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.