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The Press Proved Sanchez's Point

By Jack Kelly

The Bush administration began the Iraq war with a "catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic" war plan, and never has devised a comprehensive national strategy to fight the war, retired Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez said in a speech to military journalists last week.

The result is that Iraq is a "nightmare" where the best we can do is stave off defeat, LtGen. Sanchez said. The troop surge, he said, "is a desperate attempt by an administration that has not accepted the political and economic realities of this war."

LtGen. Sanchez, who commanded U.S. troops in Iraq from June, 2003 to June, 2004, is the highest ranking Iraq war veteran to publicly criticize the war, so his comments were newsworthy, despite being long on adjectives and short on specifics. But this column is less about what LtGen. Sanchez had to say and more about what the journalists who covered his speech chose to report.

All the news organizations which covered his speech emphasized the caustic things he had to say about the Bush administration.

But LtGen. Sanchez was as critical of Congress and the State Department as he was of Bush administration appointees:

"The administration, Congress, the entire interagency, especially the State Department must shoulder the responsibility for this catastrophic failure, and the American people must hold them accountable," he said. Only Josh White of the Washington Post mentioned this prominently.

Fully half of LtGen. Sanchez's speech to the Military Reporters and Editors was devoted to criticism of another influential group, a group he criticized more harshly and at greater length than he criticized the Bush administration, Congress, or the State Department. Yet Mr. White mentioned LtGen. Sanchez' criticism of this group only in the final paragraph of his lengthy story. The New York Times, the AP, UPI, and the Hearst Newspapers didn't mention it at all.

"Over the course of this war, tactically insignificant events have become strategic defeats for America because of the tremendous power and impact of the media," LtGen. Sanchez said.

"Your measure of worth is how many front page stories you have written and unfortunately some of you will compromise your integrity," he said. "It seems that as long as you get a front page story there is little or no regard for the collateral damage you will cause."

"The death knell of your ethics has been enabled by your parent organizations who have chosen to align themselves with political agendas," LtGen. Sanchez said. "What is clear to me is that you are perpetuating the corrosive partisan politics that is destroying our country and killing our service members who are at war."

"Your profession has...allowed external agendas to manipulate what the American public sees on tv, what they read in our newspapers and what they see on the Web," he said. "For some of you, just like for some of our politicians, the truth is of little or no value if it does not fit your own preconceived notions, biases and agendas... As I assess various media entities, some are unquestionably engaged in political propaganda that is uncontrolled."

The mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib happened on LtGen. Sanchez's watch, and he came in for a great deal of criticism of how he handled the scandal. The criticism clearly stung:

"In some cases I have never even met you, yet you feel qualified to make character judgments that are communicated to the world, he told the military journalists. "This is the worst display of journalism imaginable by those of us that are bound by a strict value of selfless service, honor and integrity... You report with total impunity and are rarely held accountable for unethical conduct."

So perhaps LtGen. Sanchez's criticism of journalists could be dismissed as hyperbolic, and sour grapes. But the same could be said of his criticism of the Bush administration, which, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, chose not to promote him to full general, leading to his retirement in 2006.

But the unwillingness of the journalists who covered his speech to report his criticisms of them lends credence to LtGen. Sanchez's charge that journalists slant or omit facts in order to serve their political and personal agendas.

"Our military must embrace you for the sake of our democracy," LtGen. Sanchez told the Military Reporters and Editors. "But you owe them ethical journalism."

It's a debt that has yet to be paid.

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