On Aug. 12, 2004, the Washington Post published a Page One story by Howard Kurtz in which their media writer described how stories developed by Post reporters questioning the Bush administration's evidence for going to war in Iraq had failed to make the paper's front page.
Page One, he wrote, "is a newspaper's billboard, its way of making a statement about what is important, and stories trumpeted there are often picked up by other news outlets."
Most of Kurtz's piece, as a front page news article, not a column, reflected the opinions of others -- Post reporters and editors and a few outsiders. In 3,116 words Kurtz made exactly two independent assertions:
* "The Post published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page."
* "Whether a tougher approach by The Post and other news organizations would have slowed the rush to war is, at best, a matter of conjecture."
Now we shouldn't pick on Howie. He's just another Beltway guy, married to a Republican campaign consultant, making a living in the news business. Except that as the media writer for one of the most important newspapers in the world, he has something of an obligation to be a bit more than facile. And if he is going to contradict himself, he ought to be candid about it.
Yet just the other day he was on Jon Stewart's Daily Show to push his new book. And during the discussion of how the television networks -- some of those "other news outlets" whose reporting is often picked up from the Post's front page -- had altered their coverage of the war in Iraq, Kurtz made this statement:
"How they framed the war coverage, I think, actually did help turn public opinion back in those days when the administration was saying everything was fine -- in 2005 and 2006."
So, on the one hand, it's only a matter of conjecture, at best, whether tougher coverage by Kurtz's principal employer (and others) would have slowed the rush to war in Iraq. But there's no question that how the networks framed their coverage of Iraq later turned public opinion against the war.
What's infuriating about this, is that Kurtz has now acknowledged -- without ever admitting it -- that had he and his newspaper and the rest of the mainstream media (with a few exceptions like the late Knight-Ridder Washington bureau) done their jobs, the Bush administration might never have been able to rally enough support to go to war in Iraq.
That's why, in March 2004, in an article on Salon.com, I called on my former colleagues to frame the 2004 presidential election not as a battle between the "war president" and an "unsteady senator" but as a question of whether George W. Bush had competently and honestly managed the nation's foreign and military affairs.
The need to do this was clear because: "That the news media was complicit in building the case for war against Iraq based on false, misleading and controverted information is beyond dispute."
And I pointed to the New York Times coverage of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 as Exhibit A for how the news media can subvert its own essential role in democracy when reporters and editors -- placing momentary notions of "patriotism" above their obligation to tell the truth without fear or favor -- fail to expose lies, half-truths and misstatements by public officials.
Kurtz appears now to have concluded that the news media, by re-framing the war in Iraq, turned public opinion against the war. It's time for him to admit that had he and his colleagues aggressively reported and published what was actually known and not known about weapons of mass destruction, connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the role of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi exiles and more, they likely would have slowed the rush to war.