White House, conservative surrogates continue their "blame the media" campaign

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

The campaign against purportedly biased reporting on the Iraq war -- forwarded by President Bush, White House officials, and array of conservative media figures -- has continued on the airwaves and in print.

During the past week, President Bush, White House officials, and an array of conservative media figures have advanced the argument that mainstream news outlets are undermining public support for the war in Iraq. As Media Matters for America noted, what began as a few pointed criticisms by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney quickly grew into a full-scale offensive, with conservative columnists, radio hosts, editorial pages, and, of course, Fox News, joining the White House in assailing the media's negative coverage of Iraq. In the past 24 hours, the campaign against this purportedly biased war reporting has continued on the airwaves and in print.

During a March 23 press briefing, a reporter asked White House press secretary Scott McClellan to clarify the administration's "specific frustration" with the media's coverage of Iraq. The reporter cited Bush's complaint during a March 21 press conference about the "enemy's capability to affect the debate." The president had noted that the insurgents are "capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show." McClellan responded that the president's comments were not meant as a criticism of the media and conceded that the daily atrocities occurring in Iraq are "newsworthy." Nonetheless, he went on to suggest that the Iraq coverage is not providing a "complete picture" of the situation there:

McCLELLAN: There are horrific images of violence that we see on our TV screens. Those are newsworthy items to cover, and we have made that clear repeatedly. But there is more to the situation on the ground, and if you're going to have a complete picture it's important to look at the progress that's being made.

There is real violence that is occurring and the situation remains tense. But there's also real progress that is being made toward victory. And I think the President was emphasizing the importance of taking into consideration what the enemy knows and looking at the motivation of the enemy. The enemy knows -- the terrorists, they know that when they carry out these kind of attacks, or car bombings, or kidnappings, or beheadings, that it's going to generate attention. And so as commander-in-chief, it's important for the president to put it all in context and also to talk about the broader context and talk about the progress that's being made. That's one of his responsibilities.

The White House's message -- that the mainstream news outlets are not offering Americans a "complete picture" of the Iraq war -- again reverberated throughout the media, most notably on Fox News. For instance, on the March 23 edition of Special Report, host Brit Hume posed the question of whether the media is "suppressing or underreporting the good news in Iraq" to his "All-Star Panel." In the subsequent discussion, Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke complained that "you never see anything about American heroes" in the media's coverage of the war. "Whoever is winning Silver Stars, we don't know anything about it," Kondracke said.

Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes later asserted, "Things are much better there in most of Iraq than the media would have you know." He claimed that "everybody" who visits the country comes back and "says the same thing, that things are much better over there than the media lets on." Who is "everybody," according to Barnes? Conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham and conservative New York Post columnist Ralph Peters.

Further, Hume cited a March 23 USA Today article as evidence that Iraq correspondents themselves concede they have neglected to provide positive coverage of the war. As Hume noted, New York Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns is quoted in the article saying, "Have we undercovered the good news? ... We probably have. But there's nothing willful about it. I would enter a plea of mitigation that we are overstretched." What Hume failed to note is that the article also quoted Fox News producer Jerry Burke defending the war coverage in the context of the extreme dangers facing reporters in Iraq:

Rumsfeld and Bush must know that "it's incredibly dangerous and that the media has a very difficult job," said Jerry Burke, executive producer of daytime programming at Fox News Channel. "We have to cover some aspect of the story so we cover what we can cover without getting our anchors and our reporters blown up."

On the March 23 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, host Sean Hannity noted Bush's and Cheney's criticism of the Iraq coverage earlier in the week before agreeing that "the story is not being told about the good news and about the progress." He continued, "There is lazy reporting going on. It is somewhat institutional, and there is partisanship on the part of the media." Former House Speaker and Fox News political analyst Newt Gingrich later claimed that if the current media had been covering the American Revolution, "you would have had the New York Times editorial board calling for an American surrender."

Earlier in the day, on Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto asked his audience, "Is the media hopelessly biased against President Bush?" He then aired snippets of White House reporters asking Bush questions at the March 21 press conference, which he juxtaposed with clips of audience members commending Bush as a having "integrity" and "character" during his March 23 town hall meeting in Wheeling, West Virginia.

On the March 23 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, contributor Bill Bennett took issue with CNN anchor Jack Cafferty's criticism of the "blame the media" campaign. Cafferty had earlier declared, "The news isn't good in Iraq. There's violence in Iraq. People are found dead every day in the streets of Baghdad. This didn't turn out the way the politicians told us it would. And it's our [the media's] fault? I beg to differ." Bennett accused Cafferty of "making fun of the American people." He then asserted that the media's Iraq coverage "is leading to people's assessment that the war is going badly, when, in fact, I think the war is going pretty well. It's not going well, though, in the mainstream media, and certainly the public has been affected."

