Denying the Truth: Petraeus, Iraq, and Our Pontius Pilate Press

Like Pontius Pilate washing his hands of responsibility, too many in the Washington press corps want to pretend they are leaving the question of "what is truth" to their readers -- refusing to admit that there is even such a thing as truth.
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I was in Miami last night for the Univision-hosted Democratic debate. Listening to their responses on Iraq left no doubt that the candidates have gotten the message that, no matter what Gen. Petraeus says during his testimony, the American people -- including the Hispanic community -- are done with this war.

"We need to quit refereeing their civil war and bring our troops home as soon as possible," said Hillary Clinton.

"I believe no political progress [in Iraq] means no funding without a timetable for withdrawal," said John Edwards.

"I'm calling on Republican congressmen and legislators to overturn the president's veto of a timetable," said Barack Obama.

Later, after the debate, Chris Dodd told me he had made it clear to Harry Reid: "As you are trying to get Republican votes for a compromise bill, don't count on my vote on any legislation that doesn't include a clear withdrawal date."

I asked freshman Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey if he felt the same way. "I voted against the war as a Congressman," he told me. "I've been in favor of a definite withdrawal date for a long time. I don't close the door on a bill that, like the Webb amendment, would achieve the same results by making troops unavailable. But it's time for America to stop enabling Iraqis' refusal to come to terms with what they need to do."

So the American people get it, and the Democrats running for president and trying to win their votes get it. Then why do so many in the media still not get it?

In Sunday's New York Times, Michael Gordon, Judy Miller's former partner in the Ahmed Chalabi vaudeville production of "Saddam's Got WMD," served up a fact-challenged piece of administration propaganda in which he asserted, "The most comprehensive and up-to-date military statistics show that American forces have made some headway toward a crucial goal of protecting the Iraqi population."

Talk about drinking the Kool-Aid. Nowhere does Gordon point out that the methodology the Pentagon uses to arrive at the comprehensive stats he cites has been thoroughly discredited, as shown by the Washington Post. Instead he asserts:

"Data on car bombs, suicide attacks, civilian casualties and other measures of the bloodshed in Iraq indicate that violence has been on the decline, though the levels generally remain higher than in 2004 and 2005."

Apparently, this means there was some period in 2006 in which attacks, as measured in some particular way, were higher than now. Thanks, Michael Gordon. Your White House thank-you note is no doubt in the mail.

Gordon ends his muddled piece by adopting the pseudo-objective "on the one hand... but on the other" stance favored by so many in his profession: "The figures that have emerged in recent government reports have seemingly provided something for everyone."

I guess we just can't know anything, can we?

Like Pontius Pilate washing his hands of responsibility, too many in the Washington press corps want to pretend they are leaving the question of "what is truth" to their readers -- refusing to admit that there is even such a thing as truth. It is particularly troubling that so many in a profession dedicated to the idea that there is a truth to be ferreted out -- and that the public has a right to know it -- remain so resolutely committed to presenting two sides to every story -- even when the facts are solidly on one side.

Progress in Iraq is actually something that can be measured. Last week's report from the Government Accountability Office did such measuring. That's why it was immediately attacked by Republicans -- because it pointed out that Iraq was failing to meet 11 of 18 benchmarks.

But the administration has faith that, because of the way too many in the press operate, all it has to do is sow doubt. The GAO puts out one set of facts, the administration puts out an opposing set of "facts" -- and counts on reporters to refuse to see the difference between facts and "facts."

Case in point: Sunday's AP story about how Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker wouldn't be meeting with "Mr. Bush or their immediate bosses" in order to protect the "independence and the integrity of their testimony." This is a claim that is beneath contempt. It is hard to fathom how a journalistic operation could write something so blatantly untrue when there have been numerous stories about how the Petraeus report has already been discussed and thoroughly vetted by the White House and how Ed Gillespie has set up a war room between the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House to coordinate the Petraeus PR campaign.

The stated purpose of the surge was to provide the stability and security necessary for political progress to be made by the Iraqi government. Progress that, as the GAO report made clear, is unequivocally not happening.

So the White House focuses on small improvements in cherry-picked data. But it surely isn't surprising that in the immediate vicinity of the 30,000 troops involved in the surge, attacks might temporarily decrease. Just as it's not surprising, for instance, that the crime
rate inside the gates of the White House is lower than the rate in NE Washington. The point of the surge was that it would have a political spillover effect. But since that hasn't happened, the White House is once again attempting to move the goalposts, and the Michael Gordons of the press corps are there to help with the heavy lifting.

The problem for the White House, and General Petraeus, and the go-along members of the press, is that the public isn't buying it anymore. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, only 40 percent of Americans expect General Petraeus to give an accurate picture of Iraq. Fifty-three percent believe he'll give an overly optimistic presentation. And a whopping two-thirds say it doesn't matter what Petraeus says because Bush will hold to his Iraq policy no matter what.

Today, we've been told by the White House and by the press, is The Big Day. Petraeus has come down from the mountaintop with his 10 Commandments and all of humanity now knows the way forward in Iraq. Except, unlike the original, Petraeus' message is not divinely inspired. Indeed, having watched his opening salvo -- which he delivered while barely looking up from his script -- it's not even grounded in reality.

The driving force of the White House's approach to this war has been the belief that saying something is so makes it so. That truly is the first commandment of the Bush administration. But it wasn't true when the war started and it's not true now.

The time has come for the media to stop acting as if there are two sides to the story of what's happening in Iraq when there is only one.

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