I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Quotes within quotes

By Nitpicker

By Nitpicker--For the record, I was all ready to write a post pointing out how, finally, Bush was coming around to reality in realizing that we are not winning in Iraq, as quoted by Washington Post reporter Peter Baker.
As he searches for a new strategy for Iraq, Bush has now adopted the formula advanced by his top military adviser to describe the situation. "We're not winning, we're not losing," Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post. The assessment was a striking reversal for a president who, days before the November elections, declared, "Absolutely, we're winning."
Thank God, I thought upon reading that. Bush has at least met the reality-based community halfway. This should be the Come to Jesus Moment those few Americans still hanging on to the shreds of this debacle.

But, unfortunately for both those who want this end this war and those interested in the current state of the American press, Bush didn't really sign on to this "formula," but you'll only know that if you look at the transcript.
WAPO: Are we winning in Iraq, in your estimation?

BUSH: You know, I think an interesting construct that General [Peter] Pace uses is, "We're not winning, we're not losing." There's been some very positive developments. And you take a step back and look at progress in Iraq, you say, well, it's amazing -- constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East, which is a remarkable development in itself.
So, despite the fact that Bush is clearly quoted in the article, there should be quotes within those quotes. He never says he believes "we're not winning, we're not losing," but only describes Pace's "interesting construct" on the issue. Of the three Post reporters present, no one asks him whether he subscribes to that "construct" himself. Later, there is this follow up:
WAPO: Can we come back to General Pace's formulation about winning, not losing? You said October 24th, "Absolutely, we're winning." And I wanted to --

BUSH: Yes, that was an indication of my belief we're going to win...
You see, Bush clearly never backs Pace's view, but ducks and dodges as well as Clinton ever did. Regardless, the Post ran with the headline: U.S. Not Winning War in Iraq, Bush Says for 1st Time

I mocked right wing bloggers like John Hinderaker when they complained that Robert Gates' admission we weren't winning (or losing!) in Iraq wasn't news. It's clearly newsworthy when someone nominated by a president clearly disagrees with the president's stated position on something as important as the Iraq war, no matter how Tony Snow tries to spin it. But here you see an example of how the American media has devolved into a "gotcha" machine. The only news in this entire article was Bush's statement that he wanted to increase the size of the military. The rest was political fodder, questions designed to stock the quivers of Hannity and Colmes, Limbaugh and Franken, Hinderaker and me.

Those on the right will say that this is a sign of media bias, but that's a ridiculous argument. Ask Howard Dean--whom the press treated like a slipup slot machine--if the press only focuses its gotcha guns on the right. The truth is, the press has simply lost its sense of purpose. There are too few members of the Fourth Estate who understand the need to help Americans to make the important choices citizens must make in a democracy by giving their stories context; by discussing the ideas which drive (or should drive) our political debate; and, yes, by crying bullshit when necessary.

Do I think we're a nation led by a dolt? I most certainly do, but that doesn't mean I want the press feeding my beliefs or the beliefs of others by misrepresenting what is said. I want the truth. Those on the right will cry bullshit about the headline of the Post article and they'll be correct in doing so. The press needs to learn that the "media critics" on the right are, in a way, like the Iraqi insurgents: They will use a small error to create big damage. Every time a member of the press writes an article like this one, they give the right more ammunition to chip away at their credibility. From now until doomsday, Brent Bozell will always be able to fall back on "If the press is so balanced, then why did they say Bush said we're not winning in Iraq?" All he--and others like him--are looking for is an opportunity to cloud the issue, to give their believers on the right, as I've said, permission to not believe the press.

As I've admitted many times, I'm just a filthy blogger, a "fool" writing to "imbeciles" (as The Wall Street Journal's Joseph Rago would have it) and I'm not above mocking politicians or making the informational equivalent of a fart joke. But let me say this again: I'm just a filthy blogger. I am neither paid six figures to be credible (though I like to think I am, and for free) nor am I entrusted with an audience with one of the most important people in the world. It's damn hard for anything I write on my blog--or even here at this much more trafficked one--to influence the course of human events, which is one of the inevitable results of journalism in a democratic society. For example: The media, in general, failed to question this president appropriately before the war. So we got a war. Now it's mea culpas all around and promises of we'll do better next time and, meanwhile, another 12 people died in Baghdad.

There are journalists who are doing God's work. There are journalists who are risking their lives trying to tell us about the world (32 of them died in Iraq this year, which is why I get so pissed at some of the b.s. bias complaints of bedwetters who refuse to put their own asses on the line). But so much of our major American media refuses to treat their job as if it makes a difference. Corrupt politicians? Feh. Most of them are tiny, broken people who take their thirty pieces of silver and stow it away, hurting relatively few people in the process. We should be focusing on the corruption of our media, which, instead of the doing the hard work of finding the truth, spends most of their time saying Look! Shiny things! To make my case, I give you another excerpt from the transcript of Bush's interview with the Washington Post.
BUSH: You're the objective filter through which my -- (Laughter.)

WAPO: I suspect your message gets out. (Laughter.)

BUSH: I do want to say something about the press. I hope you realize that, one, I enjoy the relationship, and two, know it is vital for my presidency. You can't exist without me, and I can't exist without you. And I generally respect the hard work of the press corps. I don't necessarily generally respect every word you write, but nevertheless, I do respect the fact that you're a hardworking group of people seeking the truth. And we're necessary for each other. And that relationship can either be a positive relationship or a suspicious, harmful relationship. And I have worked hard to make it a positive relationship. And I think it is, generally, I do believe it is. And I bear no ill will, and I don't think you do, either.

WAPO: We appreciate that, and you've certainly been good for business --
Yuk yuk yuk. Bush is good for business. Division is good for business. Strife is good for business. War is good for business. Car wrecks are good for business. The search for the truth? Ideas? Borrrrriiiiinnnng.

Jon Stewart may have put it best: "A free and independent press...serves to inform the public on matters relevant to its well-being. Why they've stopped doing that is a mystery."

Update: At Bush's press conference today, this exchange took place:
Q Mr. President, less than two months ago at the end of one of the bloodiest months in the war, you said, "Absolutely we're winning." Yesterday you said, "We're not winning, we're not losing." Why did you drop your confident assertion about winning?

THE PRESIDENT: My comments -- the first comment was done in this spirit: I believe that we're going to win; I believe that -- and by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there. That's what you got to know. We're going to succeed.

My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted when I said it at the time, and that conditions are tough in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad.
He didn't back off of WaPo's take, so Blue Texan's point (in comments) that "we can assume from the context that Bush has partially, at least, backed off from his 'Of course we're winning' hard line" is dead on. Still, the journalism here was shoddy and symptomatic, in my opinion, of the larger issues raised. After all, who gives a damn whether Bush thinks we're winning or not? We're not. Everyone knows that. Put those three journalists to work figuring out something we don't know.


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