Gergen: Press Was Guilty of ‘Cheerleading’ on Iraq — But Now Has It Right

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By: E&P Staff

Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” this morning with Nicholas Kristof of the The New York Times, David Gergen, the former Bush I/Reagan/Clinton aide, said that the press was once guilty of “cheerleading” on Iraq — but now reflects not only an accurate view, it’s what those inside the administration have been privately saying for some time.

This comes in the wake of the leaked Hadley and Rumsfeld memos of the past week.

Meanwhile, Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” grilled Stephen Hadley about the conduct of the war and demanded to know why the White House could not now admit that it was wrong about just about everything: WMDs, the cost and length of the war, the level of sectarian violence, the number of troops needed, and so on.

Here is the full transcript of that “Reliable Sources” segment.

GERGEN: There was a sense, in the lead-up to the war, in which the press, I think, was guilty of cheerleading. We were waving the flags and it was almost unpatriotic to question the possibility of war with Iraq. And then during the time of the invasion itself, when the reporters were embedded, you know, many of them fell in love with the military and I think they reported very accurately.

But there was no question that they were swayed by what they had seen. But since they have been there, I do think the press has been on the cutting edge, been the leading indicator of saying it’s not going as well as the administration says. And for those that think that the press is being too harsh, we now have the leak of the Hadley memo this week, which shows, within the administration itself, there’s a real difference between what they’re telling each other internally and what they’re saying publicly.

The internal reporting inside the administration is much grimmer and much more similar to what the press says than what the administration has officially been saying.

KURTZ: So are we in the last throes, Nick Kristof, if I can use that phrase, of kind of a great struggle between the dire portrait being painted by journalists who were in Iraq, speaking the language, risking their lives, seeing the suicide bombers day after day, and this more upbeat progress is being made picture painted by the administration?

KRISTOF: Well, I wish I could say that I thought that the administration, you know, had recognized that the problem was the message rather than the messenger. But I think that, in fact, you know, if you look at the Pentagon, in particular, has really made a very major effort to manage the news. And you see that in terms of the new Pentagon channel, the incredible press reaction system that always manages to generate a comment in any language anywhere, and in the early bird news clipping service, which originally was just, you know, a clipping service to provide information to commanders and now has really become one more propaganda channel, you know, picking news articles that they will like and omitting some that they won’t like. So I don’t see any sign that that kind of effort to manage the news is diminishing at all.

KURTZ: David Gergen, let me pick up on your point about journalists having been cheerleaders for the war early on.

To the extent that that changed, rather dramatically, I should add, was that because of a sense of overcompensation, perhaps a sense of embarrassment at their earlier performance, or did things just get much worse in Iraq, so quickly that the reporting had to change?

GERGEN: I thought it was both, Howie. I thought that the — you know, you and I have seen this pendulum swing before. Sometimes we in journalism, you know, can build someone up, and then we don’t see — they have feet of clay for a while, and then we do, and then we overcompensate by tearing them down. And I think that happened to a degree in this — this war.

The journalists did feel — you know, we were — we were too easy on the claims of weapons of mass destruction and the mushroom clouds being a reason to go to war. And once we saw that there were no — you know, no nuclear capacity there, I think we did — a lot of people in the press felt had. And I think they beat up on the administration to a degree because of that.

So, I do think it is a combination. And Iraq had spiraled downward very rapidly, here in the last few weeks.

Let me just say one other thing, though. I do think if you talk to a lot of young officers who are coming out of Iraq — and I happen to have some of them in my classroom — they will tell you, look, there are parts of Iraq that are quiet. And what’s this about a civil war? We don’t see it. We think the press is — it’s not just the administration saying this, there are actually soldiers on the ground who believe this — that the press is not accurately reporting it.

And your answer to — my answer to that is, look, we had a civil war in this country, and just because there was no fighting in New York or in Iowa, does not mean there wasn’t a civil war.

KURTZ: And as long as David has used the “C” word, Nick Kristof, NBC, as you know, much ballyhooed decision to begin using the term “civil war.” The reaction seems to have ranged from, who do they think they are, to, what took them so long?

KRISTOF: Yes. And, you know, I mean, I think that’s a judgment for each organization, but it sure seems to me that if you look at the definitions that are commonly used of a civil war, that that’s, you know, exactly what it is and we should call them as we see them, rather than deferring to some kind of political judgment.

But if I could just, also, just weigh in on the point that David made, which I think is, you know, legitimate, that there is a real risk that when we cover an area like Iraq, that because we, in the press, we always focus on the planes that crash, not on the planes that land. You know, the schools that are invaded, not the schools that — where everything goes fine.

That, you know, we do need to remind readers, periodically, that that is what we’re doing. And it may indeed be that we should periodically do more of that. But I don’t think that undercuts the basic point that reporters pretty much captured that downward spiral.

GERGEN: Just as they did in Vietnam.

KURTZ: That’s funny you should say that, because I was going to ask you that very question. Does the polarization around the media coverage, from both the left and the right, the great passion, the great vehemence, people who think that the press are either aiding the enemy or just — or late to the game here, remind you of the polarization of the Vietnam era?

GERGEN: Yes, it certainly does me. You know, I think that anytime when a war goes badly, as this one is, people start looking for scapegoats, the people who are supporters of the war. And the media has become one of the scapegoats. And it’s an easy target to say they’re sitting in the Green Zone.

Well, yes, they’re sitting in the Green Zone because it’s too darned dangerous sometimes to go out. You know, just look what happened to the co-anchor of ABC News when he did go out.

So, I think that happens. And as The Washington Post pointed out this week, you know, there is now a tendency to blame the Iraqis for what’s going wrong. Well, we did everything right. Look at those, those are the guys losing the war. So, I think there is a scapegoating of the media going on in some circles.

KRISTOF: There is, I think, one difference, you know, between Vietnam. I do think that there is that tension between the administration and the media. And you know, they think we’re exaggerating the problems and we think that they’re often, basically, lying to us. But one of the differences that is in Vietnam there was really a sense, you know, on the ground, that those 5:00 follies, those things, there in Saigon, were completely delusional.

While, in fact, I think that reporters on the ground in Baghdad feel that the political officers and the diplomats and the Army officers, on the ground, in Iraq, they have a pretty realistic sense of what’s going on. And that the problem is really in Washington and at the Pentagon, and at the highest levels.

KURTZ: Nick, I don’t just want to focus solely on administration criticism. You also acknowledge that a lot of criticism of the press coverage of the war has come from the left, from liberals who are unhappy with the coverage.

KRISTOF: Absolutely. I mean, you talk to the reporters and they used to get just deluged with e-mails and letters saying that, “You’re exaggerating the problems. You’re getting GIs killed. You don’t understand what’s going on,” and those were all coming from the right. And now they’re getting an awful lot from the left who are saying, “You’re covering up atrocities. I read all these things in the European press that you never cover.”

And I just think that both sides need to take a deep breath and just emphasize the importance of empiricism and trusting, to some degree, somebody who is on the ground and really trying to do a very careful job of what is happening.

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