Blaming the Press in Iraq

By Howard Kurtz

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2004; 8:35 AM

Paul Wolfowitz is basically accusing journalists of cowardice.

In case you missed it, here's what the deputy secretary of defense had to say this week on Capitol Hill:

"Frankly, part of our problem is a lot of the press are afraid to travel very much, so they sit in Baghdad and they publish rumors."

Before I tell you what I think, let me share some comments from an e-mail I received from former Pentagon spokesman Charles Krohn, a retired Army colonel:

"It's bad enough that Wolfowitz makes such a statement. What's worse is the motive of the person who put the bug in his ear. Having spent three months in the presidential palace in Iraq supporting the infrastructure reconstruction program, I worked closely with the media who worked closely with me. . . .

"But when the insurgency started pushing news south, some of the same voices complained about the media's falling down on the job. This is worse than hypocrisy; it's scandalous. When senior officials express disappointment that schemes to manipulate the media aren't working well, one might say it's a triumph of principle over power. A truly professional public affairs staff could have worked out compromises. Unfortunately, the political dilettantes running the show were unable to rise to this level."

Wolfowitz is right on one point: Western journalists in Iraq have sharply curtailed their travel, and to their great frustration, we are getting a narrower view of Iraq as a result. But the suggestion that they are too cowed to leave Baghdad ignores the great courage that many of these journalists have shown.

In the past couple of months:

New York Times reporter John Burns and several colleagues were blindfolded and driven to a makeshift prison before being released after eight hours.

Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and his driver were abducted by gun-toting men with scarves over their faces before being released.

Washington Post reporter Dan Williams barely escaped death when his car came under hostile fire after he traveled to Fallujah.

CNN correspondent Michael Holmes also escaped injury when his car was blasted by AK-47s, but two of CNN's Iraqi employees were killed.

In another attack, hostile fire shattered the window in a car carrying Fox's Geraldo Rivera.

Wouldn't any prudent person be careful about traveling on these dangerous roads? Are journalists supposed to be cowboys who chase stories with no regard to their personal safety? And aren't the reporters operating in an environment that administration officials predicted long ago would be a safe and democratic environment once Saddam was toppled?

Oh, and one more thing. If Paul Wolfowitz has any evidence of the press publishing "rumors" in Iraq, he should put it out, and I'll criticize the perpetrators as well. There's a valid argument over whether the media are overplaying the violence and overlooking the progress being made in Iraq. But I'm not aware of anyone running with flat-out rumors.

Maureen Dowd compares Wolfowitz to Clinton, saying "the former president pales when put up against the grandiosity of Paul Wolfowitz's self-delusion. . . .

"Beyond sliming journalists (much as he slimes his hair with his own saliva in Michael Moore's new movie) who are risking their lives traveling around Iraq to cover the cakewalk that became chaos, Mr. Wolfowitz dodges the responsibility he bears for turning Iraq into a shooting gallery and Al Qaeda recruitment center."

Will Clinton affect '04? Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times says no:

"Bill Clinton's emphatic return to the spotlight has created short-term opportunities for both parties but is unlikely to affect the long-term dynamics of the presidential race, Republican and Democratic strategists agree.

"In the near term, Democrats hope Clinton's high-profile re-emergence around the publication of his memoirs will boost John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, by focusing attention on the economy's strong performance during Clinton's tenure."

I wouldn't say most of the Clinton interviews have spent a whole lot of time on the economy, as opposed to that woman.

"Many Republicans, though, are optimistic that Clinton's publicity tour will help President Bush by energizing the conservative base that detests the former president, and remind less partisan voters about the relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky that led to his impeachment."

After that front-page NYT review slamming Clinton's book as "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull," the Times runs another review, by Larry McMurtry, that begins: "William Jefferson Clinton's 'My Life' is, by a generous measure, the richest American presidential autobiography -- no other book tells us as vividly or fully what it is like to be president of the United States for eight years."

How many more reviews will Clinton get?

The Washington Times says Clinton's book wasn't long enough:

"Bill Clinton calls his sexual encounters with White House intern Monica Lewinsky 'immoral and foolish' and said his 'relationship' with Gennifer Flowers was one he 'should not have had.' But in his autobiography flying out of bookstores, he doesn't mention several other women whose names were linked in scandal with his." Ten more women are listed, a few of whom I've never heard of.

I'm slogging through the book, but "Slate reads 'My Life' so you don't have to.' "

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum goes negative on the editor of National Review:

"Rich Lowry writes about the Washington Post poll showing that George Bush's approval rating for handling the war on terrorism has plummeted:

" 'This Washington Post poll is disturbing today. A year or so ago, Bush critics set out to undermine Bush's credibilty and to undermine his standing on the war on terror. With help from events outside anyone's control -- especially no WMDs in Iraq -- they have now made major progress on both fronts.'

"Don't you love this? 'Events outside anyone's control.' You'd think the fact that Bush badly misjudged the security situation despite the advice of military experts, that he wildly exaggerated the intel about both WMD and al-Qaeda ties, that he thumbed his nose at the entire international community before the war, and that he populated the CPA with ideological hacks -- you'd think he was just an innocent bystander to all that.

"It's amazing the blind loyalty he inspires in his fellow travelers. Is there anything that these guys are willing to admit is Bush's fault?"

Slate's Jack Shafer wonders why Michael Moore is threatening to sue journalists:

" 'Any attempts to libel me will be met by force,' Fahrenheit 9/11 director Michael Moore told the New York Times on Sunday. 'The most important thing we have is truth on our side. If they persist in telling lies, knowingly telling a lie with malice, then I'll take them to court.'

