You might have had this experience at one time or another: Armed with an opinion you may not have thought much about, you find yourself arguing with someone who disagrees with you on a topic of current events. As the debate proceeds, you begin to understand that you're actually wrong. The arguments you make to support your position grow thinner and less germane, shot down easily by your adversary, to the point where you know you've lost. You look anxiously around at those who are listening, wondering if their opinion of you will be forever diminished.
What to do? Surrender, and lose face by admitting you don't really know what you're talking about? Soldier on, and risk looking more and more foolish? Neither option is particularly appealing. And what if the topic in question is one on which you have practically staked you entire career -- one whose outcome threatens not only the health of your political party but your entire ideological worldview? What would you do then?
As it happens, this is precisely the position that conservative media figures -- radio hosts, television talking heads, the corps of right-wing pundits -- find themselves in when it comes to the most important issue of our time: the war in Iraq. And for them there is, of course, one other option left: Blame the other guy.
"We are the United States of America!" shouted Rush Limbaugh on a recent show. "We never lose unless we defeat ourselves!" And who is at fault if we do? Democrats, the people Sean Hannity calls "the party of appeasement, surrender, and defeat." Nearly every day, Limbaugh says that the Democrats "own defeat" -- so if it comes, it will be theirs. Democrats are "setting themselves up for a powerful embarrassment & They have aligned themselves on the sides of America's enemies. They own defeat of the United States of America."
(Hannity's shameless GOP spinning on FOX has an almost admirable purity to it. On his new weekend show, Hannity's America, regular segments include "Enemy of the Week" -- first called "Enemy of the State" -- highlighting a liberal who had raised the host's particular ire, and "What Would Reagan Do?" The set contains a dozen television screens on which electronic versions of Old Glory continuously wave.)
Blaming the liberals is the conservatives' old standby, one they need now more than ever. As the months drag on, as the deaths pile up, as every moment of hopefulness is followed by a new descent into violence and despair, the stalwarts of the conservative media bring their fight to the domestic enemy with unflagging vigor. In the process, Iraq itself recedes into the background. Instead, the discussions revolve around what Democrats are doing to harm the war effort and undermine the troops.
And there is always time for an attack on the media, the liberals' partners in crime. One recent CBS report, said Hannity, was "designed to, as far as I'm concerned, work with the Democrats in Congress, embolden the enemy, undermine the troops." Bill O'Reilly sees a more terrifying conspiracy. "We are being lied to on a daily basis by the media," he said, "as far-left fanatics have assumed power in places like NBC News and The New York Times."
What exactly are these outlets doing that contribute to our defeat? They are reporting on the war, in all its ugliness. Their stubborn insistence on reporting the news makes America's enemies feel good, makes our troops feel bad, and saps our will. There are no apolitical actors in this drama: Either you're with us or you're with the enemy, whether you're a journalist, a Democrat in Congress, or any ordinary citizen who opposes the war.
No one beats this drum more regularly than Limbaugh, whose show is heard by 13.5 million Americans every week, according to Talkers magazine. Parents of soldiers often call in to Limbaugh's show, and his typical questions to them revolve around whether they're mad at Democrats for betraying the troops. If one of these parents refers to something bad that "Congress" is doing, Limbaugh interrupts to correct them with "Democrats in Congress." He asked one father not long ago if his son and other soldiers grow angry "when they see what the Democrats in the House are doing and how they're smiling and gloating over securing what they think is defeat."
If this is the way the world is divided, a story like the Walter Reed scandal leaves the conservative media in a quandary. Standing up for the troops would mean not just criticizing the administration but criticizing it for the very sin -- not supporting the troops -- of which only liberals can be guilty. The way out has been to say as little as possible.
The Washington Post broke the story of the dilapidated conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center on February 18. There was an immediate tidal wave of news coverage, but O'Reilly waited until March 6 to mention the scandal on his show. "We're investigating that," he said, with the promise of more information to come. After nearly two weeks, on March 19, he said again, "Walter Reed was a very disturbing situation. And we're investigating." Eleven days later, he presented the results of his "investigation," 89 words concluding that "the Bush administration was not prepared for the casualties the U.S. military has taken in Iraq," which amounted to just "another example of a huge bureaucracy failing to be efficient." Case closed. In the meantime, O'Reilly has found plenty of time for attacks on Cindy Sheehan, whom he goes after about once a week.
Similarly, nary a Walter Reed word about it has passed the lips of Hannity, who quickly changes the subject whenever it arises, though guests on Hannity & Colmes brought up the hospital on a couple of occasions. After one spirited argument between two guests that included a back-and-forth on the scandal, Hannity ended the discussion by saying, "You've got to wrap it in one thing: emboldening appeasement Democrats. Appeasing Democrats."
This laser-like focus on the sins of the war's opponents also necessitates ignoring news from Iraq itself when it might be disheartening, which is pretty much all the time. For instance, on Saturday, February 3, an enormous truck bomb ripped through the Sadriya market in central Baghdad, killing 135 people and wounding 300 more -- the deadliest single bomb attack since the war began. On his next show, that Monday, Limbaugh didn't mention it, but did find time to say, "The Democrat[ic] Party today remains invested totally in our defeat in the Iraq War, and the larger 'war on terror.'" Looking optimistically to the next war, Headline News host Glenn Beck said that night, "Everybody is missing the point & It's never been about Iraq. It's about Iran." -- but he didn't bring up the Sadriya bombing, either. Nor was it mentioned on Hannity & Colmes; nor on that weekend's Beltway Boys, the show hosted by Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke; nor on The Big Story with John Gibson, FOX's 5 p.m. bush-league, imitation-O'Reilly offering; nor on The O'Reilly Factor itself.
Four years into the war, there are cracks in the conservatives' armor. A few, like MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, were against the war from the beginning. Others have begun to look inward, like National Review Editor Rich Lowry, who in December chastised his fellow conservatives for "los[ing] touch with reality on Iraq & Conservatives need to realize that something is not dubious just because it's reported by The New York Times."
Which leaves the likes of Hannity and Limbaugh, who still defend the administration without reservation, exuding a heightening sense of desperation, at times verging on the pathetic. As Beck said in March, "Everybody is showing you wall-to-wall bad news. Not us. I'm not going to lose myself to the nightmare." And he's not the only one feeling blue. "When I actually stop to think that there are Americans like you, I get depressed," Limbaugh told a recent caller who opposed the war.
Last June, Kevin Baker wrote in Harper's about the "stabbed in the back" myth, the conservative belief that every foreign-policy blunder must be blamed on the actions of the perfidious liberals who eat away at America from the inside. The construction of the Iraq War version of the stabbed-in-the-back myth is proceeding along nicely, spurred on by the conservative talkers who have made it the anchor of their repertoire. (And sometimes in that very language: Hannity recently told a Democratic Party consultant on Hannity & Colmes, "140,000 troops are in Iraq suffering because of the backstabbing of your party.")
Over the conservative airwaves, every disagreement is a fight to the death, and everyone with a different opinion must have sinister motives. Anger, resentment, contempt, and ridicule are the engines that drive successful talk radio. Conservatives still dominate this format, augmented by the conservative hosts of 13 cable-TV talk shows (while the number hosted by progressives, if you count Keith Olbermann, is one).
There may not be a lot of clear-eyed analysis of Iraq on the dial, but if you're a Bush partisan, you can find plenty of comfort. The political figures you admire are not dishonest, bumbling incompetents; they are strong and resolute, moral and righteous. Their defining project is not a disaster but a noble crusade experiencing some temporary bumps on the way to a glorious victory. These are the things you will learn. And most importantly, you'll know whom to blame when it's all over.
Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.