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Rumsfeld Spanks Media

I was under the impression Rumsfeld's speech at the SAIS today was about Iraq - and it was. But sandwiched between a recitation of Bush's "stay the course" rhetoric from the other day was a classic Rumsfeldian rebuke of the media's coverage of the war:

The media serves a valuable -- indeed an indispensable -- role in informing our society and holding government to account. But I would submit it is also important for the media to hold itself to account.

We have arrived at a strange time in this country where the worst about America and our military seems to be so quickly taken as truth by the press and reported and spread around the world -- with little or no context or scrutiny -- let alone correction or accountability -- even after the fact. Speed it appears is often the first goal, not accuracy, not context.

Recently there were claims by two Iraqis on a speaking tour that U.S. soldiers threw them in a cage with lions. Their charges were widely reported -- still without substantiation. Not too long ago, there was a false and damaging story about a Koran supposedly flushed down a toilet, and in the riots that followed people were killed. And a recent New York Times editorial implied America’s armed forces -- your armed forces -- use tactics reminiscent of Saddam Hussein.

I understand that there may be great pressure on them to tell a dramatic story. And while it is easy to use a bombing or a terrorist attack to support a belief that Iraq is a failure, that is not the accurate picture. And further, it is not good journalism.

Consider this: You couldn’t tell the full story of Iwo Jima simply by listing the nearly 26,000 American casualties over about 40 days; or explain the importance of Grant’s push to Virginia just by noting the savagery of the battles. So too, in Iraq, it is appropriate to note not only how many Americans have been killed -- and may God bless them and their families -- but what they died for -- or more accurately, what they lived for.

So I suggest to editors and reporters -- whose good intentions I take for granted -- to do some soul searching. To ask: how will history judge -- if it does -- the reporting decades from now when Iraq’s path is settled?

I would urge us all to make every effort to ensure we are telling the whole story. To take a moment for self-reflection and reassessment.

About a year and a half ago I discussed the issue of media coverage in Iraq with Karl Zinsmeister, editor of The American Enterprise Magazine and author of two books on the Iraq war. Zinsmeister recounted a number of factors contributing to the negative coverage coming out of Iraq, but one of the most interesting (and least often recognized) was this:

Part of this impression is a reflection of the fact that so few reporters have any contact with military people or military life anymore. It didn’t used to be the case. It used to be that there was a lot of back-and-forth between the elite colleges that produce our reporters today our top rank reporters and the military. For example, seven hundred Harvard graduates died in World War II. There was not a Chinese wall that separated the world reporters came out of from the world soldiers came out of.

Today, unfortunately, that’s no longer the case. Most of the reporters I met in Iraq don’t have any friends at all who were in the military. They don’t have any Uncle Louie who served. They have no contact with the military whatever. They have very little knowledge of who military people are or what military responsibilities are, and that often leads them to unreasonable expectations and bad reporting.

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