Sep 1 2008

Still Taking the Pentagon’s Bait:

Media ‘balance’ critical GAO report with DoD spin

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/The U.S. Army

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/The U.S. Army

The General Accounting Office released a report June 23 that condemned the Bush administration’s “surge” strategy in Iraq. The same day the Pentagon released its own overwhelmingly positive report, “dated June 13 but not released until yesterday” (Washington Post, 6/24/08), which might reasonably be seen as a blatant White House effort to take the air out of the GAO’s findings. How did the Pentagon do with such a transparent gambit? Lamentably well.

In write-ups in both the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, reporters used the Pentagon’s self-assessment just as its producers must have hoped: to counterweigh and cast doubt on the assessments of the GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, reducing the reality of Iraq to a battle of perceptions and “metrics.”

The GAO’s report, unsurprisingly, didn’t address the Iraq War and occupation’s legality or morality. It did say the “surge” was not meeting the administration’s own declared goals—political, economic or security—and required fundamental redirection.

As the headline indicated, the Washington Post’s “GAO Report Faults Post-‘Surge’ Planning” (6/24/08) began with the GAO’s findings, though the subhead—“Lack of Comprehensive Strategy Cited, but Pentagon Study Sees Gains in Iraq”—suggested the facts might be in dispute.

Despite the lead, fully nine of 15 paragraphs in the Post piece, by Karen DeYoung,* were devoted to objections to the GAO report from the Pentagon and other agencies. None of these appeared especially damning: The GAO “used the wrong metrics” to measure Iraqi government expenditures; the goals for Iraqi oil production, though set by the U.S. occupation government, were “arbitrary” and should therefore be ignored; a “misleading” measurement was used for Iraq’s security capacity, and so on.

The final paragraph noted that “on numerous points, the GAO report countered the rebuttals,” but offered just one example.

Like the Post, the L.A. Times paired the GAO and Pentagon reports. The paper likewise eschewed an accurate if lackluster headline like “Pentagon Disagrees With Criticism of Pentagon” in favor of the offensively obfuscatory “Pentagon, GAO See Good News and Bad in Iraq.”

In the Times, the two assessments were blended as though their conclusions were complementary. “Two new government reports, one by the Pentagon, pointed Monday to encouraging security improvements in Iraq,” the story began. The GAO said many political, economic and security goals have not been met; the Pentagon too “acknowledged problems.”

The Pentagon was presented as sharing the GAO’s concerns: “Both the Pentagon and GAO reports note potential problems with the so-called Sons of Iraq program,” for example. Other questions, about the lack of a broad post-“surge” strategy and the capacities of Iraqi security forces, were batted away by, respectively, a “senior Defense official . . . prohibited by the Defense Department from using his name,” and a “senior military official, responding . . . on condition of anonymity.”

Both the Post and the L.A. Times reports helped the Pentagon spin in another way, by foregrounding the “reduction in violence” in Iraq, presenting the GAO as raising other concerns that, while significant, are somehow ancillary to the matter of security.

This too undermines the GAO’s straightforward-enough point that the administration’s plan has to be measured against the goals that it set. Or, as Arianna Huffington put it (Huffington Post, 7/7/08), “We didn’t go to war because we were committed to demonstrating that America could unleash violence in Iraq and then, five years later, curb it through the use of reinforcements.” By accepting the primacy of violence reduction in measuring the effects of the “surge,” media allowed Bush and others to move the goalposts and declare success. (See p. 16.)

The subject of a report might reasonably be expected to have some opportunity to respond to it, but no journalistic standard requires placing an agency’s self-interested spin on a par with more neutral assessments, especially so when the agency in question is the Pentagon at war, and especially especially when it’s this Pentagon, with its track record of overt and covert attempts at public deception.

In the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks, a military official told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz (9/24/01) of the newly minted “war on terror”: “This is the most information-intensive war you can imagine. . . . We’re going to lie about things.” If reporters don’t get skeptical after a declaration like that, when will they?

* DeYoung would go on to find more good news from Iraq the following week: Her “U.S. Embassy Cites Progress in Iraq; Most Congressionally Set Benchmarks Met, Report Finds” (7/2/08) made the Post the only big paper to cover that assessment. The following day (7/3/08), the Post ran “Progress Cited in U.S.-Iraq Pacts” (7/3/08), based on comments made by the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs Hoshyar Zebari that similarly few others found newsworthy.