The NYT's growing pro-war fan club

There is a reason why the country's most extremist war advocates have become the most enthusiastic fans of the Times' Iraq reporting.

Published July 8, 2007 12:53PM (EDT)

(updated below - updated again with key Public Editor column)

On Friday night's PBS News Hour, David Brooks said: "I think most Republicans believe that the war is lost." That may be true, but if one's knowledge of the war in Iraq were confined to the news pages of The New York Times, one would believe that we are (yet again) making Great Progress there, that things are going swimmingly well, and that Victory is right around the corner in what really ought to be called The Great War against The Al Qaeda Terrorists.

Just as it was the leading pro-war media organ prior to the invasion, the Times -- principally in the person of surge-advocate Michael Gordon, with increasing assists from John Burns -- is now the leading source for happy news about the occupation. On Friday, the Times published yet another article by Gordon claiming that The Glorious War Against Al Qaeda (what the rest of the world calls "the war in Iraq" or "the four-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq") is succeeding, leading Michael Ledeen -- one of the country's most extremist and bloodthirsty advocates of war against both Iraq and Iran -- to proclaim:

Rich [Lowry, Editor of National Review] and I share an admiration for Michael Gordon, one of three (along with Burns and Filkens) NYT reporters who really work hard to get the Iraqi story right.

I bet they do. Earlier that day, Lowry had written a post entitled "Political Progress in Iraq" based exclusively on that day's "Things-are-Great-in-Iraq" dispatch from Gordon. The same day, Bill Kristol wrote his latest "anyone-who-questions-the-war-is-a-coward" screeds based principally on Gordon's Iraq "reporting," as Kristol argued:

In Iraq, we are fighting al Qaeda. . . . Friday's New York Times led with the news of [GOP Sen. Pete] Domenici's endorsement of (partial, gradual, and unspecified in any of its details) withdrawal from Iraq. In striking contrast to the Domenici story was a report from Iraq on the same page by Michael Gordon. It was a fascinating account of how young American soldiers are executing Gen. David Petraeus's new strategy on the ground, and how they're fighting and defeating al Qaeda.

The specific Gordon article which so excited Ledeen, Lowry and Kristol was one of his most propagandistic yet. It is not hyperbole to say that reading Gordon's articles now generates a vaguely creepy feeling.

Gordon is in Iraq and obviously has very good relations with America's military commanders there, ones who are cleared by the administration to speak on the record to reporters. His "journalistic method" appears to consist primarily of speaking with them, writing down their always-positive accounts of their progress, and then filing those accounts -- without challenge, question or dissent.

Those largely unfiltered accounts then become the leading New York Times version of what is happening in the war in Iraq. His articles read almost exactly like sterile and highly disciplined Press Releases from the U.S. military -- containing exciting accounts of glorious war triumphs against Al Qaeda and the brave Sunnis who have declared their loyalty to the U.S. in the Joint Battle Against Al Qaeda -- because that is really what they are.

Gordon has employed this method again and again and again and again. And because he is one of the most featured Times reporters in Iraq, his war reporting methods are, by definition, the Times' methods. The issue is not whether there are some Sunni insurgents (the Original Enemy) making common and short-term cause with the U.S. military. The issue is that Gordon's reporting is so corrupt because its sources are confined to U.S. military spokespeople and his accounts thus virtually never deviate from their agenda.

And then there is John Burns, who begins his story today with this moving and inspiring anecdote, straight out of what a Steven Spielberg cheery-film-about-Iraq would depict:

SUNNI merchants watched warily from behind neat stacks of fruit and vegetables as Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno walked with a platoon of bodyguards through the Qatana bazaar here one recent afternoon. At last, one leathery-faced trader glanced furtively up and down the narrow, refuse-strewn street to check who might be listening, then broke the silence.

"America good! Al Qaeda bad!" he said in halting English, flashing a thumb's-up in the direction of America's second-ranking commander in Iraq.

Burns builds the inspiring narrative:

Now, a pact between local tribal sheiks and American commanders has sent thousands of young Iraqis from Anbar Province into the fight against extremists linked to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The deal has all but ended the fighting in Ramadi and recast the city as a symbol of hope that the tide of the war may yet be reversed to favor the Americans and their Iraqi allies.

"A symbol of hope that the tide of the war may yet be reversed to favor the Americans and their Iraqi allies."

As Burns notes, the storyline which he is pushing (and which Gordon echoes every day now) is exactly the one trumpeted by the Leader himself:

In a speech 10 days ago to the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., President Bush cited the turnaround here and elsewhere in Anbar Province, a vast desert hinterland that accounts for nearly a third of Iraq, as a reason to resist demands from Democrats in Congress for an early withdrawal of United States troops.

Though Burns pretends to explore "some of the crucial questions that still confront American commanders," he actually does nothing of the sort. As Robert Farley -- who often defends Gordon's Iraq reporting -- noted in an e-mail, the omissions in Burns' article are as significant as they are obvious: "Fails to mention the increase in violence in places not Anbar, the basic contradiction between the alliance with sheikhs and the original war aims, the dangers inherent in arming insurgents, etc."

