William Arkin, a military analyst who writes a blog for The Washington Post's Web site, says he knew that his criticism of American troops would be "highly inflammatory."

He got that part right.

Arkin, invoking an NBC report on soldiers expressing disappointment with dwindling public support for the Iraq war, wrote late last month that it was "an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary -- oops sorry, volunteer -- force that thinks it is doing the dirty work."

It was a land mine of a word and sparked an explosion of criticism, much of it on the right. Bill O'Reilly, who had a Fox News producer ambush Arkin in a parking lot, called his remarks "disgraceful" and said that The Post and NBC News, where Arkin works as an analyst, will be "forever tainted" by the incident.

Arkin, who apologized on the blog for his "blasphemy," says in an interview: "Mercenary is a very strong term. If all this has been precipitated by one word, there's not a question in my mind I could have avoided this by not using that word." He says he was trying to be "sarcastic" and "iconoclastic" and to make the point that a professional fighting force cannot dismiss public sentiment on how wars should be fought.

Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, says the use of the word mercenary "was a mistake. It made it through the editing process, which is unfortunate. We certainly apologize for using it on the site . . . I know it offended a lot of people, but I don't think it's something he should be fired for."

NBC does "not condone" Arkin's online comments and welcomes his apology, network spokeswoman Allison Gollust says. NBC's parent company, General Electric, says it "strongly condemns" the Arkin remarks as "grossly unfair."

This is an entirely self-inflicted wound. The word "mercenary" is clearly insulting to the young men and women who risk their lives in war zones. Whatever larger point Arkin was trying to make was obliterated by his own rhetorical ammunition.

Arkin also wrote in the Jan. 30 posting: "So, we pay the soldiers a decent wage, take care of their families, provide them with housing and medical care and vast social support systems and ship obscene amenities into the war zone for them, we support them in every possible way, and their attitude is that we should in addition roll over and play dead, defer to the military and the generals and let them fight their war, and give up our rights and responsibilities to speak up because they are above society?"

Arkin is now trying to shift the debate to his detractors in what he calls a "polarized and hate-filled America." Arkin says he has received thousands of e-mail protests from people who have not read his words but were reacting to critics who "said I spat on the troops . . . The number of death threats and over-the-top vile crap is a little bit daunting."

Arkin, who has consulted for the military, is a controversial figure who was long associated with the liberal group Human Rights Watch. He has drawn fire more than once for disclosing classified information. Arkin now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

On the "O'Reilly Factor" last week, Fox producer Jesse Watters was seen confronting Arkin as he tried to load gear into his car. "How could you say what you said?" Watters demanded. "I mean, don't you think it was really hurtful and harmful to the military families, to the soldiers serving in Iraq?"

Arkin calls the program's conduct "despicable." Watters was "stalking" him over the course of a 90-minute car ride, Arkin says, and peppered him with questions while his children were nearby.

David Tabacoff, O'Reilly's executive producer, dismisses the notion of stalking, saying Arkin had turned down a telephone request for an interview and that Fox obscured his children's faces. Watters did not know the car chase would last that long, Tabacoff says, but "we were trying to be more polite than banging on his door or creating a ruckus at his house."

Getting the SpiritAs Katie Couric approaches the six-month mark as a network anchor, she is still tinkering with the "CBS Evening News." Last week, after promoting the newscast during CBS's Super Bowl coverage, she launched a series grandly titled "The American Spirit"--and now it's turning into a weekly feature.

The focus is familiar for network television--people who are successfully tackling problems--but with an angle. "I've always wanted to do something solution-oriented," Couric says. "We're not trying to say, 'Here's Joe or Jane Smith feeding the homeless in their community.' These are local solutions that have potential national implications."

Couric reported the first three pieces herself. The first involved a Kalamazoo, Mich., program, funded by anonymous donors, that guarantees a free college education to every public school student who maintains at least a C average. The others focused on a doctor crusading for safer hospitals and an investor raising money to provide more math teachers for New York City schools.

