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'Surge' Protectors: The Media's 2nd Greatest Failure

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With Gen. David Petraeus due to testify before Congress on Tuesday -- and presumably give himself another "A" for his handling of the war in Iraq -- it is worth pointing out that the media, just as in the run-up to the war, is complicit in the "surge" debacle. Back in early January 2007, I may have been the first in print to label the media "surge protectors" at Editor & Publisher. The media's performance in the days before Bush announced the surge was their single greatest failing since the war began more than five years ago.

For two months before that, I had been warning that Bush was bent on sending more troops to Iraq, but pundits and editorialists didn't seem very alarmed about the prospect, even though it promised to be one of the true (not fake) "turning points" in the war -- perhaps #1 at that. If the war didn't belong to the press and pundits before, it sure did after that (as I outline in my new book on Iraq and the media).

You recall that when the Iraq Study Group issued its report many predicted it would give Bush a chance to grab onto this bi-partisan life raft and start to disengage from Iraq. But Bush promptly pushed it away and said he would come up with his own plan. The handwriting was on the wall for weeks but the media -- maybe distracted by the Christmas season -- failed to take it seriously. Polls showed that the public opposed sending more troops.

As this critical turning point in the Iraq war neared, the editorial pages of the largest U.S. newspapers were surprisingly -- even appallingly -- silent on President Bush's likely decision to send thousands of more troops to the country. It followed a long pattern, however, of opinion writers and TV talking heads strongly criticizing the conduct of the war -- without advocating a major change in direction.

Newspapers, in their editorials, chose to retreat to the sidelines, even as some hawkish conservative columnists, such as Oliver North and David Brooks, came out against the idea. Then there were the new revelations that the troops we already had in Iraq were not properly equipped or protected. That would seem to set the stage for editorials taking a strong stand. But very few -- hardly any -- editorials said much of anything about the well-publicized "surge" idea, pro OR con. Didn't they see this coming? It was like sleepwalking into the abyss.

In the weeks leading up to the Bush announcement, the editorial page of the New York Times said nothing about this likely plan, beyond noting the "bleak realities" in Iraq. Other papers often critical of the war, such as the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and USA Today -- among others -- also were silent. Oddly, all of them had hailed the recent Iraq Study Group report, which opposed an escalation.

The Washington Post, hawkish in the past, did not even rouse itself to say anything until the last minute: when it ran a major op-ed by Sen. John McCain, titled "The Case for More Troops."

This failure of will came even after liberal bloggers led the way, as a call went forth: Henceforth ye shall purge the "surge" from your vocabularies and laptops and replace it with "escalation" -- with all its echoes of Vietnam and, incidentally, accuracy regarding the situation.

An editorial in Baltimore's Sun a few days before the announcement should have served as a template for others in the media. Here is its key passage: "A generation ago this would have been called an 'escalation,' and the problem with escalations, as President Lyndon B. Johnson learned, is that when they don't furnish the promised results the pressure to follow with further escalations is just about inescapable."

But the best The New York Times could do, before the announcement, was an editorial expressing skepticism -- but declaring that Bush deserved "one last opportunity" to get Iraq right. One had to wonder: Why? After Bush made his speech, the Times and many others in the media thundered that Bush had not made the case for the plan.

But by then it was, tragically, too late.

Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits --and the President -- Failed on Iraq. It includes a preface by Bruce Springsteen and a foreword by Joseph L. Galloway.