Huffpost Media
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jay Rosen Headshot

Situation Grave and Deteriorating for the Agnewocracy

Posted: Updated:

The idea that the liberal press has to be overcome for conservatives truly to take power started with the Goldwater campaign in 1964, and today's bias warriors are the inheritors, through Agnew, of that idea. So it's not surprising to me that Spiro Agnew was recently lionized at RedState.com in a post by Martin Knight that tried to rouse the bias troops to further action by persuading them that nothing has changed since Agnew was criticizing those "men of the media." They're as powerful, as liberal, as unelected as ever. Still have a hold on public opinion. Don't represent the people, still. A first-class hate object, as they were in '64.

We know the case is going to be made that the liberal media "lost" Iraq. What we don't know is how many in the Bush coalition will play along with that kind of claim, and how many will openly contest the reasoning. For clues we turn to what Peter Johnson of USA Today called "the running six-week battle between bloggers and the Associated Press over the wire service's report of sectarian violence in Iraq."

To the lefty blogger Digby it's been "the rightosphere's Jamail Hussien witch hunt," an "ugly story all around."

I agree about the ugly. But when I sat down to think about the story, I didn't start with Who Is Capt. Jamil Hussein? or the AP's reply, or the right-wing bloggers and their misdeeds, or even the larger shame of the cultural right's attack on the press. In my own sorting through the episode, I started with the way we went into Iraq: on bad intelligence and cooked books and a phantom plan for the peace.

Leaps to large conclusions from thin and miserable facts are routine in the established record of how it happened. Discredited sources left in because they were critical to a faltering case-- also routine. And we know maybe ten percent of what will soon emerge when the record of those years (2002-04, especially) comes out through Congressional oversight, memoir-writing, the Libby trial, score-settling among the key players and the inevitable decline of the President's power and reputation as he lurches on to the end.

The intelligence fiasco in the build-up to the invasion is an exceedingly ugly story and rather than receding into the past, its significance grows every day. It's like the decomposing body under the expanding executive house. More keeps coming out about the fraudulent case for war, and the consequences of having only an imaginary plan for the occupation.

For Bush supporters who soldier on, the choices resemble what the go-getters from Enron faced: confront the bad accounting that's gone on for years or adopt even more desperate measures to conceal losses and keep your hand alive. But if the AP had fabricated a source and relied on that source 60 times, maybe the tables could be turned again and the reckoning put off.

That a day of reckoning for the children of Agnew was overdue amid the mess in Iraq was the point of Rich Lowry's column for The National Review on Dec. 19th. It didn't get enough attention. Speaking to fellow conservatives (and directly to warbloggers, I thought) Lowry began slowly: "The conservative campaign against the mainstream media" has certainly "scored some notable successes." Dan Rather's national guard investigation and Newsweek's Koran desecration story are mentioned. (And how great would it have been for the Agnewocracy to have added the Jamil Hussein saga?)

He's right, of course: we've had a conservative campaign against the mainstream news media. But has this campaign been good for conservatives? Not in Iraq. "The mainstream media is biased, arrogant, prone to stultifying group-think and much more fallible than its exalted self-image allows it to admit," Lowry wrote. "It also, however, can be right, and this is most confounding to conservatives."

That such a discovery--hey, the press can be accurate, people--would be confounding to conservatives is important to know. I give Lowry a lot of credit for saying that. (Prompting Ed Morrissey to agree.) For it shows how far things had gotten.

In their distrust of the mainstream media, their defensiveness over President Bush and the war, and their understandable urge to buck up the nation's will, many conservatives lost touch with reality on Iraq. They thought that they were contributing to our success, but they were only helping to forestall a cold look at conditions there and the change in strategy and tactics that would be dictated by it.

Yes, and by helping to forestall that cold look they were helping to create the huge failure that our policy in Iraq has become.

