In an op-ed for The Washington Post on Sunday, former White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer takes strong issue with his former deputy, and successor in that post, Scott McClellan, who in his new book labels the media "complicit enablers" in the march to war in Iraq. Fleischer, points out that he, of all people, never expected to defend reporters but he feels they are getting a bum rap for allegedly not asking the tough questions before the invasion -- and he sides with those, such as David Gregory and Charles Gibson, who have strongly defended themselves.
But Fleischer's case is misleading and weak. Consider just one assertion: "In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, no matter what position the president took, the press took the opposite."
In fact, half of column considers issues beyond Iraq -- involving Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, and the immediate aftermath of 9/11. When he gets to Iraq, he cherry picks a few tough questions, but the only reporter he identifies is -- are you ready? -- Helen Thomas, the most outspoken of all the White House reporters in that period. The other questions simply come from transcripts, with no reporter known, but I would suspect that one or more of these other examples also belonged to Thomas.
In any event, the handful of questions, covering seven months of buildup to war, hardly represent a groundswell of criticism. And, in any case, they are almost irrelevant. No one disputes that dozens of reporters, over many months, asked Fleischer many tough questions in the little-watched daily press gaggles. But it was sporadic, few were posed to the president in prime time, and the "toughness" rarely carried over to print or airtime.
More importantly, it was the overall press coverage that was, yes, quite enabling, as I have chronicled in my new book and dozens of times elsewhere. Stories critical of the administration's case for war were usually buried - and the non-answers to the "tough questions" did not lead to frontpage probes.
Dan Rather, in speaking to the National Conference on Media Reform in Minneapolis on Saturday, aptly addressed this "tough questions" question, by observing that too often the White House correspondent "dutifully repeats the question he asked of the president or his press secretary, and dutifully relates the answer he was given -- the same non-answer we've already heard dozens of times, which amounts to a pitch for the administration's point of view, whether or not the answer had anything to do with the actual question that was asked. And then: 'Thank you Jack. In other news today... '"
Here's how Rather explained further: "When a tough question is asked and not answered, when reputable people come before the public and say, 'wait a minute, something's not right here,' the press has treated them like voices crying in the wilderness. These views, though they might be given air time, become lone dots -- dots that journalists don't dare connect, even if the connections are obvious, even if people on the Internet and in the independent press are making these very same connections. The mainstream press doesn't connect these dots because someone might then accuse them of editorializing, or of being the, quote, 'liberal media.'
"But connecting these dots -- making disparate facts make sense -- is a big part of the real work of journalism."
At the president's final press conference before the 2003 invasion, as I relate in my book, reporters asked a few "tough" questions but also laughed along with the president's jokes and quips on the eve of war, missing their last chance to really hold his feet to the fire. Surely, that night, Ari Fleischer, watching offstage, breathed a sigh of relief -- not fire at the "tough" reporters.
The Post is on quite a roll this week. Fred Hiatt, the editorial and opinion chief, has a new column that currently carries this headline on the paper's Web site: "The Iraq War Isn't Bush's Fault."
So I do have to agree with Ari Fleischer's concluding sentence in his op-ed: "No amount of revisionism should be allowed to erase the historical record on this."
Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. He is editor of Editor & Publisher.