02/20/2007 05:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Brit Hume, John Murtha, And The Broken Telephone Of A Smear

Brit Hume provoked a strong reaction yesterday with his comments on Fox News calling Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) an "absolute fountain" of "naiveté" and saying he was "long past the day when he had anything but the foggiest awareness of what the heck is going on in the world." This was in response to Murtha's stated plan for Iraq, which supported a back-door troop withdrawal (and Surge-block) made possible by actually holding the military to strict equipment requirements (not entirely unreasonable) and precluding the recall of servicemen in the first year after their return from active duty (also not that unreasonable, as the response the plan to recall National Guardsmen for 2nd tours last month indicated, plus general concerns over the surge).

Murtha's plan has been criticized for its back-door Surge-stymieing quality, but it's important to note that the central tenets of the plan have been acknowledged as sound; that is to say, yea to equipment requirements etc., but address the surge directly, not via technicality (see this NYT editorial and Bob Schieffer at CBS). The Washington Post, too, disagreed, and more forcefully; it was WaPo which provided Hume with his blast-off point, as follows:

HUME: That sound bite from John Murtha suggests that it's time a few things be said about him. Even the "Washington Post" noted he didn't seem particularly well informed about what's going on over there, to say the least...And that sound bite is naiveté writ large, and the man is an absolute fountain of such talk, and the fact that he has ascended to the position he has in the eyes of the Democrats in the House and perhaps Democrats around the country tells you a lot about how much they know or care about what's really going on over there.

Wow. Strong words from Hume, getting from WaPo's assertion to the fact that Democrats are clueless and careless on Iraq. Hume's hyperbole is not surprising here; what is of interest is the assertion on which it is founded, and from which it draws credibility ("Look! WaPo thinks so too!"). After the jump, we'll unpack exactly what WaPo said, but here's the conclusion: The distance between Murtha's actual interview to WaPo's version of it to Brit Hume's little soliloquy is far indeed &madash; a classic case of media broken telephone where carelessness in rendering and representation twists both word and intent, providing ample opportunity for further mischaracterizations, false conclusions, and out-and-out smears. WaPo — we're lookin' at you.

So let's go to what WaPo actually said:

Mr. Murtha's cynicism is matched by an alarming ignorance about conditions in Iraq. He continues to insist that Iraq "would be more stable with us out of there," in spite of the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies that early withdrawal would produce "massive civilian casualties." He says he wants to force the administration to "bulldoze" the Abu Ghraib prison, even though it was emptied of prisoners and turned over to the Iraqi government last year. He wants to "get our troops out of the Green Zone" because "they are living in Saddam Hussein's palace"; could he be unaware that the zone's primary occupants are the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy?

Forgive my alarming ignorance, but that's alarming ignorance? Let's unpack what WaPo's editorial board uses to support this contention: (1) Saying that withdrawal would stabilize Iraq - Murtha may advocate withdrawal but he did not, as I understand it, say "early withdrawal" as WaPo suggests; in fact, in the actual interview (see here at 5:36 - 5:45), Murtha talks about withdrawing "in stages" and "eventually" - he just doesn't want to add with the surge. So to WaPo, does "non-surging" now equal "advocacy of immediate and ruinous withdrawal? Because by this logic, it sure seems so.

(2) Bulldozing a symbol of American oppression of Iraqis? That's an opinion, not in any way the expression of thinking that Abu Ghraib is still in use, Lynndie England-style. The comment was made right after Murtha talks about Guanatamo as "a blot on our credibility" which he thinks should be closed. The bulldoze-Abu-Graib idea is mentioned immediately after - the associations are not hard to divine. Is that top of the to-do list? Perhaps not. But "alarmingly ignorant?" That's a stretch.

(3) "He wants to "get our troops out of the Green Zone" because "they are living in Saddam Hussein's palace"; could he be unaware that the zone's primary occupants are the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy?" Okay, WaPo, let's at least be straightforward when we render comments. What Murtha actually said was this:

Let's take, for instance, Saddam Hussein's palace - that's where our troops are living. They have everything they need. They have electricity, as they should. They have warm water. They have all the things that you need and we provide for our troops, and I agree with that.

But right around the outside is where the Iraqis live with nothing, and that's the thing, I think, that worries me... When you see that 61 percent of the Iraqis say it's alright to kill Americans, that's part of the overall problem we face in winning the hearts and minds [of Iraqis].

Murtha says this at around 4:30. At 5:36 - 5:45, he talks about getting the troops out of the Green Zone, as mentioned above. So the causal relationship implied by WaPo is false, as is the context WaPo gives to the remarks: They were completely in the context of repairing the Iraqi attitude toward Americans. Guess what he said right after? "You go to Abu Ghraib, that's what happened." Context is important; WaPo missed it here, or worse, deliberately misrepresented it.

But wait, there's more! Funnily enough, it was damned hard finding out whether US troops were still using Saddam's palace as a base (they were, we know, but Google did not seem to know about now). So an intrepid ETP operative called up the Military Press and confirmed that, yes, U.S. military operations are still being conducted from the Palace, though it's not definite that soliders are bunking then though, according to the Military Press, it is entirely possible that personnel spend the night.

As for alarming ignorance, WaPo's definition of the Green Zone leaves a little something to be desired. It's pretty much known to be the "center of the international presence" in Baghdad, the locus of American interests (expanding interests, per Newsweek in September)and locus for journos to boot (even Laura Ingraham knows that). It's also, inevitably, American officials go when they make their "surprise" visits (cf. Condi Rice last week). Like everything else in the WaPo paragraph above, it's a glib characterization, selective about what it includes, and less than scrupulous about context.

This has not been a short blog post, nor a short process — in order to assess WaPo's characterization I had to go back to Murtha's original interview and consult a number of different sources to be sure of my facts. Not everyone has the time to do this (certainly not Brit Hume), but also, we're talking about the Washington Post, so there is no reason why anyone should. At that level, a reader ought to be able to assume that an editorial is based strictly on the facts, presented in context and inclusively, not selectively. Now that I've taken the time to parse through Murtha's comments and WaPo's rendering of them, I'm definitely alarmed. But it ain't by Murtha.

Murtha Touts New Way To Stop Troop 'Surge' In Iraq []
Congressman Jack Murtha Briefs []


Murtha's Iraq Plan Is Wrong And Right: Insisting On Proper Training Is No Way To Stop The War, But It Should Be Done [Bob Schieffer, CBSNews]
"This page has advocated many of the same reforms [as Murtha] -- but not as a back-door way of forcing lower troop numbers in Iraq" [NYT]
Hume and Hannity Mug Murtha While the White House Pretends to Take the High Road [Arianna Huffington, HuffPo]

Related, Ish:

Olbermann Adds Laugh Track To Hume's Murtha Rant [MSNBC via TVNewser]