When I was editor of Editor & Publisher for many years following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I continually charted the failure of major newspapers to come out for the beginning of a phased American troop withdrawal. Yes, many editorials in The New York Times and other papers criticized the pace of "victory" and Bush's handling of the occupation, but calls for a pullout were few and far between.
In fact, today marks the sixth anniversary of the first prominent mainstream media voice—Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today—proposing a withdrawal. Almost no one else of his stature followed for many years. There was no "Cronkite moment" coming from network TV.
Just last week, President Obama announced a delay in our current promise to withdraw troops. So here's a step down memory lane, from a column I wrote for E&P back in May 2004.
May 17, 2004: Al Neuharth tells me that he has written exactly 818 weekly columns for USA Today and his latest, on Friday, which advocated a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq—and urged President Bush not to seek re-election—has drawn "the fifth or sixth biggest reader response" of any of them. That's not to say the feedback is all positive. "It's split," he reports. "Rabid Democrats love it and rabid Republicans not at all. As usual, the independents are the most thoughtful." The heavy response, he says, "is not necessarily any testimony to my column but it shows the country is bitterly split on this subject."
So far, on this issue, among the top names in journalism, Neuharth is pretty much a Lone Ranger, but he has been in that position before. "I'm just an old fighting infantryman," Neuharth explains, "saying our troops don't have a real fighting chance."
On May 7, I called for at least one major newspaper, on its editorial page, to urge a phased U.S. pullout from Iraq. This might spark a long overdue national debate on the subject. Until now, the vast majority of editorials—and both presidential candidates—have urged "staying the course," even sending more American troops.
That column gained wide attention but so far no significant movement among the top papers. Dozens of readers have sent me supportive e-mails, or revealed that their local paper was teetering on the brink of making such a call, or proudly informed me that the small paper they edit—such as Lancaster Today in Texas—had already come out for withdrawal.
Now along comes Neuharth calling the Iraq adventure "the biggest military mess miscreated by the Oval Office and miscarried by the Pentagon in my 80-year lifetime."
Over the phone, Neuharth points out that he does not speak for the USA Today editorial page, but as the newspaper's founder, with a widely read column in the nation's largest circulation paper, his view surely has some impact. Still, he says he is "just another opinion writer" who is "not out to save the world."
But he hopes to influence other opinion leaders. "The more authoritative folks, whether they are editors of papers or political figures, they are a little afraid to say, 'Yes, we need to get out,' because they are afraid of being accused of cutting and running," he says.
"I was a mild critic of the way we went into the war, and I've written that the [weapons of mass destruction] issue was bogus and I was never convinced this was worth going to war for. After the last few weeks with the prison abuses and the retaliation in Iraq, I felt that it was time for somebody to say, 'Look, it's time for us to quit justifying our position and find a responsible way to get out' ... something I'd been thinking about a long time.
"But I have a sense that everyone is afraid to touch it. You're not supposed to be critical of a president in wartime.
"Well, I was in a war and one of the things I'm preparing for right now is the World War II Memorial celebration in Washington later this month, where I am on a panel with Mike Wallace. They are bringing a lot of us old farts back for our swan song. It made me think a lot more about how troops are supported in certain wars and ultimately abandoned in others, as happened in Vietnam—and I think will happen here. I just think it's inexcusable if a president or secretary of defense doesn't prepare well and can't give full support for troops they send into battle."
Still, Neuharth worries that "media leaders are reluctant to express" a strong view that puts them too far "out front." He fears "it's going to keep getting worse in Iraq" and because of that Bush himself "may try to reduce troops... the call to send more troops will not be followed."
That would be good news for a large segment of readers who have responded to his column: National Guardsmen and reservists. Fighting in Iraq more than a year after the purported end of the war "is not what they signed up to do," Neuharth comments.