While it's doubtful that free college tuition could work everywhere, executive producer Rome Hartman disputes the notion that this is feel-good television. "This isn't Polyanna, this is prescriptions," he says.

Couric hopes to motivate some people to get "off their duffs." Besides, she says, "it's just a nice break from some of the dreadful news we have to report every night."

Close to Home

Brian Williams's 89-year-old father makes his television debut tonight.

The "NBC Nightly News" anchor will kick off a personalized series on caring for both children and aging parents with a piece about Gordon Williams, who is recovering from hip-replacement surgery in an assisted-living facility. Ordinarily, says Williams, "I avoid first-person reporting religiously. I will go to great lengths to avoid the word 'I' in my brodcast." But, he says, "so many of us are dealing with the topic. I think it's going to touch a nerve."

Tim Russert and Ann Curry will also file reports on their fathers. And since NBC stars aren't exactly hurting for money, Tom Brokaw will profile a typical family struggling with both youngsters and oldsters.

One Toke Over the Line?

Ryan Grim, a reporter for the Politico, the new Capitol Hill newspaper and Web site, called the White House drug policy office for comment last week.

Tom Riley, a spokesman for the office, recognized the name. Grim, he says, had called the office long ago, saying he was a reporter, but was using an e-mail address from the Marijuana Policy Project, where he worked. The group's goal is to legalize the drug.

Riley did not return Grim's call. Instead, as the Politico disclosed, Riley called Martin Tolchin, the paper's senior publisher, to point out that the reporter was hardly unbiased.

"He then threatened to complain to Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz about a conflict of interest," the Politico said.

That was not necessary (although such calls are always welcome here on the media beat). I contacted Riley the day the story appeared.

"The idea of someone who had been an activist on this now being a staff writer purporting to write about it objectively . . . is ludicrous," Riley says. "It'd be like a lobbyist for Philip Morris going to write about smoking issues for The Post."

Politico Executive Editor John Harris says that Grim, who was hired from Washington's City Paper, has a "reliable record" as a reporter. "There are lot of people at publications who have gone from advocacy jobs in a previous career to non-advocacy roles," Harris says. "The story was motivated by journalistic interest, not his particular views on the subject."

Grim's story said President Bush is seeking a 31 percent funding hike for an anti-drug advertising campaign "that government-funded research shows is at best useless and at worst has increased drug use among some teens." Riley calls the piece "totally slanted," saying it fails to note that marijuana use among teenagers has declined over the last five years.

How did Barack Obama's announcement play in the MSM?

The Chicago Tribune{vbar}http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/politics/chi-070210obama-analysis,1,7366749.story?coll=chi-news-hed likes what it saw:

"The words from Senator Barack Obama as he formally announced his campaign for president on this frigid Saturday morning were not particularly new.

"They included the familiar menu of Democratic causes, a call for universal health care, better pay for teachers and more protection for workers, along with a strong summons to end the war in Iraq.

"But it was how he put the words together, the ease and optimism of his manner, and the symbolism built into the moment, that was more powerful and memorable, and why he passed an important first test in what will be the nation's longest campaign for the White House."

The Chicago Sun-Times{vbar}http://www.suntimes.com/news/elections/251847,obama021107.article sounds a rare note of skepticism:

"He provided no details, but Obama offered to try to solve nearly every problem vexing the nation -- ending poverty, capping climate-changing greenhouse gases, extending healthcare in his first term, making college more affordable, providing comfortable retirements for workers, reducing dependence on foreign oil and combating terrorism."

The New York Times{vbar}http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/us/politics/11obama.html?hp&ex=1171170000&en=b4428f9eb8e50583&ei=5094&partner=homepage casts him as an agent of generational change:

"For all the excitement on display, Mr. Obama's speech also marked the start of a tough new phase in what until now has been a charmed introduction to national politics. Democrats and Mr. Obama's aides said they were girding for questions about his experience in national politics, his command of policy, a past that has gone largely unexamined by rivals and the news media, and a public persona defined more by his biography and charisma than by how he would seek to use the powers of the presidency."

