The Lukewarm Truth

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2007

Capturing reality is harder than it seems.

As Gen. David Petraeus's long-awaited testimony last week failed to sway the debate over the war, partisans on both sides castigated the media for what remains a blurry picture of Iraq. Why, they ask, can't journalists cut through the fog and deliver an accurate portrait of how the unpopular conflict is going?

This frustration with journalism extends to a slew of other controversies. Is Sen. David Vitter being truthful in denying involvement with a New Orleans prostitute who was paid by Hustler magazine? Is Sen. Larry Craig dissembling when he denies soliciting sex in a men's room? Did Alberto Gonzales give faulty testimony and merely make misstatements about various Justice Department controversies, or is he a liar?

Why can't news organizations resolve these disputes? Are they afraid to take a stand? Or is there no realistic way to do what the critics demand without becoming partisans?

Liberal blogger Arianna Huffington charges that "too many in the Washington press corps want to pretend they are leaving the question of 'what is truth' to their readers -- refusing to admit that there is even such a thing as truth. . . . The administration has faith that, because of the way too many in the press operate, all it has to do is sow doubt."

But news organizations have challenged the administration's assessment, while recognizing that the situation is complicated. The Washington Post, for example, reported: "The U.S. military's claim that violence has decreased sharply in Iraq in recent months has come under scrutiny from many experts within and outside the government, who contend that some of the underlying statistics are questionable and selectively ignore negative trends."

The New York Times said its reporters "found that the additional troops had slowed, but far from stopped, Iraq's still-burning civil war. Baghdad remains a city where sectarian violence can flare at any moment."

And CNN's Michael Ware said that President Bush, in his Thursday address, had painted a "picture of a Baghdad that exists only in the president's mind."

When CBS's Katie Couric provided a mixed report from Iraq -- including the observation that "there are definitely areas where the situation is improving" -- the liberal assailed the anchor for "her blind repetition of Bush talking points." But Couric was trying to get at the elusive truth. Is only negative reporting on the war considered acceptable?

The president, meanwhile, took a swipe at the press by saying that signs of progress in Anbar province "do not often make the headlines -- but they do make a difference." Most major news outlets have reported the reduced violence in Anbar, even while questioning whether that success can be replicated elsewhere.

Vitter has refused to answer press questions since his number turned up in the so-called "D.C. Madam's" phone records. But since the Louisiana Republican apologized for his sins -- which he did not enumerate -- journalists got a second shot at the controversy when a New Orleans prostitute named Wendy Cortez claimed last week that he was a regular customer in 1999. Vitter has strongly denied that.

The problem is that Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, who trotted out Cortez, is paying her to pose for his magazine, a transaction that instantly undermines her credibility. So while Vitter's avoidance of the press fuels doubts about his account, it doesn't mean Cortez -- even with a lie-detector test arranged by Flynt -- is telling the truth.

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