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A Turning Point on Iraq

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2006; 8:21 AM

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?"

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