Largely unexamined? Why? The reporters are too busy looking at pictures of Anna Nicole?

Check this out. Obama gets the most glowing coverage in modern presidential history and . . . he's not happy!

"Barack Obama used his first news conference after announcing his run for president to accuse the media of ignoring his substantive record and falsely depicting him as a lightweight," Ben Smith{vbar}http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0207/2711.html reports in the Politico.

" The problem's not that the info's not out there,' he said of his record on policy issues. 'The problem is that that's not what you guys have been reporting on. You've been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit.' "

I suspect it's not the paparazzi shot that bothers him--forests have been killed to report how smart, charismatic and inspiring he is--but the observation that he hasn't been overflowing with specifics.

"At the Ames press conference -- the only such event of the weekend of his announcement -- Obama departed from the standard question-and-answer exchange to assert his displeasure with what he said he sees as a developing storyline in the 'mainstream media' -- a term typically employed by its critics.

" 'One of the narratives that's established itself among the mainstream media this notion, "Well you know, Obama has a pretty good style, he can deliver a pretty good speech, but he seems to prioritize rhetoric over substance," ' Obama said. 'Well, factually, that's incorrect.' "

Either the senator has a thin skin or he's shrewdly putting the press on notice that he wants to be taken seriously as a policy person--although his failure to spout legi-speak is precisely what separates him from his Democratic rivals.

There's one issue on which Mitt Romney hasn't moved to placate conservatives:

"Unlike many on the right," says the Boston Globe{vbar}http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2007/02/11/romneys_stem_cell_view_may_upset_the_right/, "Romney supports research on excess embryos created during fertility treatments. Because couples are making embryos to have a baby, he reasons, it is ethical to use the leftovers for research when they would otherwise just be discarded.

"Romney's position, however, is at odds with the views of many conservative anti abortion activists, who believe that any work on stem cells derived from human embryos is wrong, because it destroys the embryos in the process. Some say Romney's views make him unacceptable to many voters and will complicate his attempt to win the 2008 GOP nomination by appealing to the party's conservative flank."

A WashPost piece yesterday says John McCain is now pursuing the kind of big-time fundraising he has long tried to regulate. Money graph:

"McCain the candidate now expects Republicans to use the same big-money 527 groups in the 2008 elections to beat Democrats, if the groups remain legal. 'The senator believes that both parties should be subjected to an even playing field. If Democratic organizations are allowed to take advantage of 527s, Republican organizations will, too,' said Mark Salter, a senior McCain adviser."

Well, you can't expect unilateral disarmament, can you?

But McCain is utterly blasting{vbar}http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/02/11/mccain.softmoney/index.html the piece:

"Sen. John McCain blasted a report in the Washington Post that said the Arizona Republican, who has campaigned against the use of 'soft money,' is using just those kinds of funds to support his GOP presidential nomination.

"McCain told CNN the article is 'worst hit job that has ever been done in my entire political career.' "

Quite a charge, considering this guy was a member of the Keating Five.

"McCain denied he planned to raise or use any money from independent non-profit 527 groups, which was alleged by the article."

Hmmm. But I thought the point of 527s was that they were independent of the candidate and could go off and raise zillions to run any kind of ads they wanted, as long as there was no coordination.