The fact that Gordon and Burns have become icons and heroes for the most radical and pro-war extremists in this country -- extremists who typically rant viciously against the media for even the slightest challenges to their agenda and who have not expressed such admiration for a media figure since Judy Miller's departure -- is not, standing alone, dispositive proof that their reporting is deficient and biased. Nor is the fact that their storyline is identical to the one promoted by Bush and his designated military spokespeople absolute proof standing alone. Nor is the fact that their stories, especially the ones from Gordon, consist of little more than mindlessly repeating what propaganda-conscious military spokespeople are saying.

But those facts, aggregated together, certainly make a compelling case. And whatever else might be true, the media venue where one now finds the most optimistic and cheery accounts of our Great Progress Against Al Qaeda in Iraq (at least this side of Camp Victory) is the same media venue that did more than any other to sell Americans on the wisdom of invading Iraq. That is not all that surprising, given that those most responsible for causing this war have the greatest incentive to depict it as a success. Or, as Gordon put it on the Charlie Rose Show earlier this year when explaining why he favored the Surge:

So I think, you know, as a purely personal view, I think it's worth it one last effort for sure to try to get this right, because my personal view is we've never really tried to win. We've simply been managing our way to defeat. And I think that if it's done right, I think that there is the chance to accomplish something.

Iraq reports from Gordon and Burns are far more uncritically positive than even the public assessments of much of the Republican Senate Caucus. There is a reason why the likes of Bill Kristol, Michael Ledeen and Rich Lowry are such fans.

UPDATE: Just by way of contrast, compare the reports from Burns and Gordon with today's lengthy article by The Washington Post's Karen De Young and Thomas Ricks.

While the Post article reports on developments which fall into the "good news" category --"the administration will report that Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province are turning against the group al-Qaeda in Iraq in growing numbers"; "sectarian killings were down in June"; "The portrait officials paint of the Iraqi military is somewhat brighter" -- those reports are balanced by facts that are critical for putting those developments into the proper perspective:

* Those achievements are markedly different from the benchmarks Bush set when he announced his decision to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq;

* The Iraqi government is unlikely to meet any of the political and security goals or timelines President Bush set for it in January when he announced a major shift in U.S. policy;

* The month of May, which came before the Phantom Thunder offensive began, was the most violent in Iraq since November 2004, when U.S. and Iraqi forces fought a fierce battle to retake Fallujah;

* Because of corruption and mixed loyalties, a Pentagon official said about the Iraqi police, "half of them are part of the problem, not the solution."

* Even if U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies are able to hold Baghdad and the surrounding provinces, noted the intelligence official, there is a good chance that security will deteriorate elsewhere because there are not enough U.S. troops to spread around.

* As Anbar tribal chieftains have emerged to help fight al-Qaeda, they have also demanded more political power from traditional Sunni leaders. In southern Shiite areas, Maliki's Dawa organization continues to vie with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest bloc in the Shiite alliance that dominates Iraq's parliament, while both fear the rising power of forces controlled by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

That is what "reporters" do. They convey the claims of the Bush administration and U.S. military, and then add facts to those claims even when those facts undermine them.

UPDATE II: The NYT Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, has a superb column today devoted to the topic I wrote about two weeks ago -- the trend by the Bush administration (first) and then NYT reporters to describe the enemy we are fighting in Iraq as "Al Qaeda" (h/t sysprog ). Hoyt's column is entitled "Seeing Al Qaeda Around Every Corner," and he writes:

As domestic support for the war in Iraq continues to melt away, President Bush and the United States military in Baghdad are increasingly pointing to a single villain on the battlefield: Al Qaeda. . . .

Why Bush and the military are emphasizing Al Qaeda to the virtual exclusion of other sources of violence in Iraq is an important story. So is the question of how well their version of events squares with the facts of a murky and rapidly changing situation on the ground.

But these are stories you haven't been reading in The Times in recent weeks as the newspaper has slipped into a routine of quoting the president and the military uncritically about Al Qaeda's role in Iraq -- and sometimes citing the group itself without attribution.

And in using the language of the administration, the newspaper has also failed at times to distinguish between Al Qaeda, the group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an Iraqi group that didn't even exist until after the American invasion. . . .

Recent Times stories from Iraq have referred, with little or no attribution -- and no supporting evidence -- to "militants linked with Al Qaeda," "Sunni extremists with links to Al Qaeda" and "insurgents from Al Qaeda." The Times has stated flatly, again without attribution or supporting evidence, that Al Qaeda was responsible for the bombing of the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra last year, an event that the president has said started the sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.

Indeed. This superb column -- highly worth reading in its entirety -- examines all the ways in which such reporting has been misleading, quotes experts documenting why this reporting is deceitful, and traces the origins of this practice to exactly the time period when the Bush administration began to change its rhetoric. It is a very powerful -- and accurate -- indictment of the Iraq reporting by the New York Times, and though he does not say it explicitly, a bulk of the targeted articles were written in whole or in part by Michael Gordon.

And just incidentally, I'd be willing to bet that this topic was brought to Hoyt's attention as a result of the discussion of it in the blogosphere. As but one example, I noted in my post two weeks ago that BarbinMD at Daily Kos was one of the first people to write about this rhetorical shift when she noted back in May "that Bush 'mentioned Al-Qaida no less than 27 times' in his Iraq speech." The exact statistic cited by BarbinMd was used by Hoyt in his second paragraph.

By Glenn Greenwald

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