TV Guided

As the weapons-of-mass-destruction rationale for invading Iraq grows more threadbare and the notion that removing Saddam Hussein from power would lead to a quick blossoming of Middle East democracy looks more fanciful by the day, President Bush has taken to casting the ongoing conflict in Iraq as "the central front in the war on terror." This strategy is a new twist on an old ploy. For more than a year the Bush administration has tried to portray war against Iraq as a logical outgrowth of the events of September 11. And without ever quite drawing an explicit link, the president apparently managed to convince large numbers of people -- as many as 70 percent, according to a recent Washington Post poll -- that Hussein's government was actually involved in the attacks on New York and Washington.

In this deceptive linkage of the Iraq War to 9-11, the news media has often been a conspirator, if perhaps an unwitting one, and yesterday's coverage of the date's second anniversary proved to be no exception.

First, the good news: Yesterday morning's pleasant surprise was that FOX News acquitted itself quite well, for once living up to its "fair and balanced" label with coverage that stayed largely focused on the day's various memorial services and on interviews with family members of the victims. FOX also showed substantial portions of its own taped broadcasts from September 11 -- interesting historical documents in their own right, they also serve as a reminder that the contemporary narrative of Bush's resolute leadership in the face of attack was not particularly evident on the day in question (when he flitted around the country saying little, only to deliver a weak Oval Office speech that evening). FOX even conducted a brief interview with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) in which he made the case that the administration is bungling the struggle against al-Qaeda.

NBC's top-rated Today show, on the other hand, was a cavalcade of howlers in which the creation of a Department of Homeland Security and the decision to turn airport security personnel into federal employees -- both Democratic proposals -- were described as steps taken "by the Bush administration" as part of its "campaign to make America safer."

Not much better was when newscasters referred to Iraq as the center of the war on terrorism, thus uncritically adopting the White House's talking points. CBS, for instance, said that soldiers in Baghdad "are well aware that they're on the front line of the war on terror," and quoted two young men on active duty in Iraq who recently decided to re-enlist in order to "stamp out terrorism."

Mostly, though, the networks drew more subtle links between 9-11 and the Iraq War. All the networks cut from time to time to scenes of U.S. soldiers in Baghdad, effectively juxtaposing the two events in the mind of the viewer. CNN made things a bit more explicit by choosing to interview World Trade Center widow Ginny Bauer and inquire about her experiences as part of a seven-day USO tour in Iraq. Bauer reported the existence of an "immediate chemistry" between herself and the soldiers. ABC followed up a few glimpses at the troops with a brief clip of Paul Bremer, the Bush-appointed civil administrator of Iraq, observing a moment of silence. NBC went even further by mentioning that the 9-11 attacks had not, in fact, sparked an increase in military enlistment -- and then bizarrely airing a segment about a young soldier who was inspired by 9-11 to join the military.

Earlier the network conducted a brief interview with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in which he warned of the continuing threat posed by al-Qaeda and explicitly linked the ongoing conflict in Iraq to that threat. Several networks reported on growing concerns that al-Qaeda may, in fact, have begun to operate in that country, but none saw fit to depict such developments as a consequence of a war that was sold to the public as a means of preventing al-Qaeda from operating in Iraq.

Actual distortions aside, blanket coverage of the memorial services could hardly help but be a boon for incumbents. New York's Republican mayor and its Republican governor, as well as the nation's Republican president, vice president and secretaries of state, defense and homeland security, were on display, mourning and remembering. One imagines that Tom Daschle, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Howard Dean and all the rest of the Dems were up to something, but the cameras weren't watching.

In large part, of course, this overexposure of one party is simply a consequence of the structure of American government. Most countries separate the role of head of state (symbol of national unity) from that of head of government (practical formulator of policy). Think of the United Kingdom with its queen and its prime minister, or Israel with its president (head of state) and prime minister (leader of the government). In the United States, however, the roles are fused into the office of the president, who is called upon to be both the country's emotional center and the designer of policy responses -- meaning that when tragedies are to be commemorated, there is no nonpartisan figurehead to parade in front of the cameras.

Still, the media could easily have been more sensitive to the partisan advantage their coverage bestowed upon the incumbent president -- especially in light of that president's transparent efforts to politicize 9-11, such as electing to hold the 2004 Republican convention in New York City at an unusually late date in order to coincide with the third anniversary of the attacks. New York, after all, is represented on Capitol Hill by two Democratic senators and a small army of Democratic members of Congress, none of whom were prominently on display but all of whom would surely have been happy to share their remarks and remembrances.

Then there was Tim Russert of NBC nostalgically deploring the end of the brief bipartisan era brought about by the initial attack. But nostalgia ignores, for one thing, that the death of thousands of Americans is a steep price to pay for a little bipartisan harmony in Washington. If another September 11 is what it takes to end bickering between the parties, all of us will happily take the bickering.

More significantly, though, this line of thought fails to recognize that the bipartisanship of fall 2001 is what brought us such sorry spectacles as Congress passing the USA PATRIOT Act with virtually no debate. Likewise, the shameful bailout of the airline industry without comparable assistance to that industry's employees and the bait and switch on emergency funding for New York were not exactly high points in American public policy.

And then there is the fact that it was the president and his civilian appointees to the defense department who broke the bipartisan consensus regarding the need for a vigorous campaign against al-Qaeda by pushing the country into an unrelated conflict with Iraq. It is also they who bear the responsibility for the arrogant unilateralism that squandered the goodwill America enjoyed in the aftermath of the attacks. The administration had, of course, every right to try to take America's foreign policy in new directions, but journalists have a responsibility to portray this decision accurately -- as a conscious and controversial choice, not as a logical or inevitable outgrowth of the terrible trauma of 9-11.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow.

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