Mar 1 2002

Journalists Gaga for ‘Rock Star’ Rumsfeld

“Everyone is genuflecting before the Pentagon powerhouse,” noted Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz (12/13/01). Since the war in Afghanistan started, Kurtz observed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was “getting better press than Rudy Giuliani.” Rumsfeld, Kurtz wrote, was “America’s new rock star.”

Why do so many journalists revere Rumsfeld? His “rough-hewn charm and no-nonsense demeanor” are part of it, says Kurtz. And dozens of other journalists concur, often citing his “candor” and describing him as “plain-spoken” and a “straight-shooter.” Journalists’ comments about Rumsfeld range from the flattering to the obsequious to the downright bizarre.

“Sixty-nine years old, and you’re America’s stud,” Tim Russert told Rumsfeld when he interviewed him on NBC‘s Meet the Press (1/20/02); Larry King informed him that “you now have this new image called sex symbol” (CNN‘s Larry King Live, 12/06/01). Fox News‘ Jim Angle (12/11/01) called him “a babe magnet for the 70-year-old set.”

“I love you, Donald,” Margaret Carlson announced on CNN‘s Capital Gang (12/23/01), where the Time magazine columnist appears regularly in the role of left-of-center pundit. Carlson’s Time magazine colleague, veteran defense correspondent Mark Thompson, told the Chicago Tribune (10/22/01), “Although he has not told us very much, he has been like a father figure.”

While the father-figure angle might be better left to a psychoanalyst, Thompson is on to something when he says that the “straight-shooter” doesn’t actually tell reporters very much–and what he does say is often contradictory. Invoking the “fog of war” to explain why he could provide no information about Afghan civilian casualties, Rumsfeld told a Pentagon press briefing in early December (Washington Post, 12/5/01), “With the disorder that reigns in Afghanistan, it is next to impossible to get factual information about civilian casualties.”

But the fog must have lifted at some point, since Rumsfeld has been emphatic on the precision of military strikes (New York Times, 11/5/01): “I don’t think there ever in the history of the world has been a bombing effort that has been done with such precision.” (Actually, the Project on Defense Alternatives estimates that the number of civilians killed per bomb dropped in Afghanistan was 3 to 4 times higher than the rate in NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia–itself no model of precision targeting.)

U.S. strikes have killed and injured Afghan civilians on several occasions. In one case, when it was reported that the U.S. had bombed a senior citizens’ home in Herat, Rumsfeld denounced the report, insisting there was “absolutely no evidence” it had occurred (Agence France Presse, 10/22/01). When it turned out he was wrong, instead of Rumsfeld addressing the issue in his daily press briefing, Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke was brought out to correct the record (AP, 10/24/02).

Hardly the candor the Pentagon chief is celebrated for, and not exactly in line with his comments to the press in November, when he warned them against Taliban lies, assuring them that, from the Pentagon, “you will receive only honest, direct answers” (Time International, 11/12/01).

When the “plain-spoken” Rumsfeld was queried about the status of Afghan battlefield captives–an issue of concern to many U.S. allies–he gave a series of confusing, contradictory and distinctly un-candid answers.

On January 15, he told reporters (AP, 1/16/02): “I do not feel even the slightest concern about their treatment. They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else over the last several years and vastly better than was their circumstance when they were found.”

A few days earlier (New York Times, 1/12/02), Rumsfeld told reporters “unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention.” Nevertheless, he said, “We have indicated that we do plan to, for the most part, treat them in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva conventions to the extent they are appropriate.” The comment, so loaded with qualifiers as to be virtually meaningless, was reported without question by mainstream U.S. news outlets.