We are gratified that Rep. Paul Hodes, a Democrat from New Hampshire, stuck an amendment into a Defense Department authorization bill that would make it unlawful for the Pentagon to “train” retired military analysts who now appear on television to comment on the war in Iraq.
Though the Pentagon insists their meetings with 75 retired officers were nothing more than standard briefings, the history of the Bush White House indicates otherwise.
That history includes Scott McClellan, White House spokesman from 2003-2006, who last week almost comically admitted to “self-deception” during his tenure. But he says he was lied to, and that he was encouraged to lie to the press. His “revelation,” in a new tell-all book, that the Bush administration has deliberately distorted the reasons we went to war against Iraq is very old news.
Spinning has been a major pastime, and budget item, in the Bush White House. Remember, this is the administration that spent over a billion and a half dollars on advertising and promotion between 2003 and 2006, according to the Government Accountability Office, including money for promoting the U.S. view on the war on terror. This is the same administration that paid to plant stories in the foreign press about the war, arguing later that the U.S. was not as good at propaganda as the terrorists and pledging to get better.
McClellan's book does raise anew questions about the relationship between the White House and the press corps. The revolving door in Washington is not just between government and high-powered lobbying firms. It now increasingly leads to jobs commenting on, and even reporting, the news. The upside is that those talking heads, like the military experts and ex-White House aides, are filled with information and expertise that can put context to a story. And they often have access to the players involved. The downside is that their former, or in some cases present, advocacy must always be factored into the equation. News outlets have a responsibility to regularly remind their audience of that potential bias. Why don't they start doing it?
Various former and present members of the administration, reportedly including the president himself, were saying last week that the book did not sound like the Scott McClellan they knew. Unfortunately, to us, it sounds like the White House we've come to expect. And it does make us wonder, and shudder, at what we may have yet to learn about the administration's efforts to control the media, and the media's role in failing to sufficiently recognize the wool that was being pulled over their eyes. McClellan called the press “complicit enablers.”
Last week, appearing on morning television in a stunt for a worthy cause, CBS's Katie Couric, asked about McClellan's comments, said Iraq coverage has been “one of the most embarrassing chapters in American journalism.” Later on her newscast, she nailed McClellan in an extended and tough interview. She reminded him that while she was at NBC, he called network brass and threatened to deny her access to the White House if she continued to ask tough questions. Of course, McClellan couldn't recall that.