As Rudy Giuliani tries to square the circle of winning the GOP nomination as a social liberal, the views of National Review{vbar}http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=NzRlNjgyM2I3YTFjYTg5NjVmMTkxNzc3MWNmYTU5MGY= are especially important. The magazine seems to be struggling to give Rudy a chance:

"Many conservatives understandably don't want to shut the door on Rudy Giuliani. He is very effective at fighting for, and implementing, those conservative causes with which he agrees. Indeed, he represents one of the best examples of executive ability over the last 15 years.But for four decades, pro-lifers have resisted intense pressure from journalistic, political, and legal elites to declare the abortion question closed. Those elites would surely treat the Republican party's nomination of a pro-choicer as their final victory. Having blocked that bipartisan ratification of abortion-on-demand for so long, pro-lifers will be especially disinclined to accept it now, after several years in which they have gained ground. (Even Democrats realize that their pro-choice extremism is an electoral loser.)

"Many pro-lifers, and many conservatives, may eventually decide that for all his obvious strengths they cannot support Giuliani for president. For now, however, there is a certain symmetry of interest between conservatives and Giuliani. Conservatives should want Giuliani to agree with them on as many issues as possible. And Giuliani should want to win the nomination, without triggering any rush to the party's exits. We hope he campaigns like it."

As if on cue, the NYT notices the following{vbar}http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/10/us/politics/10rudy.html?hp&ex=1171170000&en=83e23c8316380a01&ei=5094&partner=homepage:

"In recent weeks, as he has courted voters in South Carolina and talked to conservative media outlets, Mr. Giuliani has highlighted a different element of his thinking on the abortion debate. He has talked about how he would appoint 'strict constructionist' judges to the Supreme Court -- what abortion rights advocates say is code among conservatives for those who seek to overturn or limit Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court ruling declaring a constitutional right to abortion."

But how can you be pro-choice and name anti-Roe justices?

By the way, the Air Pelosi story seems to have crashed of its own weight. Once I found out that the House sergeant-at-arms had requested her plane--and I don't know why she didn't get that out right away--I agreed with Tony Snow that the whole thing was "silly." For those who wonder why I quoted two new and obscure bloggers as criticizing the speaker--along with David Frum, who kind of defended her--I often try to look for average bloggers in their pajamas (or dorm rooms or wherever) rather than just stick with the top 100. That doesn't give them the same weight as Instapundit or Kos or Power Line or the HuffPost, but it's another way of taking the cyberpulse.

Are you Anna Niclole'd out? Is it really possible that some morons on television are comparing this former stripper to Marilyn Monroe? Betsy's Page{vbar}http://betsyspage.blogspot.com/2007/02/24-hours-news-cable-tv.html is not impressed:

"Gosh, if I thought of myself as a serious journalist and then got a job working for a 24-hour news channel, I don't know if I could respect myself in the morning. The death of Anna Nicole Smith, a woman famous for no particular reason except for her physical attributes, has given them an excuse to show endless loops of her at various weights and states of undress.The only thing that would be better for cable news producers is if there could be some way to connect her death to the astronaut story. And maybe if Paris Hilton could make a guest appearance."

LAT columnist Tim Rutten{vbar}http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-rutten10feb10,1,4184250.column?coll=la-news-columns tries to deconstruct the coverage:

"The mainstream journalistic coverage of Smith's death is among the first such stories driven, in large part, by an editorial perception of public interest derived mainly from Internet traffic. Throughout the afternoon Thursday, editors across the country watched the number of' 'hits' recorded for online items about Smith's death.

"These days, it's the rare newspaper whose meeting to discuss the content of the next day's edition doesn't include a recitation of the most popular stories on the paper's website. It's a safe bet that those numbers helped shove Anna Nicole Smith onto a lot of front pages.

"What makes this of more than passing interest is that serious American journalism is in the process of transforming itself into a new, hybrid news medium that combines traditional print and broadcast with a more purposefully articulated online presence. One of the latter's most seductive attributes is its ability to gauge readers' appetites for a particular story on a minute-to-minute basis. What you get is something like the familiar television ratings -- though constantly updated, if you choose to treat them that way."

I say if there were no Internet, Anna Nicole would still be huge on cable and morning television.

And the luckiest beneficiary of her death? The woman the tabloids dubbed the "Astro-Nut," Lisa Nowak.