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Ross Douthat Claims That the Press Didn't Pull Its Punches on George W. Buh

The intelligent (if somewhat naive) Ross Douthat writes:

The American Scene: Judy Miller and Michael Gordon's WMD journalism is what everyone remembers... but... the broader range of coverage that the Times offered in the run-up to the [Iraq] war... [gave] the impression that the paper's reporters... thought the invasion was a pretty bad idea. That was certainly my impression at the time.... And once the invasion came and went - and after a brief flurry of heady, pro-Bush coverage when the mission seemed to have been easily accomplished - I hardly think that either the Times or the Post can be accused of underplaying the incompetence of the occupation that followed.

Now there's a difference, it's true, between the coverage of Iraq and the coverage of Bush himself, and maybe there's an argument to be made that even where the national press acquitted itself honorably in its treatment of discrete foreign-policy issues, it failed to adequately expose the incompetence at work in the highest reaches of this Administration until it was far too late. But here again, I think the picture is more complicated than DeLong suggests. Was it really only in "the last year or so" that the D.C. press corps began writing major negative stories about Bush's management style? Then what was the Times, for instance, doing running Ron Suskind's famous "faith-based Presidency" piece back in October of '04?

Obviously, this is just a single example, and you'd have to spend a month on Lexis to get a more rigorous sense of whether DeLong's impression, or mine, is closer to the truth. But I think DeLong, like many on the left, is letting the sins of Judy Miller - and the fact that there are enough bad journalists in the world to provide constant fodder for his oh why oh why drumbeat - stand in for the conduct of the entire press corps since 2001.

PS - For arguments on both sides of this issue, the NYRB exchange between Robert Kaiser and Michael Massing is worth a look.

Let me cite two counterexamples. The first is Rajiv Chandrasekhar's Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone to demonstrate that yes, the press did underplay the incompetence of the occupation. It was published on September 19, 2006. Chandrasekhar covered Iraq for the Post in 2003-2004. The best stories in Imperial Life in the Emerald City did not repeat not repeat NOT make it into the stories the Post published by Chandrasekhar in 2003-2004. Back in 2003-2004 you had to go to webloggers like Joshua Micah Marshall, Laura Rozen, and Colin Soloway writing in small magazines like the Washington Monthly to get the story.

The second counterexample is Tom Ricks, also of the Post, to demonstrate that the press pulled its punches in the runup to the war. Tom Ricks now says that he believed in March 2003 that Iraq had no ongoing WMD program--"I thought that at most they would find some old mustard gas buried out in the '91 war that somebody had forgotten about"--yet there he was writing about how: One major early mission of U.S. forces would be to locate and secure Iraq's suspected arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, [General Richard] Myers said. The U.S. government expects to learn far more about those weapons programs once its forces invade Iraq. At that point, he said, the "giant shell game" played by the Iraqi government to conceal its weapons "would come to a halt," and instead "people would come forward and say, 'Here's where this is, here's where that is.'"

You cannot--I cannot, at least--place Tom Ricks's book Fiasco at my right hand and his earlier Post coverage of Iraq on my left without getting sick

As for Ron Suskind, I agree with Ross: if the press corps were composed of Ron Suskinds, it would be a much better world. But the press isn't. And for a long time they would dine out on stories of Bush fecklessness and administration incompetence without printing them. And their refusal to print what they knew then and what we all know now mattered. After all, as Ross Douthat matter-of-factly wrote last month:

It’s His Party: [W]hat has made the last six years [since January 2001] so polarizing isn’t the president’s ideology but the president himself—his tongue-tied speeches and lack of interest in policy detail, his mix of incompetence and abrasive self-assurance, his cronyism and disdain for compromise...

The readers of the Post and the Times should have been informed back in 2001 and 2002 of what Ross Douthat takes for granted now. They weren't.