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Think There's Anti-War Bias in the Press? Think Again.

The uproar over media coverage of Iraq has never been about making sure the story gets reported fairly.
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I don't need coffee to wake up in the mornings anymore. As a member of the mainstream media ("MSM," for those in the know) I have an internal alarm clock. My all-consuming hatred for President Bush -- my "Bush Derangement Syndrome," if you will -- and the consequent desire to see the United States lose in Iraq in order to embarrass the president, gets me going. It's been great -- I save at least $6 a day on Starbucks.

As a proud part of the monolithic mass of groupthinkers that makes up the MSM, I am just one of many who are actively rooting for, even working towards, the humiliating defeat of U.S. troops in Iraq. That's why we all made sure to trumpet the Washington Post's recent release of a cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, marked sensitive and headlined "Snapshots from the Offfice: Public Affairs Staff Show Strains of Social Discord."

Oh, wait.

You'd think that if the press really were the band of rabid defeatists some right-wing media critics make us out to be, we might have tried to jump on the party thrown for President Bush in the wake of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by trumpeting the release of a missive -- sent under the name of the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq -- that paints a picture far darker than ever previously acknowledged, even implying that the Embassy cannot protect its own employees.

"Beginning in March, and picking up in mid-May, Iraqi staff in the Public Affairs section have complained that Islamist and/or militia groups have been negatively affecting their daily routine," the cable begins. "... They also report that power cuts and fuel prices have diminished their quality of life. Conditions vary by neighborhood, but even upscale neighborhoods such as Mansur have visibly deteriorated. ... An Arab newspaper editor told us he is preparing an extensive survey of ethnic cleansing, which he said is taking place in almost every Iraqi province, as political parties and their militias are seemingly engaged in tit-for-tat reprisals all over Iraq."

The cable continues with a litany of similarly frightening observations, including the news that in mid-March Iraqis employed in the Embassy asked U.S. officials "what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate."

And yet that cable has gone all but ignored in the rest of the U.S. media. As of press time, the only other American outlets to mention the story were USA Today, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, United Press International, Agence France Press and Slate, which gave the Post's story a nod in its regular feature on the day's papers. Even the Post seemed to consider the cable less than important news, relegating it to less than 100 words on page B1 Sunday, a dead day for the news cycle.

This is just another example of the shades of grey in press coverage of Iraq. Simply put, the media world is not nearly as black-and-white as some would have you think.

If you listen to conservative media critics, you might believe that the press is hampering military recruitment efforts and causing the death of American soldiers, that it never tires of anti-war propaganda, that it actively ignores good news coming from Iraq; even that it -- as if we were all possessed of one deviously liberal hive mind -- wants the U.S. to lose the war in Iraq.

It's a convenient narrative, one that, as Harper's Kevin Baker recently noted, is a recycling of an old right-wing myth in the U.S. -- the back-stabber, the bogeyman responsible for any and all perceived failures on the part of the U.S.

This myth isn't just treated as the predictable product of the conservative intelligentsia; it is actively supported even by some journalistic insiders who claim to be the guardians of the craft. The Post's own Howard Kurtz, for instance, as HuffPo recently noted, has on his CNN show, Reliable Sources, been relentlessly peddling the notion that the press simply will not report good news from Iraq. Kurtz was at it again Sunday.

But this storyline was inevitable from the war's beginning. Indeed, even an instance in which the facts challenge the storyline can be twisted to fit the larger myth. Liberal press watchdog Media Matters has recently documented two particularly egregious instances of this phenomenon, both on Fox News. Host Neil Cavuto, for example, was against the press showing attacks on American soldiers before he was for it. Contributor Cal Thomas struck similar notes. The Post's Dan Froomkin recently noted another instance of this phenomenon, from White House Press Secretary Tony Snow :


If Snow's position blaming the media wasn't intellectually dishonest enough already, it turns out he's also inconsistent.

One of my readers, Derek Todd, recently pointed out that Snow complains about negative coverage in Iraq -- except when he complains there isn't enough.

Case in point: Snow's June 8 briefing. First came the standard line: 'We have been crushing the opposition, but what happens is the opposition has been controlling the airwaves with scattered, fragmentary acts of violence.'

But then came reversal: 'Now, I think it's important for the American people to understand the nature of what's going on in Iraq, which is -- this gives us a chance to illustrate it -- nobody carried a big story over the weekend about the fact that Zarqawi's people had deposited eight or nine heads in a box -- I say eight or nine because the press accounts vary. That's grotesque. It had enormous effect there, didn't get reported here.'

Says Todd, my reader: 'You guys can't win.' No kidding.

This is the reality Kurtz and his colleagues -- really, all of us -- must wake up to. The uproar over media coverage of Iraq has never been about making sure the story gets reported fairly. It's about making sure that the press will not be taken seriously, that the messenger of any stories not approved of by the right-wing is killed. When Brent Bozell, one of the right's leading media critics, calls on his readers to "blow up your TV," he's not asking CBS to improve its coverage -- he's trying to ensure that his readers don't ever use any media but his as a news source. That's the ultimate goal of these critics; not to fix perceived problems with coverage of the war, but to destroy the press' credibility so that only those delivering "good news" through rose-colored glasses will be believed. But the press is not as relentlessly one-sided as they'd have you think; this weekend's story just proves that again.

A version of this post originally appeared as a column in the online magazine Dragonfire.

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