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.