Spun Dizzy

The press needs to challenge the conservative spin machine on Iraq and al Qaeda. It's best to start with Tony Snow.

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Former Fox pundit Tony Snow, apparently drawing inspiration from Joe McCarthy, pulled a fast one earlier this week before a startled White House press corps. The new White House spokesman observed early on in his daily briefing that:

“There have been some in the Democratic Party who have argued against the Patriot Act, against the terror surveillance program, against Guantanamo. In other words, there are some people who say that we shouldn’t fight the war; we shouldn’t apprehend al-Qaeda; we shouldn’t detain al-Qaeda; we shouldn’t question al-Qaeda; and we shouldn’t listen to al-Qaeda. In other words, they’re all for winning the war on terror, but they’re all against providing the tools for winning that war.”

Did he name names? Nope. Did he provide any evidence? Not a chance. A quick look at the facts reveals (not surprisingly) an entirely different picture.

Snow is correct in saying that “some” Democrats have argued against the Patriot Act, even though only one, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, actually voted against it. But this is true of Republicans as well. In August 2003, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to ban funding for Section 213 of the Act, which allows law enforcement officials to delay notifying a suspect that their property has been searched.

Two conservative groups have also weighed in against Patriot Act. All Snow needed to do was check with his former employer, which noted that the Southeastern Legal Foundation opposed the bill, as did the American Conservative Union Foundation’s 21st Century Center for Privacy and Freedom. So, too, did Republican Sens. Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire.

Last November, when the Act came up for a vote on a seven-year extension, some Republicans resisted pressure form the White House to pass the legislation as is. ”I didn’t come to Washington, D.C., to expand the police powers of the federal government,” said Rep. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California. “To make these temporary expansions of police power permanent as our way of life, changing our way of life in America, altering the balance of liberty and police powers, is outrageous.” As for those Democrats who think the United States (in Snow’s words) “shouldn’t apprehend al Qaeda, we shouldn’t detain al Qaeda, we shouldn’t question al Qaeda,” well, we’ve investigated the matter extensively and continue to come up empty-handed. We invite Snow to name a name or two�?????. Snow likely figured he could get away with making up accusations, in part, because over the past several years too many reporters have shown little interest in checking out their facts, or looking beyond a couple of carefully worded quotes by politicians, to write their stories. A prime example occurred last week in The Wall Street Journal, when reporter John D. Mckinnon wrote that “while most people say they are unhappy about the way the war is going, they still oppose the immediate withdrawal that high-profile Democrats increasingly favor.”

Much like Snow and his former colleagues at Fox, McKinnon passes along an extremely serious charge without even bothering to ask for back up. Nowhere are we informed just exactly who these Democrats are, or how they’re calling for an “immediate withdrawal” from Iraq.

Would these be the same high-profile Democrats, including party leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in the House and Harry Reid (D-NV) in the Senate alongside senior Democrats on the House and Senate committees involved with armed services, foreign relations, intelligence and military spending—all of whom recently sent a letter to the president demanding “a timeline for withdrawing troops [from Iraq]?”

Nowhere in the letter did the group call for a pullout of any kind. Nor was there a specific timeline proposed to the president. Yet The Journal piece moves on to paint congressional Democrats as out of step with the mainstream of public opinion, when in fact the opposite is true. A recent Pew poll found that 52 percent of Americans were in favor of setting a timetable for withdrawal. More to the point, a majority of 57 percent of respondents to an August CNN poll were in favor of a timetable for withdrawal.

Had the piece contained these numbers, it would have thoroughly undermined itself—even its factual misstatements. Alas, better to ignore the entire matter, and live in a dream world where the public still supports the president.

And remember, these are the news pages—not The Journal editorial pages—where such Snow-y shenanigans seem to be a given. While The Journal example was particularly egregious, as the election season draws nearer, some of the jockeying over who is saying what tends to strike the impartial reader as beyond ridiculous.

On Friday, The Washington Post’s Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei also failed to do a bit of fact-checking in their own version of horse-race journalism, reporting that “Many Democrats accuse the president of advocating “stay the course” in Iraq, but the White House rejects the phrase.” Well, as all of us who have loved and lost well know, there is rejection and then there is rejection.

As American Prospect’s Greg Sargent pointed out, the White House might “reject” the phrase, but the president doesn’t. He had used it the phrase just the day before. American Prospect bloggers found numerous additional examples out of the veritable White Horses’ mouths.

It’s true that “many Democrats” accuse the president of wanting to “stay the course,” but it’s only fair to note that the president and his aides concur. Objectivity, after all, is not the same thing as purposeful ignorance; offering readers a balanced journalistic meal is not the same as swallowing both sides’ spin and merely regurgitating back onto their plates.

Tony Snow and the like may get paid to lie for a living, but it’s the job of the journalist to make that job a little more difficult.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.

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Eric Alterman

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