Since I'm usually busy doing Russert Watch, I no longer start my day with CNN's Reliable Sources, hosted by Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. That treat was reserved for last night, when I settled in to watch the version safely recorded on my DVR. It was an emotionally charged show, discussing last week's awful attack on a CBS news team in Iraq which killed cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan and critically wounded correspondent Kimberly Dozier. NBC correspondent Richard Engel talked graphically about witnessing the horrors of war, getting used to hearing about atrocities: "[J]ust today I was reading reports that eight Iraqi heads were found severed in fruit baskets in Baquba... When I heard it, I've heard so many reports like this, I didn't even bat an eye." The program also discussed the Haditha massacre, unrest and violence in Afghanistan, and the fact that Bush flat-out lied about soon-to-be-departing Treasury Secretary John Snow. This is "Reliable Sources" for Sunday, June 4, 2006.
Which is why my mouth literally dropped open when halfway through the program, Kurtz came out with this:
"Coming up in the next half hour of "Reliable Sources": with rising casualties in Iraq and sinking poll numbers, is the president having a terrible year, or are the media just making it seem that way?"
Excuse me? Is this dude on drugs? The framing of this question is so biased, so skewed, and such a blatant, scapegoating stretch that I genuinely can't believe Kurtz had the audacity to say it on the air in a show with the word "reliable" in it. This is even worse blame-the-media-mongering than his recent adoption of the journalists-are-ignoring-good-news-from-Iraq argument, for which he got a well-deserved smackdown from CBS' Lara Logan. Why? Because it's actually the SAME blame-the-media-mongering that he's been pushing, except now instead of being blamed for bad news in Iraq Kurtz is blaming his fellow journalists for bad news about the Bush administration. After the break he goes on to frame the issue:
Day after day the news from Iraq is consistently negative. Car bombs, roadside explosions and now disturbing allegations about the role of U.S. troops in the death of Iraqi civilians. President Bush's popularity is inextricably linked to developments in Iraq. His poll numbers have been low for months. Some Republicans are criticizing him on other issues, such as immigration, and the press seems to be constantly beating him up. Are the media accurately reflecting an administration that's lost its way or just piling on an embattled president?
Notice that he frames the issue in terms of Iraq, throwing a few general comments in there providing no other context or even a shred of evidence that the coverage amounts to "piling on" rather than, you know, "coverage." Despite lipservice to "other issues" if you read the transcript you'll see that the terms of the discussion deal exclusively with events in Iraq, with spin courtesy of former Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke and The Nation's Katrina Vanden Heuvel pointing out that, you know, this stuff is actually happening. As I watched - and later read, just to be sure I wasn't mistaken - I was amazed that Kurtz even let this debate back on the airwaves - especially in the context of the earlier discussion of what happened to the CBS team.
Even more shocking, though, is the application of this pure and unadulterated spin to critical coverage of the administration, casting it into doubt and essentially blaming the media for making Bush look bad for reporting on the things that, er, make Bush look bad. "Rising casualties in Iraq?" Check. "Sinking poll numbers?" Check. Those are your words, Howard, but if you like I'll add a few more: Katrina, energy crisis, Plamegate, Scooter Libby, NSA spying, Donald Rumsfeld, social security, hiring idiots like Karl Zinsmeister, "This is the most secretive administration I have ever covered," Jack Abramoff, and Donald Rumsfeld again, just for good measure. No above example is the fault of the media; that one goes straight to the administration. Bush was recently voted the worst president since WWII in a Quinnipiac University poll; he may even be the worst president ever. His approval rating is in the toilet. It seems pretty straightforward: Bush is indeed having a terrible year.*
So why is Kurtz clouding the issue? Why is he blaming the messenger? Kurtz's coverage has been critiqued for having an undue conservative slant in the past, but even so, it's shocking to see a pro like him return to an issue which was debated and debunked weeks ago. He's a pro, and as a pro he must at least know what I know, which is this: it's irresponsible, it's misleading, and it's anything but reliable.
*Insofar as said terrible year is the result of him doing a terrible job, and actually caring.