasingly aggressive questions to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, in a growing focus on the death toll in Iraq, in downbeat assessments on the invasion's third anniversary, many journalists now reflect the view that the war has gone horribly wrong.

Perhaps this simply reflects the stark reality of the suicide bombings, roadside explosions and mosque attacks that have come to dominate the reporting from Iraq. Or perhaps, as Cheney put it on "Face the Nation," journalists provide a distorted "perception" of Iraq "because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad."

What is undeniable is that the tone of much of the coverage matches the public-opinion polls showing that a majority of the country has turned against the conflict.

"One thing that would explain it is there's even more bad news from Iraq and other places -- Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea," says Ken Auletta, media writer for the New Yorker. "But even that doesn't fully explain the harshness of the reportage. With two-thirds of the public not approving of Bush's performance, it becomes open season on him. And when conservatives start attacking him, reporters are given more cover."

But Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter says journalists were never cheerleaders for the war. "You can find tough-minded stories in a lot of newspapers and magazines going back three years," he says. "It does a disservice to hardworking reporters, in some cases risking their lives, to make it seem like in one week they go from pro-war to antiwar."

The journalists certainly don't see themselves as antiwar. But the way they frame many stories about Iraq sliding toward civil war carries echoes of Vietnam, when the media coverage turned sharply critical as the country soured on that jungle war.

Consider the questions asked at Bush's news conference last week.

ABC's Jessica Yellin: "Are you willing to sacrifice American lives to keep Iraqis from killing one another?"

CNN's Kathleen Koch: "Do you believe [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld should resign?"

USA Today's David Jackson: "Are you concerned that the Iraq experience is going to embolden authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and make it tougher to get democracy there?"

Bob Deans of Cox News: "Is there a point at which having the American forces in Iraq becomes more a part of the problem than a part of the solution?"

The Washington Post's Jim VandeHei: Polls show "a growing number of Americans are questioning the trustworthiness of you and this White House. Does that concern you?"

Hearst columnist Helen Thomas: "Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true."

In his CBS interview with Cheney, Bob Schieffer said: "Let me ask you about this charge of incompetence, because we hear that not just about Iraq, but we hear it more -- and being raised sometimes by members of your own party on a variety of issues -- the bumbling after Katrina, the Harriet Miers nomination, the failure to see the political implications of the Dubai Ports deal."

When the networks did their three-year anniversary pieces, reciting the mounting death toll, the picture that emerged was bleak. NBC's Richard Engel in Baghdad: "Since the U.S. invasion, there has not been a single day without mortar fire, car bombings or IED attacks."

ABC's Dan Harris in Baghdad: "The situation for many here has worsened. Since the war, millions of Iraqis no longer have drinkable water. In Baghdad, there's electricity for fewer than eight hours a day, compared to 18 before. And in a country with so much oil, today there are unfathomably long gas lines."

But ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas reminded viewers that before her co-anchor, Bob Woodruff, was injured by a roadside bomb in late January, he did a story on a thriving Baghdad ice cream shop, and that her December trip to Iraq included a piece on a ballet school.

Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio talk show host who recently spent eight days in Iraq, says some soldiers complained to her that their views, which were mixed, aren't being reflected by the media.

"It's not about painting a rosy picture," she says. "It's not about putting all good news out there. It's about there being some context. It's not just explosions every day, and that is primarily what is seen, in snapshots and flashes. And that does over time cement the public's view that this is irretrievably a disaster and the whole nation is in flames."

When news organizations focus overwhelmingly on insurgent attacks, Ingraham says, "it begins to look like you're invested in America's defeat."

That sounds like political overstatement. But if journalists seem far more aggressive these days, it may be because their performance contrasts sharply with the period after the Sept. 11 attacks and in the run-up to the war, when news organizations have conceded they did an inadequate job examining the administration's WMD claims.

"We were attacked," Auletta says. "We are citizens. We felt as vulnerable as our leaders in Washington. Bush and the government got more of a free pass."

The record shows that administration charges that reporters in Iraq are ignoring signs of progress are not true, although most journalists say the dangerous conditions make it difficult to talk to ordinary Iraqis. But sometimes the unrelenting violence has a way of intruding on the news agenda.

While in Baghdad, ABC's Jake Tapper was working on a light feature about an Iraqi station's sitcom. While his cameras were rolling, word came that the manager of the entertainment division had been assassinated. That, of course, became the story.

Scalp Hunter

It has been one of the capital's minor mysteries: Who would set up a Web site for the avowed purpose of getting NBC to fire David Gregory?

The person behind FireDavidGregory.com is Ian Schwartz, an 18-year-old college student in Baltimore.

Schwartz's political leanings can be divined from his other Web site, Expose the Left, which runs headlines such as: "AP Writes Yet Another Anti-War Story," "Al Franken Continues Tirade Against Cheney" and "Liberal Lie: Dick Durbins [sic] Claims He Supports Our Troops."

Schwartz says in an interview that "I generally have a distaste for the mainstream media." Asked why he singled out Gregory, Schwartz cites the White House correspondent's overly aggressive questioning over the Dick Cheney hunting accident and an appearance with Don Imus in which the radio host joked that Gregory must be drunk (later soberly denied by Gregory).

"I know it's his job to get answers," Schwartz says, but his online petition -- which he says was signed by 3,200 people -- was a way of "telling him to cool it. I'm just glad it got coverage."

"I didn't take it very seriously," Gregory says of the site, but he sees it as a sign of a broader phenomenon:

"What concerns me is that it's increasingly true that people are viewing the news and political coverage through their own ideological lens. It's wrong to mistake aggressive reporting for political bias. It's a mistake to ascribe motives to people who cover the White House day in and day out. People watch me in a briefing and draw a conclusion based on that. They won't even wait to see what I report."

Trust but Verify

Five days after acknowledging that it had misidentified a former Abu Ghraib prisoner as the hooded man on a box captured in an infamous photo, the New York Times ran a correction last week of its profile of Donna Fenton, a self-described Hurricane Katrina victim from Biloxi, Miss. After police charged Fenton with fraud and grand larceny, saying she had never lived in Biloxi, the paper said it "did not conduct adequate interviews or public record checks to verify Ms. Fenton's account."

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