This week in the LA Times, Max Boot, a conservative columnist who supported the invasion of Iraq, echoed what Lowry said. The press for all its fall downs and faults has been the better reality check in Iraq-- better than the White House, better than the military and its press operation, better than the rightosphere itself. And the trouble is that it's been a better guide to what was actually happening for liberals and conservatives, hawks and doves. ((Also see this post at Intell Dump.)

It's true that the press covers explosions better than it covers conditions. Blow-ups get noticed, mission creep and steady progress do not. There's distortion in that. And a small distortion can over time produce a large effect. "Initially," wrote Boot. "I thought that this institutional bias toward sensationalism distorted public understanding of the war. But by now the dismal conditions on the ground have caught up with, if not surpassed, the media's bleak outlook."

Initially... but then I realized. The Agnewocracy dreads that second thought from people on its own side. And for good reason. Boot explains:

Whatever the shortcomings of some reporting, there has been a lot of first-rate coverage by a heroic corps of correspondents that has persevered in the face of terrible danger. (At least 109 journalists have been killed and many others wounded or kidnapped, making this the deadliest conflict on record for the Fourth Estate.) I am thinking of reporters such as John Burns, Dexter Filkins and Michael Gordon of the New York Times; Greg Jaffe and Michael Philips of the Wall Street Journal; Tom Ricks of the Washington Post; Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times and former Times reporter John Daniszewski; Sean Naylor of Army Times; Bing West and Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly; and George Packer of the New Yorker. They've risked their necks to get the truth -- and not, as Rumsfeld suggested, by flying over Iraq.

If you wanted to figure out what was happening over the last four years, you would have been infinitely better off paying attention to their writing than to what the president or his top generals were saying.

Notice that you're infinitely better off with the press if you wanted to figure out what was actually happening. But what if you didn't want it figured out because it would hamper your freedom of action?

As I argued in my Dec. 18 post (and the 214 comments it drew) the Bush government's retreat from empiricism is not some unfortunate tendency or bad habit that George W. Bush fell into. It's part of an emancipatory impulse in the political style that he and Cheney invented after September 11th, right in front of our eyes. I draw attention to its down side when I call it a retreat. The upside is you are much freer to act, to invent, to surge and conceal your surging from the enemy.

There's a story I want to tell you from Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks, Pentagon correspondent of the Washington Post. That's the book that recently made Republican Senator Gordon H. Smith of Oregon "heartsick" because it documents, on page after page, the retreat from empiricism and lack of professionalism (as well as failed oversight) in the making of the war.

Ricks is discussing Retired Lt. General Jay Garner's preparations to head to Iraq and take charge of post-war operations for the White House. This is Bush's man on the ground, hand-picked. On Feb. 21-22, 2003 Garner convened experts from across the government for the one and only meeting they would have to bring war policy roughly in line with what they could roughly predict would happen. (The effort failed.) Ricks goes on:

Of all those speaking those two days, one person in particular caught Garner's attention. Scrambling to catch up with the best thinking, Garner was looking for someone who had assembled the facts and who knew all the players in the U.S. government, the Iraqi exile community, and international organizations, and had considered the second-and third-order consequences of possible actions. While everyone else was fumbling for facts, this man had dozens of binders, tabbed amd indexed, on every aspect of Iaqi society, from how electricity was generated to how the port of Basra operated, recalled another participant.

"They had better stuff in those binders than the 'eyes only' stuff I eventually got from the CIA," said a military expert who attended.

"There's this one guy who knew everything, everybody, and he kept on talking," Garner recalled. At lunch, Garner took him aside. Who are you? the old general asked. Tom Warrick, the man answered.

"How come you know all this?" Garner asked.

"I've been working on this for a year," Warrick said. He said he was at the State Department, where he headed a project called the Future of Iraq, a sprawling effort that relied heavily on the expertise of Iraqi exiles.

"Come to work for me on Monday," Garner said.