Further, in a March 24 column commending Bush's recent public relations blitz, Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Daniel Henninger described the media's coverage of Iraq as "a kind of contemporary brain-washing":

The tendentious editorial decision to paint the high-traffic front pages red with blood and demote the hard slog of political progress in Iraq to the unread inside has an effect. Any normal person would be depressed by constant face-time with stories of barbaric slaughter. If what amounts to a kind of contemporary brain-washing of both the American public and Washington elites causes them to falter and Iraq to "fail," no future president of either party is again likely to deploy U.S. military resources in any sustained, significant way. You can't imagine what "lose" will mean then.

But throughout this recent debate over Iraq war coverage, one highly relevant document has gone largely unnoticed -- the State Department's recent "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices," released by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a March 8 press conference. The section of the report on Iraq described "a climate of extreme violence" throughout the country and noted that an "illustrative list" of the daily attacks could "scarcely reflect the broad dimension of the violence":

Bombings, executions, killings, kidnappings, shootings, and intimidation were a daily occurrence throughout all regions and sectors of society. An illustrative list of those attacks, even a highly selective one, could scarcely reflect the broad dimension of the violence. ... Former regime elements, local and foreign fighters, and terrorists waged guerilla warfare and a terrorist campaign of violence impacting every aspect of life.

As host Keith Olbermann noted on the March 23 edition of MSNBC's Countdown, this report "suggests, in no uncertain terms, that, if anything, the news media is sugar-coating what is happening there."

Form the March 23 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

HUME: Next on Special Report, is the U.S. media suppressing or underreporting the good news in Iraq? If so, why? The Fox All-Stars are on their way to the studio to discuss the issue after a break.

[...]

HUME: Well, as you can see, the president's audience there in Wheeling, West Virginia, yesterday, which was composed heavily of military families, liked the question and the sentiment expressed in it. But who better to ask about this portrayal of good versus the bad than John Burns, the Baghdad bureau chief of The New York Times, who has been there for quite a long time and done a lot of reporting. "Have we undercovered the good news?" He told USA Today, "Yes, we probably have," he says, "but there is nothing willful about it. I would enter a plea of mitigation that we are overstretched."

[...]

KONDRACKE: Well, Bob Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, who tracks what is on TV every night and in major newspapers, says that the coverage has been 2- to 3-to-1 negative -- 2- or 3-to-1 negative since the beginning of the war. And the question is, you know, is the story that bad? But there are -- there's clearly things that are missing from the coverage. One of them is, you never see anything about American heroes. There's -- whoever is winning Silver Stars, we don't know anything about it. Who are these people who are willing to volunteer to be Iraqi policemen and in danger of getting themselves blown up? Or willing to serve as members of parliament and risking their lives? Why are they doing it? And what have they got to say? You know, attacks on American troops are down. We reported that yesterday, but I haven't seen that much in the newspapers. And, you know, you get the impression that whenever the terrorists pull off something, like the Samarra bombing, or the butchery goes on, that it is somehow our fault. You know, that it's evidence that we didn't -- we couldn't protect these people as opposed to the monsters that the enemy is. And I think this is the unrelieved kind of stuff that comes through the American media.

[...]

BARNES: Everyone I talked to -- and I talk to a lot of people as you do, and Brit, and others do -- who come back, who go over there for a while and come back from Iraq, all say the same thing, the media is not telling all the story at all. Things are much better there in most of Iraq than the media would have you know. Its military officers, it's civilians who go over there. It's people like Ralph Peters. It's people, even like Laura Ingraham, who went out in the field with troops, and everybody says -- they all say the same thing. If just a few did and others said something else, I wouldn't be so dubious of the mainstream media's reporting, but everybody says the same thing -- that things are much better over there than the media lets on.

From the March 23 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

HANNITY: Let me talk about the news media, because the president has been very outspoken against them this week. He said, for every act of violence, there is encouraging progress in Iraq. It's not being captured on the evening news. Similar comments by Dick Cheney. It's something I've been saying often. Now, let me first acknowledge: There are some good, brave reporters, our own Fox reporters, [NBC correspondent] David Bloom [who died in 2003 while covering the Iraq war], [ABC anchor] Bob Woodruff [who was wounded in Iraq in January]. They were putting themselves in harm's way. But, in my estimation, the story is not being told about the good news and about the progress. There is lazy reporting going on. It is somewhat institutional, and there is partisanship on the part of the media. Do you see the same thing?

