Together in Never Never Land

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George Bush’s defense of his misguided war in Iraq has long passed into the realm of farce. It’s a difficult problem for the press corps to handle: how to cover an administration that treats not only reporters but truth itself with brazen contempt. Unfortunately, it’s not one reporters appear to be getting a handle on anytime soon.

The New York Times, Washington Post and others also cast the news conference as part of a concentrated media push by the White House to try and convince the American people that there is good news coming out of Iraq. This gambit worked once before when the president managed to pull his sagging poll numbers back up in the fall of 2005. But as Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told the Times on Wednesday, “The problem with the speeches is they get gradually more realistic, but they are still exercises in spin. They don’t outline the risks. They don’t create a climate where people trust what’s being said.”

But on the critically important issue of why the United States went to war with Iraq and why, as Cordesman said, people no longer trust Bush, the majority of the mainstream media appear immune to the wisdom of late gained by the American people at large. As Newsweek reported:

“A bitterly divided electorate gives President George W. Bush an approval rating of only 36 percent in the latest NEWSWEEK poll, matching the low point in his presidency recorded last November. His image as an effective leader in the war on terror is tarnished, with less than half the public (44 percent) approving of the way he’s handling terrorism and homeland security. Despite a series of presidential speeches meant to bolster support for the war in Iraq, as well as the announcement of a major military offensive when the poll was getting under way, only 29 percent of the people questioned approved Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq. Fully 65 percent disapprove.”

And yet, despite this intense skepticism on the part of everyday people, reporters continue to exist in Bush’s Never Never Land. None, for instance saw fit to call him on his lies — not spin, in this case, but “lies” — on Tuesday. For example, everyone present, including the reporters and editors who wrote about it afterward, ignored the president’s contention that, “We worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny the inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did. And the world is safer for it.”

In fact, as the rest of the world knows, the inspectors were actually already in Iraq, and finding nothing, when George W. Bush himself decided to kick them out in order to launch his catastrophic war. What I said about “farce” above applies here since this is the second time this has happened. Bush made exactly this false claim before in July 2003, and Dana Milbank and Dana Priest reprinted it in the Washington Post. In a meeting with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Bush proclaimed, “[W]e gave [Saddam] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.” Milbank and Priest’s story soft-pedaled the lie, writing that the president’s claim “appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring: Hussein had, in fact, admitted the inspectors and Bush had opposed extending their work because he did not believe them effective.” A few days later, Milbank shrugged off the president’s claim to the Post’s Howie Kurtz, saying, “I think what people basically decided was this is just the president being the president…. He is under a great deal of pressure.” Since virtually every president might honestly be said to be “under a great deal of pressure,” Milbank is offering what amounts to a license to lie.

This attitude helps to explain the air of unreality that appears to engulf almost all discussions of Iraq and the horrific situation Bush and company have wrought there. For instance the Washington Post editorial board argued HERE that the president “was considerably more effective [in his press conference] in explaining and defending his commitment to the war … he sounded authentic=” One would think that after three full years of failure, incompetence, and dishonesty, “sounded authentic” is damn faint praise indeed.

But the Post’s editorial page does itself one better, saying that “the president clearly has not lost sight of the enormous importance of the Iraqi mission, to U.S. security as well as to his presidency,” concluding that, “Mr. Bush remains committed in the theater where U.S. commitment, and leadership, are still desperately needed.”

As to just what the heck that means, your guess is as good as mine. To me it sounds like an unwillingness of the highest echelons of the mainstream media to face up to the catastrophe they helped enable. And all of it begs the most obvious question: How many more American soldiers must die for our leaders — and media’s —misguided fantasies?

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at 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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