A generation ago, when I worked at the Washington Post, the right-wing fringe occasionally referred to us as "Pravda on the Potomac." We reporters were amused but also rankled. We did not see ourselves as a mouthpiece for the government (neither, it seems, did the government). Still, the slur had a whiff of truth. Washington is a company town and has its own corps of Kremlinologists who read the Post closely every day for half-hidden clues to official intentions. Whether the newspaper gets things right or wrong, its version of reality will inevitably color everyone's political calculations. During the hard going in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson confided to the editorial page editor that the Post's support for the war was worth two divisions.
The Pravda allusion takes on ironic resonance now that the right-wingers own the federal government and the Post's divisions are once again deployed for war. Its editorial pages have expressed an over-the-top pre-emptive enthusiasm, arguing the case as repetitiously as Bush and nearly as cockily as Rumsfeld. Its platoon of battle-ready pundits attacks fiercely, with the confidence of small boys playing tin soldiers on Mummy's carpet. Dissenting voices are ridiculed; reluctant allies get the full-battery barrage.
But Kremlinologists have also observed, less obviously, a certain patriotic passivity in the news columns, perhaps inhibited by the heightened emotions of 9/11. Instead of examining the factual basis for targeting Iraq, the Post largely framed the story line as a Washington drama of inside baseball. Would Colin Powell hold off the Pentagon hawks and win the President's heart and mind? Will Rumsfeld whip the CIA into line? The problem with insider reporting is that it tends to skip over the obvious, critical questions that the insiders do not wish to address. What exactly does Saddam Hussein have to do with Osama bin Laden or 9/11? Instead of digging into that and a host of other relevant questions, most reporting concentrated on war plans and Saddam's many crimes.
We read numerous accounts of the blitzkrieg strategy Washington is devising for Baghdad, but odd little omissions occurred. When Osama's taped message surfaced recently, the Post story neglected to mention that the Al Qaeda leader also denounced Saddam as being among the "infidels." When prominent figures like Bill Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright or retired Gen. Anthony Zinni dissented from going to war, it was treated as no big deal. Despite some honorable exceptions, major media generally went limp on the march to war. The Post went star-spangled.
The shortage of critical challenges from the press (and from intimidated Democrats) assisted the manipulation of public thinking. By relentless repetition, Bush and his team accomplished an audacious feat of propaganda--persuading many Americans to redirect the emotional wounds left by 9/11, their hurt and anger, away from the perpetrators to a different adversary. According to a New York Times-CBS News survey, 42 percent now believe Saddam Hussein was personally responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In an ABC News poll, 55 percent believe Saddam provides direct support to Al Qaeda. The Iraqi did it, let's go get him. As a bogus rallying cry, "Remember 9/11" ranks with "Remember the Maine" of 1898 for war with Spain or the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964 for justifying the US escalation in Vietnam.
In the past month or so, however, my impression (shared by others) is that the Post's news coverage has toughened considerably--beginning to puncture various propaganda claims and to explore contradictions that might better have been examined long ago. The editors and reporters may have been shaken by the unanticipated public outrage, including from their own readers. The newspaper's omissions, distortions and casual disparagement of antiwar protests were prompting waves of e-mail objections. "It is tunnel-vision coverage like yours," one message complained, "that scares off people in mainstream America who are against the war but can't relate to the picture you painted of its opposition."
The Post's ombudsman, former foreign editor Michael Getler, has seconded many of the readers' complaints in his memos to the staff. As millions marched at home and abroad, it became increasingly difficult to attribute the antiwar uproar to what one columnist ridiculed as the "irrelevant left." Indeed, the Post's media critic, Howard Kurtz, discerned a general trend in the media toward more aggressive and skeptical reporting. "It's about time," he wrote. "Whether you're for or against the war, a full-throated debate in the media is overdue." In his usual obsequious manner, Kurtz left out his employer.
The Post's institutional discomfort was confirmed on February 27 in a long, semiconfessional editorial that respectfully acknowledged the angry dissenters and attempted once again to justify the march to war, but with less imperious certainty. The essence of the editorial board's defense was, Hey, the Post has always been for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam, so give us credit at least for consistency. Yet the editorial proceeded to repeat Bush's slippery emotional logic. The world is a dangerous place, it reminded, and we will feel better about terrorism if Saddam is taken out. Note the leap of logic in that elision. The editors even cited the anthrax attacks in Florida, New York and Washington. Does this mean they are adding the anthrax letters to the indictment against Saddam? A lot of readers were not comforted.
It's too late for nuanced evasions, too late for the Post to reposition its divisions to the rear. It sold this war, and now if America becomes the author of massive violence in a war of choice, not necessity, the Post will be implicated in the bloody consequences. The antiwar movement will not go away once the bombing starts, but all of its objections to this war will become vividly relevant to the news coverage. Reporters and editors can still ask the hard questions and need not pretend to be shocked if the US colonial governor decides to stall on the promise of Iraqi democracy. Americans at large, I fear, are about to lose their sense of injured innocence. Maybe the news media can lose some of their "patriotic" deference to the warriors in charge.