A generation ago, when I worked at the Washington Post, the
right-wing fringe occasionally referred to us as "Pravda on the
Potomac." We reporters were amused but also rankled. We did not see
ourselves as a mouthpiece for the government (neither, it seems, did the
government). Still, the slur had a whiff of truth. Washington is a
company town and has its own corps of Kremlinologists who read the Post closely every day for
half-hidden clues to official intentions. Whether the newspaper gets
things right or wrong, its version of reality will inevitably color
everyone's political calculations. During the hard going in Vietnam,
Lyndon Johnson confided to the editorial page editor that the
Post's support for the war was worth two divisions.
The Pravda allusion takes on ironic resonance now that the
right-wingers own the federal government and the Post's divisions
are once again deployed for war. Its editorial pages have expressed an
over-the-top pre-emptive enthusiasm, arguing the case as repetitiously
as Bush and nearly as cockily as Rumsfeld. Its platoon of battle-ready
pundits attacks fiercely, with the confidence of small boys playing tin
soldiers on Mummy's carpet. Dissenting voices are ridiculed; reluctant
allies get the full-battery barrage.
But Kremlinologists have also observed, less obviously, a certain
patriotic passivity in the news columns, perhaps inhibited by the
heightened emotions of 9/11. Instead of examining the factual basis for
targeting Iraq, the Post largely framed the story line as a
Washington drama of inside baseball. Would Colin Powell hold off the
Pentagon hawks and win the President's heart and mind? Will Rumsfeld
whip the CIA into line? The problem with insider reporting is that it
tends to skip over the obvious, critical questions that the insiders do
not wish to address. What exactly does Saddam Hussein have to do with
Osama bin Laden or 9/11? Instead of digging into that and a host of
other relevant questions, most reporting concentrated on war plans and
Saddam's many crimes.
We read numerous accounts of the blitzkrieg strategy Washington is
devising for Baghdad, but odd little omissions occurred. When Osama's
taped message surfaced recently, the Post story neglected to
mention that the Al Qaeda leader also denounced Saddam as being among
the "infidels." When prominent figures like Bill Clinton's Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright or retired Gen. Anthony Zinni dissented from
going to war, it was treated as no big deal. Despite some honorable
exceptions, major media generally went limp on the march to war. The
Post went star-spangled.
The shortage of critical challenges from the press (and from intimidated
Democrats) assisted the manipulation of public thinking. By relentless
repetition, Bush and his team accomplished an audacious feat of
propaganda--persuading many Americans to redirect the emotional wounds
left by 9/11, their hurt and anger, away from the perpetrators to a
different adversary. According to a New York Times-CBS News
survey, 42 percent now believe Saddam Hussein was personally responsible
for the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In an ABC News
poll, 55 percent believe Saddam provides direct support to Al Qaeda. The
Iraqi did it, let's go get him. As a bogus rallying cry, "Remember 9/11"
ranks with "Remember the Maine" of 1898 for war with Spain or the Gulf
of Tonkin resolution of 1964 for justifying the US escalation in
In the past month or so, however, my impression (shared by others) is
that the Post's news coverage has toughened
considerably--beginning to puncture various propaganda claims and to
explore contradictions that might better have been examined long ago.
The editors and reporters may have been shaken by the unanticipated
public outrage, including from their own readers. The newspaper's
omissions, distortions and casual disparagement of antiwar protests were
prompting waves of e-mail objections. "It is tunnel-vision coverage like
yours," one message complained, "that scares off people in mainstream
America who are against the war but can't relate to the picture you
painted of its opposition."
The Post's ombudsman, former foreign editor Michael Getler, has
seconded many of the readers' complaints in his memos to the staff. As
millions marched at home and abroad, it became increasingly difficult to
attribute the antiwar uproar to what one columnist ridiculed as the
"irrelevant left." Indeed, the Post's media critic, Howard Kurtz,
discerned a general trend in the media toward more aggressive and
skeptical reporting. "It's about time," he wrote. "Whether you're for or
against the war, a full-throated debate in the media is overdue." In his
usual obsequious manner, Kurtz left out his employer.
The Post's institutional discomfort was confirmed on February 27
in a long, semiconfessional editorial that respectfully acknowledged the
angry dissenters and attempted once again to justify the march to war,
but with less imperious certainty. The essence of the editorial board's
defense was, Hey, the Post has always been for invading Iraq and
toppling Saddam, so give us credit at least for consistency. Yet the
editorial proceeded to repeat Bush's slippery emotional logic. The world
is a dangerous place, it reminded, and we will feel better about
terrorism if Saddam is taken out. Note the leap of logic in that
elision. The editors even cited the anthrax attacks in Florida, New York
and Washington. Does this mean they are adding the anthrax letters to
the indictment against Saddam? A lot of readers were not comforted.
It's too late for nuanced evasions, too late for the Post to
reposition its divisions to the rear. It sold this war, and now if
America becomes the author of massive violence in a war of choice, not
necessity, the Post will be implicated in the bloody
consequences. The antiwar movement will not go away once the bombing
starts, but all of its objections to this war will become vividly
relevant to the news coverage. Reporters and editors can still ask the
hard questions and need not pretend to be shocked if the US colonial
governor decides to stall on the promise of Iraqi democracy. Americans
at large, I fear, are about to lose their sense of injured innocence.
Maybe the news media can lose some of their "patriotic" deference to the
warriors in charge.
National affairs correspondent William Greider has been a political journalist for more than thirty-five years. A former Rolling Stone and Washington Post editor, he is the author of the national bestsellers One World, Ready or Not, Secrets of the Temple and Who Will Tell The People.
Copyright © 2003 The Nation