No Substance, Please. We’re Journalists

Is more time spent on the substance of the Iraq debate in Congress, rather than on its theatrics, too much to ask of the media?

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The mainstream media buried the story of this weekend’s Senate vote on the anti-escalation resolution with a whimper, not a bang—and opinion writers on the left and right were happy to let them.

Here are the facts: On Friday, the House passed a resolution along partisan lines denouncing the president’s plan to expand the war in Iraq with 21,500 additional troops, though 17 Republicans joined the Democrats. The media coverage was accurate, if focused on partisanship, with headlines like The New York Times’ “A Divided House Denounces Plan for More Troops.”

Then, in a special Saturday session, the Senate voted 56 to 34—with seven Republicans switching aisles—in favor of a motion to begin debate on the same resolution, in effect, supporting it. Now what should we make of that?

One might say “Hmmm, a bipartisan majority of both legislative houses voted to condemn the president’s escalation plan…? Perhaps not. The New York Times coverage read “Senate Rejects Renewed Effort to Debate Iraq;” The Washington Post announced “Iraq Vote In Senate Blocked By GOP;” and The L.A. Times went with the headline “GOP blocks Senate vote on troop resolution.” All these stories and more focused on the GOP’s procedural success and parliamentary maneuvering. The reasons for the condemnation? Well, you’ll have to go somewhere else for that stuff.

Meanwhile, plenty of additional coverage focused on the scheduling problems the vote caused ’08 presidential candidates in the Senate—all but Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) chose to skip campaigning to attend the vote. All this attention on a primary election season a year away might make you forget there’s a war on. McCain’s decision even received glowing coverage at The National Journal‘s Hotline blog, which noted that the “straight-talk express is shining even brighter these days.”

This trend of reporting process over substance is unfortunate, if omnipresent. Even worse is the media’s inability—or unwillingness—to fact-check Republicans who are angry about the Democrats trying to debate and vote on Iraq policy.

“The majority cannot tell the minority what we are going to have one vote on, take it or leave it,” Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) told The New York Times. Yet things have changed since the GOP lost control of Congress, a time when it seemed the majority party was supposed to decide when and how votes would proceed, and the minority party simply had to acquiesce.

In fact, the process was considerably fairer than much of what we’ve seen in the recent past when the Republicans were in control. Senate Democrats wanted to allow debate on the issue of escalation, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would allow later debate on alternate Republican resolutions even after the GOP blocked a vote on a previous bipartisan Iraq resolution authored by Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and John Warner (R-VA). Even in the House, the new leadership allowed a full debate on the resolution that lasted longer than that on the original resolution giving the Bush administration the authorization to use force in Iraq in late 2002. The New York Times’ coverage did catch this fact, so kudos on that.

And the pundits? Well, “Dean” David Broder’s most recent column in The Washington Post previews the House’s resolution, sort of. It’s a review of the president’s response that doesn’t touch on the substance of the debate, but instead focuses on the likelihood of his political comeback and how he has “impressive[ly]” increased media access.

Bob Novak, ever insightful, penned a column Monday on Rep. John Murtha that should probably have been published when Murtha first staked out an influential position in Democratic foreign policymaking in the fall of 2005.

Novak narrates Murtha’s failed attempt to become Majority Leader and speculates Novakian on his plan to “cripple Bush’s Iraq troop surge by placing conditions on funding.” He doesn’t, however, note that these conditions will ensure that any troops sent to Iraq will have the proper amount of rest, training, and equipment. As misguided as the escalation policy is, the idea that ensuring that all troops properly trained and equipped will “cripple” the policy is even more worrisome.

Still, Novak is a model of decency and common sense compared with Fox News’ Brit Hume, who said of the former marine, “This guy is long past the day when he had anything but the foggiest awareness of what the heck is going on in the world,” terming Murtha “dotty” and “an absolute fountain” of “naiveté.” And believe it or not, Hume was a model of decency and good sense compared with his colleague Sean Hannity.

As Arianna so helpfully pointed out on “The Huffington Post,” the Foxy anchor somehow translated Murtha’s comment regarding the troops that “They must have the equipment and the training and they must be certified by the Chiefs of the various services before they can go back…” into this nonsense: “Do you support the idea of taking away the equipment of troops in harm’s way the way John Murtha just described?”

Reid came in for criticism on the left as well. Matt Stoller of MyDD complained that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is blocking real progress on Iraq after he “failed to get a vote on a non-binding resolution in the Senate.” True, but Reid also failed to invent a perpetual motion machine. As Matt Yglesias and Todd Gitlin explain, about the best one can expect from a one-vote majority in the Senate—and one that rests on the increasingly Republican-friendly Joe Lieberman—is increasing oversight, halting the president’s domestic agenda, and defining an agenda that will allow Americans to see more clearly the differences between the two parties for the coming presidential election.

Naturally, that agenda has to include a reversal of the Bush administration’s catastrophic Iraq policy. It would be nice, therefore, if the media spent more time on the substance of the argument—rather than its theatrics. I’m sure our troops—and the Iraqis—would appreciate it as well.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from to Media Matters. The new URL is:

Tim Fernholz is a Washington, D.C., writer.

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Eric Alterman

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