washingtonpost.com
The Lukewarm Truth
Unable to Lock In on Elusive Facts, News Outlets Hear It From All Sides

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 MoveOn.org 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.

Craig's denials seem even shakier, considering that the Idaho Republican pleaded guilty in the Minnesota bathroom bust he is now challenging in court. The Idaho Statesman has quoted another source who claims he had a sexual encounter with Craig in a Union Station bathroom. The senator's flat denials can certainly be portrayed as straining credulity, but there is no definitive proof that he engaged in gay sexual misconduct.

Gonzales stepped down as attorney general last week after newspaper accounts repeatedly demonstrated that he had made false or misleading statements. New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt wondered why his paper didn't brand Gonzales a liar, instead of using such formulations as: "An accumulating body of evidence is at odds with the statements of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales." Hoyt concluded that he doesn't want to return to an era "when public figures were routinely called liars, traitors, thieves, drunks and adulterers in newspapers."

The media's passive regurgitation of administration spin during the run-up to the war underscores the weakness of simply quoting dueling spokesmen. But aggressive reporting doesn't mean convicting people or taking sides in wartime, however much that might please the partisans.

Powell's Non-Interview

A few months ago, Colin Powell says, a puzzled acquaintance sent him a copy of an interview with the former secretary of state that appeared in the French magazine Politique Internationale, under the byline of Alexis Debat.

"We scratched our heads for weeks and said, 'Who is this guy?' " Powell says. "We checked our calendars and couldn't find any record of him. I said 'What the hell' and forgot it." Using his cursory French, Powell says, "it looked like things I say all the time."

When Debat, a former ABC News consultant, admitted last week putting his name on interviews he did not conduct with Barack Obama and other prominent figures, Powell's spokeswoman, Peggy Cifrino, called the magazine to complain. The editor was "very apologetic and mortified," Cifrino says. Politique Internationale says it is a victim of Debat's fabrications.

Debat insists his role was to draft questions for the interviews, but Powell isn't buying. "I didn't realize the guy had created a whole industry of false interviews," he says.

The Real Cafferty File

Jack Cafferty doesn't pull punches in his CNN commentaries or, it turns out, in telling his life story.

His father was a drunk who subjected him to "verbal and emotional abuse." His mother was a drunk who attempted suicide. And he was a drunk who often went on the air after imbibing. Even when he was co-anchoring the top-rated newscast at New York's WNBC, "I was unhappy all the time -- miserable, verbally or emotionally explosive, short-fused, thin-skinned, moody and angry."

Cafferty makes these confessions in a memoir, "It's Getting Ugly Out There," that combines his trademark rants -- mainly against the Bush administration -- with some searing confessions.

"If I was going to write a book reflecting what I am," he says in an interview, "I owed it to people to provide some context about me. It was a little bit painful to go back and go through it, but I had to do it. Some of the things I say are a little out there." Cafferty says his background helps explain his constant challenges to authority.

After breaking into television on a Reno station as "Ranger Jack" on a kids' show, the college dropout found his first marriage collapsing, in part under the weight of his hard drinking. That continued during Cafferty's second marriage and during his days as a New York anchor. "I never went on as a stumbling, bumbling, slurring drunk, but I did a lot of shows with alcohol in my system," he says.

Cafferty says he realized in 1989 that "if I didn't make changes, I would be jeopardizing my marriage, and I didn't want to challenge my old man's record. He and my mother had 11 marriages between them, and it would have been 12 if he hadn't killed one" -- a fiancee who died in a car accident while he was driving drunk.

Cafferty quit drinking that year and also gave up smoking after suffering a collapsed lung. He stopped sending his father checks after concluding that he was blowing the money on booze. They were estranged for a decade, although there was a reconciliation before his death.

On CNN's "Situation Room" he often seems angry, but Cafferty says cranky is a better description. "I think a certain amount of civic outrage is long overdue in this country," he says.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company