At the Radio & Television Correspondents dinner last week in Washington, Vice President Cheney made the requisite jokes about himself, the White House and of course, the press. It is the tradition of the evening, though usually the zingers are delivered by the president, who last week, had to be out of town. Cheney, by most accounts, did a good job.
Nonetheless, we wondered how much of a joke there was in one portion of his address. Cheney said Press Secretary Scott McClellan has advised him to change his attitude about the media. “Here's how I've been getting ready for the press,” Cheney said, as a slide appeared on a video screen showing him taking aim with a high-powered rifle and a scope.
It got a laugh, but for the last several weeks, the Bush Administration has been taking verbal shots at the media, part of an organized and ongoing strategy to boost the president's approval ratings and regain support for the War in Iraq.
The problem, the White House says, is that the media dwell too much on the negative. Six weeks ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke enviously of the propaganda machine of the nation's foes: “Consider that the violent extremist[s] have established 'media relation committees' and have proven to be highly successful at manipulating opinion elites.” Rumsfeld went on to outline what is essentially a new front on the U.S. war on terror—the communications business.
He wants “multifaceted media campaigns” that will get the good word out with “much less reliance on the traditional print press.” Up to now, he said, the way the government communicated its version of the war is as if it is operating “a five and dime store in an eBay world.” (Quite a store! The Defense Department spent $1.1 billion on “advertising and promotion” between 2003-05, says the Government Accounting Office.)
Two weeks ago, President Bush said Americans “look at the violence they see each night on their television screens and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq.” He added, “Footage of people playing or shops opening and people resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as footage of an IED explosion or the destruction of a mosque, or soldiers and civilians being killed or injured.”
We could cite several stories we've seen about progress in parts of Iraq, but unless the entire journalism establishment is lying, the situation in Iraq is not filled with happy stories. We implore the media to not only continue to report the story accurately—without sweetening the situation—and to call the president on his specious suggestion that reporters are distorting the truth Moreover, it is insulting to imply, as Rumsfeld did, that reporters only report grim stories to drive up ratings. This drumbeat of cynical criticism by the White House must be forcefully rejected by journalists and their employers.