And Warrick did just that. A few days later Rumsfeld takes Garner aside and tells him he has to get rid of Warrick. "I can't," says Garner. He's good, he's smart and he knows a ton about Iraq. Rumseld says there's nothing he can do; the order comes from above. Garner goes to see Stephen Hadley, deputy director of the National Security Council. Hadley can't do anything either. Later Richard Armitage explains it to Ricks. "Anybody that knows anything is removed." And Warrick was removed from Garner's team, undoubtedly on Cheney's orders.

Now why would the White House (Cheney) hamper the White House (Garner) in that particular way? The retreat from empiricism is replete with puzzles of this kind. That's why it's important for conservatives and warbloggers to ask how it happened on their watch. (From the comments at Retreat From Empiricism: "Suskind was the pass-along for a message between Republicans.")

It's going to take a while, I think. At the New Criterion site, James Bowman has a highly skeptical piece up--called Delusions of "reality"--about the "periodic 'reality' jags" journalists go on, "proudly boasting of their own intimate relations with that elusive commodity and taking the occasion to pour scorn and contempt upon what they take to be the Bush administration's unfamiliarity with same."

To Bowman, those who claim that Bush is out of touch with reality are calling their opponent in a political struggle mentally damaged. This sort of objection should be laughed out of opinion court because it transparently refuses to deal with Bush's arguments and policies. It's like telling me I'm in denial when I simply don't agree with your assessment of how it's going. Cheap trick, he says. Bowman's take is Agnewology at the more sophisticated high end.

Picture an outside director of a company where the employees are trying to signal the board that the CEO is drastically out of touch. He's relying on flawed reporting and advisers who won't tell him the truth because they don't think he wants to hear it. Bowman thinks these people are grandstanding. Their criticism sounds far-fetched to him. But one day a big outside audit says the company is out of touch with conditions swamping its business. The consensus among those in the know, including friends of the firm: the CEO's strategy lacks some essential nod to reality.

Maybe it's time to take a second look at those early complaints. Lowry, a conservative, and now Boot are saying what Bowman should be saying: wake-up, conservatives! "Most of the pessimistic warnings from the mainstream media have turned out to be right-- that the initial invasion would be the easy part, that seeming turning points (the capture of Saddam, the elections, the killing of Zarqawi) were illusory, that the country was dissolving into a civil war."

And this is the setting in which the battle of Jamail Hussein was fought. Not only the essential accuracy of the media's account--situation grim and deteriorating--but the fact that conservatives and Republicans were telling each other: it's time to recognize that reality. Lowry was peddling some new religion: when the media gets it right... (And his media blogger, Stephen Spruiell, followed up with that here.) The bloggers' struggle with the AP, the largest news organization in the world, was about that old time religion. The AP is piping it, and has sources who are sympathizers.

For a while there, they were feeling alive and tingly again in the church of Goldwater and Agnew. Their eyes got big: Bloggers take down Big Media, books eight and nine. Here we go again with the MSM.... And in an amazing plot twist for those who have read the series, Eason Jordan returns to the fray, working with Michelle Malkin in the big hunt for answers.

The many conservatives who, according to the editor of the National Review, had lost touch with reality on Iraq lost it because they identified with Bush's will to act-- and to act "against" the liberal media. They wanted him to openly deny it legitimacy, information, cooperation, respect. They cheered the effort to roll back the press, and thought they had done a fair amount of it themselves.

Lowry was saying this strategy had gone badly. "Realism is essential in any war," he wrote, "and it is impossible without an ability to assimilate bad news, even bad news that comes from distasteful sources." He should have gone further: If you really wanted Bush to succeed in Iraq, and you noticed that he could never be wrong or accept that bad news bearers could be right, this was a warning sign that the warbloggers themselves, as friends of the president's project, should have taken the lead in discussing. Why didn't they?

The children of Agnew have been fully on his side, soldiers in his struggle, happy warriors with Bush because they believe in their red state bones the press is biased against them. Like him they also disbelieve the bad news on principle, and then find someone more loyal to look into it.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and writes the blog PressThink, where this first appeared as Grave and Deteriorating for the Children of Agnew. It's been slightly revised.