Spin War II


At a White House conference on January 11, President Bush said the Social Security system was on its way to being “flat broke . . . flat bust, bankrupt,” leading ABC’s Peter Jennings to observe, “There is, of course, some argument about that,” while NBC, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post noted that “critics” disagreed with the president’s assessment.

But the claim that Social Security is going to be “flat broke” is not a matter of opinion or actuarial dispute. Unless every single American with a job quits or drops dead, there will always be some money in the till. What the president said is simply untrue. Old-timers might even call it “a lie.” The media don’t.

They could. With Dubya’s second term now begun, it’s a safe bet that Karl Rove has a radical media strategy for selling the “ownership society.” What defense is the press going to play? A good offense, hopefully.

Of course, it’s not as though every Washington reporter was, like commentator Armstrong Williams, on the administration’s payroll during Bush’s first four years. There were plenty of sharp exchanges and critical stories. But most of the media also failed to challenge falsehoods—notably on Iraq’s phantom WMDs, and in other instances too. Every time Don Rumsfeld claimed that new tens of thousands of Iraqis were being trained to fight insurgents, or Tom Ridge declared another orange alert, or Dick Cheney insisted that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda, or Bush pinned Abu Ghraib on a few bad apples, the press dutifully reported it. They had to, because someone important had said it.

But they don’t have to broadcast these messages uncritically, as they often do. If the president lies, that’s a fact, right? The press reports facts. If that includes reporting what the president said, and stuff like Jennings dubbing Dubya “a confident man who believes deeply in the mission,” wouldn’t it also include calling a lie “a lie”?

“There are a lot of times when we should say this person isn’t telling the truth, but that’s impolite, so we say only that this person’s story may have been challenged by someone,” says Sydney Schanberg, whose reporting from Cambodia’s “killing fields” won him a Pulitzer and who now writes for the Voice. That ought to change, he says. “I don’t mean you go into a room and insult them, but when you come back to your typewriter, it’s courage time.”

Maybe it’s also time for breaking some rules. There are precedents: During Desert Storm, several journalists were detained by the U.S. for breaking press guidelines. Reporter Edward Lee Pitts broke a big rule—and an important story—when he helped draft a soldier’s question for a Rumsfeld “town hall meeting.” Maybe reporters could even stop attending press conferences, which are now mainly theater, until the briefers get more candid (the press conferences are mostly on C-SPAN or the Web anyway). These are risky calls, but ones like those Henry David Thoreau had in mind when he wrote, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”

Or maybe it’s simpler. “I think [reporters] have to begin to assert their right to ask the question and to get it answered,” says Bill Kovach, the former New York Times man who now heads the Committee of Concerned Journalists. “It’s not rocket science. It’s simply insisting on the people’s right to the information you provide.” Just make them tell you what they’re basing their claims on. Make them answer the question.

“I am struck by how polite everybody is these days,” says veteran journalist Russell Baker. “I was always brought up to think that the guy you were reporting on was the enemy.”

Of course, the press can be its own worst enemy. Big stories die after one or two news cycles because editors want something fresh. Forty-second TV packages leave little time for reporting complex ideas, and the media often choose their battles poorly, doing stories about process rather than substance. At a January 19 White House briefing, for example, reporters asked 15 testy questions about when and if the president’s Social Security plan would make it to Congress. They posed a mere six about the plan itself.

Finally, reporters tend to do a bad job of admitting when they’re wrong—something that’s a risk in any bold strategy. Just ask Seymour Hersh, who has never toed a polite line in reporting government secrets, and has been beaten up for it.

Actually, I did ask Hersh. He doesn’t see anything radical (or reportable) in what he does. “Talking about what I do is a death knell for me,” Hersh told me. “I’m just doing my job.”

Iraq: Bullets and ballots

Next week’s Iraqi election won’t look much like the American model, with armed guards instead of exit polls, anonymous candidates, and unique challenges for the press.

“This is a very tough thing to cover,” says Newsday foreign editor Roy Gutman, citing Iraq’s complex voting system, the size of the country, and the danger there. “We’d like to be everywhere, but we’re only going to be a very few places.” Gutman will dispatch reporters to Baghdad and Kurdistan, while a third (plus a photographer) embeds with a military unit. Their focus will be on who’s not voting as much as who is.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a London-based nonprofit that trains journalists in trouble spots, will try to avoid the security angle and focus on the electoral contest itself.

“The politics of the election will be ignored by the international media because they will be so focused on the security situation,” said Hiwa Osman, an Iraqi and former BBC reporter who coordinates the Iraq mission for IWPR. “We will try to go beyond that.”

While Dan Rather, for example, tours the “Triangle of Death” with a marine unit, Osman says IWPR’s 30 reporters will visit every city in the country, including those that escape the attention of the international media because they are too dangerous or, paradoxically, too quiet.