"The Times also reported that Moore 'has consulted with lawyers who can bring defamation suits against anyone who maligns the film or damages his reputation,' and that he's established a 'war room' to monitor attacks on the film. . . .

"The first peculiar thing about Moore's libel-mongering is that most American journalists disdain libel suits as a matter of principle. Even when they have good cause for a suit, most journalists refrain from filing, believing that libel threats keep topics of controversy from being aired. They'd rather contest hostile attacks on their work in the marketplace of ideas, not courtrooms. Why Moore, the former editor of the Michigan Voice and a regular purveyor of controversial journalism, has chosen to break with this tradition is anybody's guess. (One irony too good to pass up: Stringent libel laws, the sort that Moore appears to be advocating this week, have essentially blocked the publication of journalist Craig Unger's book House of Bush, House of Saud in the United Kingdom. Noteworthy only because Unger and his book are important Fahrenheit 9/11 sources.)"

Salon's John Gorenfield focuses on Moore's enemies:

"They're back! OK, the 'vast right-wing conspiracy' Hillary Clinton warned about never really went away. But they've found new purpose in the campaign to stop the distribution of 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' Michael Moore's latest documentary. And just as the energetic conservative elves succeeded in making Bill Clinton ever more popular with the American public, so do they seem to be driving up public interest in Moore's film, which is expected to have the biggest opening for a documentary film ever, in a scheduled 888 theaters.

"The convergence between the anti-Clinton and anti-Moore movements is personified by the tireless David Bossie, whose Citizens United made headlines savaging the president in the late 1990s. It's been a big week for Bossie and Citizens United. First they were busy producing anti-Clinton ads to run during the former president's star turn Sunday night on '60 Minutes' while Bossie was scurrying to cable studios to denounce the memoir 'My Life' and promote his new book, 'Intelligence Failure: How Clinton's National Security Policy Set the Stage for 9/11.'

"Then Bossie scheduled a Wednesday press event in front of the Federal Election Commission, where he will demand that the commission take some sort of unspecified action to regulate the screening of 'Fahrenheit 9/11' -- presumably because of the anti-Bush documentary's power to influence the coming presidential election. 'Documents will be hand delivered to several government agencies immediately following the media briefing,' the group's press release soberly states.

"Anyone still wondering whether 'Fahrenheit 9/11' has the far right squirming about the documentary's possible effect on the November presidential election?"

The Nation's David Corn scoffs at the New Republic's reexamination of its support for the war:

"In the good fashion of a typically fractious family (and that is meant as no insult), the answers from The Editors, Peter Beinart (the editor), Martin Peretz (the editor in chief), Leon Wieseltier (the literary editor), Fouad Ajami (contributing editor) --as well as the contributions from author Paul Berman, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria, Brookings Institution fellow Kenneth Pollack, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum -- are often at odds with one another. Yet they generally share a defiantly defensive tone as they sidestep toward, 'yes, but.' Many boil down to this: 'if the war had been run my way, then it wouldn't have been such a screw-up.'

"Perhaps. But this war was George W. Bush's war (and shared with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Condoleezza Rice). And the TNRers who favored an elective war at that particular time were also in favor of handing the keys to a rather expensive, dangerous and difficult-to-drive car to a man whom many of them had already pronounced untrustworthy on other fronts (the 2000 election, the tax cuts, etc.) This may have been the non-conservative hawks' most profound miscalculation. They were blinded by their own desires for war (for the appropriate reasons, of course), and their enthusiasm was not sufficiently tempered by a rather harrowing reality: Bush would have to be the one to get right the occupation, reconstruction and democratization of Iraq -- a tremendously challenging set of tasks requiring intelligence, understanding, sophistication, concentration, and open-mindedness. Talk about naive."

Columbia Journalism Review fact-checks a Kerry quote in the Washington Times:

"Since early April, Sen. Kerry has regularly told anyone that will listen that Americans are suffering through 'the worst job recovery since the Great Depression.'

"Then The Washington Times reported, 'Now that consumer spending is rising and voter confidence in the economy is growing, Mr. Kerry calls it "the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression." ' (italics added)

"Did Kerry slip up, or did the Washington Times misquote him? . . . The paper misquoted the man -- presumably to make it look like he was saying something in defiance of evidence to the contrary.

"That's no typo. That's an attempt to hang Kerry with words he never said."

Nader may be making life difficult for Kerry, but he's happy to serve as a surrogate campaign manager:

"Democrat John Kerry is getting some advice on his choice for vice president from an unlikely source: rival Ralph Nader," the Associated Press reports.

"In an open letter sent Wednesday, the independent presidential candidate urged Kerry to choose John Edwards as his running mate, saying the North Carolina senator and former trial lawyer has been thoroughly vetted and is committed to protecting the right of consumers to sue corporations that harm them."

I irresponsibly print the latest from the New Republic's Noam Scheiber:

"TODAY'S HIGHLY IRRESPONSIBLE VEEP SPECULATION: The latest issue of Newsweek reports that 'Kerry sources' say the vice presidential contest has become a two-man race between Tom Vilsack and Dick Gephardt. Vilsack's only advantage, as far as I can tell, is the freshness/boldness factor. Of course, that's been a relatively important criterion for recent Democratic nominees (see Joe Lieberman in 2000 and Al Gore in 1992). And it could be for Kerry, too -- particularly since he isn't viewed as the freshest or boldest guy around.

"But I think Gephardt's selling points (lack of political ambition, ample national experience, and the ability to carry a vote-rich swing state -- Iowa in my book is neither vote-rich nor a bona fide swing state) put him over the top. That's assuming, of course, that Newsweek is right about these being the lone remaining contenders. . . . "

And if not: never mind.