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What’d I Say?

Two stories dominated insider press coverage this week: the release of the Iraq Study Group report on what to do next in Iraq, and the Senate confirmation hearing for the next Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. These two stories clearly overlapped in reality, but were treated by the media as competing narratives—that is if you could make sense of them at all.

Although the Gates Hearing came first, the Baker-Hamilton commission dominated coverage from the outset. Cover stories in both Time and Newsweek basked on semi-official leaks.

Time’s Michael Duffy attempted to get the ball rolling with his quickly-congealed conventional wisdom that any change of course the Bush administration makes in Iraq likely “will be based on the agreement reached by the bipartisan commission led by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton.”

The only problem with that assumption is that President Bush was not exactly with the program last week in Jordan. He told reporters that “There’s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there’s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq?This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all.”

This was further emphasized by Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, who reported that “the tone of Bush’s senior aides, who were interviewed this week by Newsweek, was dismissive, even condescending, toward Baker and the Iraq Study Group.” And what’s more, it’s hardly apparent, to put it mildly, that the Iraqis are up for implementing its recommendations either. As the report itself so gently puts it, “Key Shia and Kurdish leaders,” it notes, “have little commitment to national reconciliation.”

The Wednesday morning papers went a long way in destroying much of the optimism previously shown toward the panel. The Washington Post’s Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer dropped the most dismal news, reporting that many panel members had decided that the war had already been lost, and that an early working draft from July stated that “There is even doubt that any level of resources could achieve the administration’s stated goals, given the illiberal and undemocratic political forces, many of them Islamic fundamentalists, that will dominate large parts of the country for a long time.” The Post also obtained a series of email exchanges showing that many commission members expressed “skepticism that Bush would accept the panel’s recommendations.”

The New York Times, perhaps waiting for the Thursday morning edition to fully delve into the group’s report, relied Wednesday morning on Philip Shenon’s cursory profile of the often-overlooked co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, Lee Hamilton. Shenon and The Times seemed to go out of their way to show that even though Hamilton served 34 years as a Democratic Representative in the House of Representatives, he wasn’t really a Democrat. “On the Iraq Study Group,” Shenon wrote, “Mr. Hamilton is demonstrating, as he did in Congress, that he is not in lock-step with Democratic leaders who have mostly recommended a sharper reversal of American policy than the group will propose.”

The article even reached back to the 9/11 Commission to try and distance Hamilton from the Democratic party, saying that, “While never criticizing him in public, Democrats on the Sept. 11 commission and Congressional leaders were often at odds with Mr. Hamilton…describing him as too trusting of the Bush administration and too patient in negotiations with the White House over access to classified documents.” The article shared a similar story about Hamilton’s, trusting nature during the Iran-Contra investigation in the late 1980s.

It is strange that old Washington hands like David Broder would try to tell the same old story as late as Wednesday morning: an allegedly inspiring “demonstration of genuine bipartisanship that they hope will serve as an example to the broader political world.” Once again the focus of everyone’s hopes was on “consensus.” “No one wanted to see us embarrassed by being unable to come to consensus,” Simpson said. But exactly what was the basis for this consensus and what basis did it have in the real-world conundrum that George W. Bush and his supporters have created in Iraq?

Um, not much?

Meanwhile, at the Gates confirmation hearings, reporters David Cloud and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times informed readers that Gates had testified that “the United States was not winning in Iraq.” True enough. But in fact, Gates said much more.

If you made it to the author’s final two paragraphs, you learn that “He was asked to expound on his morning remark about not winning in Iraq, saying he did not want the troops to believe they were being unsuccessful.” In other words, what Gates was not saying was just as important as what he was. After all, if he had anything encouraging to say, he wouldn’t have had to worry about its effect on the troop’s morale.

A quick perusal of the hearing transcript also yields this exchange with Republican Sen. James Inhofe, who demanded: “You were asked the question, ‘Are we winning in Iraq?’ General Pace was asked that question yesterday. He said, no, we’re not winning, but we’re not losing. Do you agree with General Pace?” To which Gates replied, “Yes, sir, at this point.” He reiterated this later in the session, saying, “we are not winning, but we are not losing.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Peter Siegel followed suit, writing in his lead paragraph that Gates testified “that the United States was not winning the war in Iraq and said he would consider new courses of action, including a gradual withdrawal of American troops.“ The Washington Post’s Ann Scott Tyson and Thomas E. Ricks led with the same phrasing, writing that Gates “bluntly stated that the United States is not winning the war in Iraq.” Tyson and Ricks fessed up further down in the piece, but only partially, saying, “Senators mentioned an assessment offered Monday at a think tank by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the United States is neither winning nor losing in Iraq. (Pace had spoken on an off-the-record basis, but the senators quoted him by name.) Gates said he agrees with Pace’s view.”

In the age of Sen. John McCain, this is what passes for “straight talk” in Washington. Too bad it mostly misleads people about what has actually happened, and what is likely to follow. It may have made for a less dramatic lead paragraph, but the reporters above—and many others—might have wanted to more accurately capture the calculated hedging and dodging that Gates was engaging in, rather than making him sound like he thinks the war is a lost cause.

The press got ahead of itself in trying to paint Gates as the anti-Rumsfeld. That doesn’t mean that he won’t change our Iraq strategy, but right now, the quagmire continues unabated and it’s still wishful thinking.

Ten American service members were killed from improvised explosive devices in Iraq on Wednesday—the day of the report’s release and of Robert Gates’ confirmation. And nothing George W. Bush, much less the Iraqi leaders, have said regarding either of these stories of the week give any indication that these brave soldiers will not be followed to their graves by thousands more, with no end in sight.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” recently moved from MSNBC.com to Media Matters. The new URL is http://mediamatters.org/altercation/