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The Contrived News Story

By Jed Babbin

Dear Mr. Mehlman: It's been a long time since I've written to the RNC. So long, in fact, that one of your distant predecessors - noticing my absence from the list of donors - wrote to ask if I were a "lapsed Republican." I'd heard of lapsed Catholics and unobservant Jews, but that was a new one on me. This letter, like those that will follow from time to time, is not accompanied by a check or my Visa number.

We who spend every waking moment thinking about how best to defend this nation insist that wars be fought decisively, because to do otherwise inevitably produces defeat. As Clausewitz taught us nearly two centuries ago, politics and war are interchangeable. What works in one should work in the other. The global war against terrorist nations and their proxy forces often requires considerable skill in identifying the adversary. Back in the good old Cold War days, a US pilot facing off against an unknown aircraft could just hit a button on the "IFF" box: the gizmo that queried the other guy's aircraft to "identify, friend or foe." Life was simpler for the RNC chairmen of those days, too. All they had to worry about were Democrats and the occasional third-party spoiler. Like the Marine patrolling the streets of Fallujah, your job is a lot more complicated. But unlike the Marine, you can easily simplify yours. You must do that now, or the fall elections will be as bad as some pundits want to see it be.

You're probably feeling pretty good right now. Seeing Ned Lamont standing with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to announce his victory Tuesday night must have raised your spirits. But taking comfort in Lamont's loonyness is a huge mistake.

You know all there is to know about liberal media bias. And the constant drumbeat of negative coverage - contrary to facts on the economy, the war and everything else -- will only grow stronger as November approaches. But one of the media bias manifestations is something you may have forgotten: the contrived news story. Last week provided a perfect example of it.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was scheduled to testify on Iraq in a closed Senate hearing on Thursday afternoon. But closed sessions don't produce television sound bites. Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner was somehow importuned into holding a morning hearing and asking Rumsfeld to testify at that one, too.

Rumsfeld declined and, at his Wednesday press conference, he was hit with planted questions asked by Reuters and CNN, about why he was refusing his obligation to testify. He answered that he'd considered testifying but thought one session that day would be enough. Then came the contrivance. The Associated Press quickly published a story by Lolita Baldor and Devlin Barrett titled, "Rumsfeld Snub of War Hearing Draws Fire," in which the first sentence said that Rumsfeld, "...essentially said he was too busy to testify at a public hearing....raising a new furor on Capitol Hill over the three-year-old conflict." But the "furor" was only in the minds of the AP reporters and editors. Rumsfeld never said he was too busy to bother with the Senate. The story quoted only Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy.

Then came the hearing with Sen. Clinton reading a long, strident statement to Rumsfeld, and his reply that shot down Clinton's arguments seriatim. Rumsfeld had answered so well that Clinton left the room deflated. But AP reported it as Rumsfeld retreating, unable to answer Clinton's onslaught.

That story, "Sen. Clinton rips Rumsfeld over Iraq decisions," was another exercise in spin, not reporting. Devlin Barrett - one of the reporters who'd written the first story - wrote this one like a Hillary campaign commercial. "The showdown between Clinton, a potential candidate in 2008, and Rumsfeld, the public face of the Bush administration's war effort, included the strongest criticism of the Iraq war she has made to date...The defense secretary seemed briefly stunned by the intensity of her attack..." Count the freighted words in those two stories: furor, showdown, stunned. None of them were true. None of this would have gotten past an assistant city editor twenty years ago. I called the AP editors - night editor Robert Glass and later bureau chief Sandra Johnson - for interviews on talk radio and for print, but Glass shuffled me off to another editor (Alan Fram) and neither Fram nor Johnson responded to my messages. These people - supposedly in the truth business - are part of Team Clinton.

The AP stories and the freight they carried were picked up by former Clinton crony George Stephanopoulos of ABC, and on other networks such as CNN. AP received the payoff they'd angled for: they got to report Thursday night the exclusive "scoop" on Hillary's call for Rumsfeld's resignation. This is what passes for journalism today. Participate in contriving a story and then report it contrary to the facts.

Many of the media are working hard to create this kind of news story. This one was concocted around Hillary's leftward move and written - over and over - apparently at her behest and with the connivance of if not her personally, with her staff or other Senate Dems. This media modus operandi is the one on which you must focus.

The Hillary-AP exercise was no aberration. Think about how many times the media have concocted a story when there wasn't one to report. The president's Texas Air National Guard "records", forged by someone for CBS, was only the most obvious, but the list is long. Enron as a Bush scandal. Richard Clarke's testimony to the 9-11 Commission taken as gospel and republished over and over without any examination of the underlying facts that proved much of it wrong. The Valerie Plame nonsense. Long-time war critic Jack Murtha suddenly given the Paris Hilton treatment. Blaming the president for Katrina's devastation of New Orleans. NSA listening to terrorists as "domestic spying." Cindy Sheehan, cartoon. And all the stories trying to get the president to shoot himself in the foot by firing Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith, or Wolfowitz.

And it's not only the media who contrive stories. Don't forget Kofi Annan's phony story - its release timed carefully only a few days before the 2004 election -- about missing explosives from the Iraqi Al-Qaqaa site. It was all qaqaa, all right. But the story was international news, propelled with all the resources of the modern media.

Our media haven't yet reached the level of Elliott Carver, the maniacal media magnate in the James Bond movie, "Tomorrow Never Dies." Carver had every tool he needed - from newspapers and a television network to a private navy capable of sinking British warships - deployed to serve his goal of starting a war that his media could cover exclusively. When the Al-Qaqaa story broke, there were - that night - elaborate television broadcasts of film taken inside the explosives storeroom, interviews with experts worldwide, and banner headlines the next day. It was an Elliott Carver dream, but your worst nightmare, and it's about to be replayed this fall every day of every week. Negative news and contrived stories will be your steady diet, produced elaborately in multi-million dollar extravaganzas for the news broadcasts every night and following headlines each morning after. That thought should leave the taste of ashes in your mouth.

You don't face the sort of megalomaniac James Bond had to defeat. Well, maybe you do. But George Soros's 527 isn't your problem. It's the seven liberal 527s that masquerade as the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS, NBC, ABC, Reuters and AP.

Reporters rate, in Americans' estimation, somewhere above lawyers and below used car salesmen. The president's low poll numbers are driven by what the media says hour after hour and day after day. The public may be mad at the president for any number of reasons, but one is clearly that he isn't standing up to the press. The polling shows Republicans are ready for you to strike back. Think about Sen. John Thune's race. He was lagging badly, bruised and beaten each day by a Dashcle-friendly press in his state. But once the close connections between Daschle and the principal newspaper were exposed, the press lost its value as a weapon against Thune. What worked in South Dakota will work nationally. Does the RNC even have a strategy to apply the Thune lesson? Don't worry. I'm not one to criticize without offering solutions. Not today, but soon.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a contributing editor to The American Spectator and author of Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (with Edward Timperlake, Regnery 2006) and Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think (Regnery 2004).

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