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From AJR,   February/March 2007  issue

Counting the Spoons   

April/May 07 Preview Eternal vigilance is the price of covering national security and political campaigns.


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

It was the noted philosopher John Mitchell who put it best: "You will be better advised to watch what we do instead of what we say."

This was in happier times, before the press and law enforcement officials and Congress took the dour Mitchell's advice, before the Watergate scandal erupted and the Nixon administration imploded and Mitchell himself, who had been Richard Nixon's attorney general, campaign manager and all-around consigliere, ended up in the slammer.

Watching what people do is what journalism is all about. Getting too caught up with what they say, and accepting it uncritically, is a recipe for disaster.

When President Bush and his lieutenants were making their case for the war in Iraq, with nightmare scenarios of weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds, the news media dutifully passed it on to the American people. And they did so entirely too credulously (see "Miller Brouhaha," August/September 2003). They didn't press as hard as they might have. They gave short shrift to alternative views and interpretations.

It was a low point for the press, and we are still reaping the whirlwind.

There were mitigating circumstances, of course. The trauma of 9/11, the ensuing wave of patriotism, the intimidating tactics of the Bush administration. But a low point nonetheless.

The healthy way to react to a mistake is to learn from it, and after much pummeling from critics and ample self-flagellation, that's what seems to have happened. Once the administration backed off from its yellowcake in Niger ditty, the press seemed to regain its footing.

Since then the media have hardly been bashful about illuminating the abundant shortcomings of the Bush Iraq policy (they're awfully hard to avoid). And look at the huge difference between the coverage of Saddam's alleged WMDs and the administration's claims that Iran was funneling weapons into Iraq.

The constant demand for proof led to the ill-fated appearance in Baghdad of the Anonymous Briefer, who asserted that Iran's top leaders were behind the shipments. And persistent questioning ultimately forced the administration to back down. Yes, weapons from Iran were ending up in Iraq, but the administration really wasn't so sure precisely who was sending them.

This aggressive and skeptical posture is critical when approaching national security stories. We've seen firsthand the price of abandoning it. And the Iran story is not likely to go away soon. Nor is the saga of its fellow axis-of-evil charter member North Korea.

It's hard to remember that not all that long ago the Washington press corps was under fire for being too skeptical, not to say confrontational. There were those who maintained the press had a knee-jerk negative reaction to anything the pols said or did.

That was one of the arguments that popped up during the combat over public or civic journalism--that the press was getting in the way so that the public couldn't really hear what their elected officials were saying.

But the consequences of going too far in the other direction are now all too clear.

A dogged commitment to scrutinizing the record behind the rhetoric will be critical in what is shaping up as the World's Longest Campaign. (I already hear people say they're getting tired of Hillary and Obama--21 months before Election Day.)

In today's sophisticated political world, where spin, packaging and hardball predominate, it's crucial not to go for the fake, to burrow beneath the surface and excavate the reality. And to keep in mind Ralph Waldo Emerson's great line: "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons."

One of the heartening developments late in the last presidential campaign was the uptick in aggressive fact-checking of campaign trail pronouncements by the mainstream media (see "Campaign Trail Veterans for Truth," December 2004/January 2005). Of course Brooks Jackson's factcheck.org operation had been doing this from the get-go.

The stepped-up effort by the press came after, and was in large measure a response to, the not-so-sterling media handling of the Swiftboating of Sen. John Kerry.

Too often, the instinct is to print one side's allegation and the other side's reaction, and call it a day. The fear seems to be that going deeper--checking out the facts behind the posturing and trying to sort out who's right and who's wrong--is somehow not "objective," not "straight down the middle."

But that's precisely the job of journalism. To give equal weight to the charge and the countercharge, regardless how bogus one of them might be, is totally deceptive. And it certainly doesn't do the electorate any favors.

It's important that the fact-checking boomlet of the last campaign carry over big-time into the current contest.

It's not easy to do, and it certainly can't be left solely to the lucky correspondent who's flying all over the country with the candidate. It takes a mind-set and a commitment on the part of the entire news organization, and, yes, it takes resources.

But there's no alternative if we're going to do the job right.