GINGRICH: Well, look, it's worse than that, because it's not about the reporters. Very often, reporters will call in with a good, positive story, with something that is happening -- when children, for example, went back to school, and you had thousands of schools, many of them rebuilt, repainted and restructured by American troops, that wasn't news, if you were one of the major networks. The editors refused to put it on the air. So very often, even when the reporter out in the field is risking their life getting a terrific story -- this mayor, who you know, sent this wonderful letter about how the Americans had saved his town -- that's not news.

HANNITY: Well, let me ask you --

GINGRICH: And I think those are the editors of the elite media.

HANNITY: Let's say, through the prism of history, how would D-Day be perceived by the current media? How would it be reported? How would Iwo Jima -- what did we lose, nearly 7,000 soldiers at Iwo Jima -- would that have been viewed as a failure at the time? How would that have been reported at the time?

GINGRICH: Go all the way back to the American Revolution. The last, great battle before Yorktown is at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, and the British won, although they lost so many men winning, that they had to go to Yorktown, where they ultimately surrendered. That would have been covered by the national media in its current mindset as a sign that George Washington was a failure, America was never going to become a free country. Thomas Jefferson had betrayed us by writing the Declaration of Independence. And you would have had the New York Times editorial board calling for an American surrender.

From the March 23 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto:

CAVUTO: Meanwhile, is the media hopelessly biased against President Bush? I want you to listen to these questions posed to him this week.

[begin video clip]

HELEN THOMAS [Hearst Newspapers columnist]: Why did you really want to go to war from the moment you stepped into the White House?

JIM VANDEHEI [Washington Post staff writer]: A growing number of Americans are questioning the trustworthiness of you and this White House.

KELLY O'DONNELL [NBC News White House correspondent]: Many of your senior staffers have been with you since the beginning. There are some in Washington who say they are --

BUSH: Wait, is this a personal attack launching over here?

[end video clip]

CAVUTO: Now, I want you to hear how he was treated by military families who have loved ones on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan because of his orders.

[begin video clip]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I thank God that you're our commander in chief.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Back during 9-11, I lost over 300 of my brothers in New York, and I was glad that you were our president that time.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you for having integrity since you've been in office. And character.

BUSH: Thank you, sir.

[end video clip]

CAVUTO: All right, is there a little bit of a difference here?

From the March 23 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: But you're not suggesting -- Bill, I don't want to put words in your mouth -- that the media is to blame for the horrible images that are coming out of Iraq?

BENNETT: No. But I think you and Jack earlier kind of missed what the American people are saying and making fun of the American people, as if they were castigating the media for being responsible for this war in Iraq isn't the point. The American people are saying the mainstream media does not properly represent in a full and fair perspective the goods with the bads. And [Washington Post reporter] Howie Kurtz backs that up. Howie Kurtz, who studies this, backs it up. If you watch, the mainstream media -- a lot of it and I do a lot as much as I can -- you clearly get the sense of negativity. It's not analogous to saying, "We only report crimes and not peace in Washington, D.C."

When you're trying to make an assessment of where you should go and are you prevailing, are some things going well, almost all you get is negative, then that is leading to people's assessment that the war is going badly, when, in fact, I think the war is going pretty well. It's not going well, though, in the mainstream media, and certainly public opinion has been affected.

From the March 23 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann:

OLBERMANN: The report on Iraq consisted entirely of violence, "a climate of extreme violence," the transcript read, "in which people were killed for political and other reasons." The reporter emphasized "bombings, executions, killings, kidnappings, shootings, and intimidation." The chaos there was so bad, the reporter concluded, that his story "could scarcely reflect the broad dimension of the violence there." Our fifth story on the Countdown: the exact kind of biased, bad-news-only, liberal media reporting against which the Bush administration has launched its latest round of attacks? Something from The New York Times or, worse, from Aljazeera? No, those quotes were from the Bush administration itself, in the State Department's official assessment of conditions in Iraq, which suggests, in no uncertain terms, that, if anything, the news media is sugar-coating what is happening there. The study, titled "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices," was released at a news conference earlier this month, with Secretary of State Rice herself delivering the opening remarks, the 23 pages on Iraq stating unequivocally that even a highly selective inventory of the terrorist attacks in that country during the last year could barely begin to catalog all the violence.

Quote, "Bombings, executions, killings, kidnappings, shootings, and intimidation were a daily occurrence throughout all regions and sectors of society. An illustrative list of those attacks, even a highly selective one, could scarcely reflect the broad dimension of the violence," the report also stating that the attacks were being waged by any number of people, not just insurgents, for any number of reasons. Quoting again, "Former regime elements, local and foreign fighters, and terrorists waged guerilla warfare and a terrorist campaign of violence impacting every aspect of life. Killings, kidnappings, torture, and intimidation were fueled by political grievances and ethnic and religious tensions and were supported by parts of the population."

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