A February 28 Cybercast News Service (CNS) article uncritically repeated a two-week-old falsehood from the Republican National Committee (RNC) that the Democrats have called their approach to Iraq a "slow-bleed" strategy. The article quoted a February 15 letter written by RNC chairman Mike Duncan claiming that the phrase "slow-bleed" was used by Democrats to describe the Iraq plan presented by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA). In fact, as Media Matters for America documented, the term was used in a February 14 Politico article by congressional bureau chief John Bresnahan. The RNC followed with its press release, and numerous media then attributed the term to Democrats or quoted Republicans doing so without noting that it was not the creation of the Democrats.
On February 16, the Politico published an article by Bresnahan noting that the term was The Politico's "characteriz[ation]," and that it "was not a term used by any Democrats or the anti-war groups supporting their efforts." The February 16 article also noted that "[t]he RNC, however, attributed the phrase to Democrats, and it was used in their email alert."
Notwithstanding Bresnahan's clarification, a February 20 Politico article by Patrick O'Connor and Josh Kraushaar titled "Conservatives Target GOP War Critics in Congress" quoted National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Jessica Boulanger threatening to attack Democrats who "support a slow-bleed strategy," without noting the origin of the Republican attack.
The CNS article quoting a portion of the Duncan letter that claims that Democrats "call it their 'slow-bleed' plan" appeared 12 days after Bresnahan's clarification, and the same day that Politico editor-in-chief John F. Harris posted a "confession" explaining that he was "the author of the Democratic Party's 'slow-bleed strategy' for ending the war in Iraq."
Harris's post, "An Editor's Confession: I'm the Source of 'Slow Bleed,' " explained that Murtha "had nothing to do with" the phrase "slow-bleed" and noted that "[a] journalist's job is to clarify political debate, not further muddy it."
From the February 28 CNS article:
Tracey Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee (RNC), told Cybercast News Service that the Democrats' "new direction" is just an old strategy for their party.
"We've seen Democrats playing politics with the war in Iraq, and the divisions within their own party are leading them to fumble the issue time and time again," Schmitt said. "This newfound attempt to placate the liberal wing of their base is just another effort for Democrats to get their 'slow-bleed' strategy past the American people."
As Cybercast News Service previously reported, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) announced two weeks ago that he would introduce legislation to halt the Bush administration's troop "surge" in Iraq by restricting military deployments.
A critic of the Iraq war since November 2005, Murtha said he would attach a provision to an upcoming $93 billion supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan that would "limit the options of the president and should stop the surge."
At the time, RNC Chairman Mike Duncan said: "The Democrat [sic] strategy on Iraq is finally clear. They call it their 'slow bleed' plan.
"Instead of supporting the troops in Iraq or simply bringing them home, the Democrats intend to gradually make it harder and harder for them to do their jobs," Duncan said. "'Slow bleed' is exactly the right name for this incredibly irresponsible and dangerous strategy," he said.
From the February 28 Politico article:
With a mixture of pride and remorse, I have a confession: I am the author of the Democratic Party's "slow-bleed strategy" for ending the war in Iraq.
I had nothing to do with the details of the plan that Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) floated two weeks ago. His plan was crafted to use the appropriations process to limit President Bush's options for mobilizing more forces in Iraq, while trying to protect Democrats from the accusation that they were abandoning troops in the field. As it happens, Murtha's idea is itself bleeding support, hit by a barrage of denunciations from people who say it does indeed amount to abandoning the troops.
In retrospect, it probably has already occurred to Murtha and his supporters that from a public relations perspective, "slow-bleed" was not the most winning description. How could they have been so stupid?
That's where I come in. "Slow bleed" is my phrase. Murtha had nothing to do with it. Neither did John Bresnahan, the reporter whose name was on the Politico story in which the "slow-bleed strategy" made its debut.
You can understand my pride of authorship. Editors labor in obscurity. Our job is to keep reporters from looking bad, and to let them take the credit when they look good. Rarely is there tangible evidence that we are having any impact. But in 20-plus years in the business, I can scarcely recall an instance when words typed on my keyboard have had such a loud and immediate echo.
If you Google "slow bleed" and "Murtha," you get nearly 200,000 hits. Nexis recorded more than a hundred stories in the days after Bresnahan's article that used the phrase "slow bleed."
"Slow bleed" was featured on CNN and on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. My former newspaper, The Washington Post, used the phrase the other day as if it were an established part of Washington lexicon, needing neither attribution nor explanation. "Slow bleed" also played a starring role in a parade of House floor speeches by Republicans denouncing Democrats, and in a fundraising letter from Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan. "Slow-bleed is exactly the right name for this incredibly irresponsible and dangerous strategy," he wrote.
Like many others who weighed in, Duncan incorrectly stated that "slow-bleed" was the name that Democrats were using to describe their strategy.
That willingness to wrest words from context -- and to attribute the phrase to Democrats even though it was not theirs -- was demagogic on the part of Republican operatives. But it was never my plan to make their work so easy.
A journalist's job is to clarify political debate, not further muddy it. In the two weeks since his original article, Bresnahan's reporting has continued to clarify the unfolding Iraq argument, even as his editors made life more difficult for him.
So there you have it -- how the sausage gets made in a newsroom. Not always the most appetizing sight.