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From AJR,   October/November 2003  issue

Patriot Games   

The news media have to be more skeptical and aggressive, not less, when dealing with issues of war and peace.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Back when he was president, Bill Clinton went fishing with the pope. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a terrible wind kicked up and blew the pope's hat into the water.

"Let me get that for you," Clinton said. The pope demurred, but the then-president insisted. As the stunned pontiff watched in amazement, Clinton walked on the water, picked up the hat, walked back on the water and returned the hat to the grateful pope.

The headline in the next day's Washington Post: "Clinton Can't Swim."

For quite some time, well before Spiro Agnew, using Bill Safire's wordsmithery, tagged the Fourth Estate "nattering nabobs of negativity," the notion of the liberal news media has been a pervasive one.

But the press in recent years has been an equal opportunity antagonist. As the well-worn joke at the beginning of this column suggests, few public officials at the national level have been treated as harshly as Clinton. And the pummeling began even before the intern flashed her thong.

The image of the man from Hope as Slick Willie has proven powerful and enduring. Of course, Clinton did plenty to earn it, what with his frequent flip-flops and his too-clever-by-half evasions about what the meaning of "is" is.

Yet Clinton's successor has hardly been a font of consistency. President Bush campaigned against nation-building, then embarked on a nation-building adventure in Iraq that dwarfed any of his predecessor's forays. And Bush has turned out to be more than Clinton's match in the slipperiness department. Exhibit A: the rapidly shifting rationales for the war in Iraq.

Two of the pillars of his support for the war, Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's supposed links to terrorism, have turned out to be slender reeds indeed.

But as AJR contributing writer Rachel Smolkin makes clear, Bush has received much kinder treatment from the news media than Clinton.

The press showed little skepticism when Bush made his case for the war, even though it was evident from the get-go that there was little to suggest an Iraq link to al Qaeda. And even when those WMD that supposedly had us on the eve of destruction failed to materialize, it wasn't until the administration backed away from the assertion that Saddam had been shopping for nukes in Niger that the bankruptcy of Bush's claim became page-one news.

The British media, by contrast, were far more aggressive in dissecting Tony Blair's arguments for the war.

Now leading a nation into war under dubious if not bogus pretenses is a hell of a lot more serious than lying about adultery. So why haven't the nabobs nattered with more urgency?

September 11 is part of the equation. The news media got caught up in the initial wave of patriotism that swept the nation in the wake of the tragedy. Only recently has the press seemed to regain its traction.

New Republic Editor Peter Beinart offers up another factor. The press, he says, has become quite comfortable in pillorying public servants over the personal misbehavior and character issues that so heavily damaged the Clinton presidency. But when it comes to policy questions, he says, it still is wedded to giving equal weight to both sides, even when the sides are blatantly unequal. This leads to a bizarre political calculus in which fooling around with an intern and stonewalling about it are deemed far more serious than being disingenuous (to put it kindly) about the reasons for launching a war.

Then there's the conservative near-hegemony on talk radio and cable pundit shows that played such a big role in fueling the Clinton/Lewinsky frenzy. These bastions of morality have had far less enthusiasm for skewering the Bush crowd for its shucking and jiving on Iraq.

Finally, some feel that after years of being tarred with the dreaded "liberal" label, much of the mainstream press bends over backward to avoid appearing to be so, and ends up treating a conservative administration too timidly--this at a time when the fast-rising Fox News Channel is unabashed about where its sentiments lie.

Journalists are citizens too, and September 11 was a shock to all of us. The instinct to rally around flag and country is understandable.

But when it comes to war and peace, life and death, reporting skeptically and thoroughly is the highest form of patriotism. It's a lesson the media must keep in mind as the United States deals with powerful threats from abroad.

They won't be going away anytime soon.