For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.
In all the coverage of the Iraq war, the one person who has escaped a real drubbing is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Writers and commentators have taken shots at him, but nothing seems to stick. In the last few days, though, the news media has been emboldened by facts that not even Rummy can dodge.
As Tim Rutten wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Rumsfeld's "preening gamecock persona" is finally close to realizing its "comedic potential."
"Ever since 9/11, Rummy -- as he is affectionately known to his dwindling band of admirers -- has alternately cowed and wowed large segments of the Pentagon press corps with an exaggerated blend of sarcasm and strut straight off the music hall stage," Rutten wrote. Last week, Rummy -- with a straight face -- cited Iraq's "free and independent news media as one of the U.S. occupation's success stories."
"There's a hundred-plus papers," Rumsfeld boasted.
But the punch line, Rutten said, is that many of those papers "turn out to be on the secretary's payroll."
The L.A. Times broke the story last week. It said that, while the U.S. State Department and the Agency for International Development have spent millions training Iraqi journalists and encouraging an independent press, the Pentagon has shelled out millions more to bribe those same reporters and broadcasters to run phony news stories. In his column, Rutten marveled at "the sheer perversity of claiming credit for establishing a democratic Iraq while systematically manipulating its electorate's information and corrupting its ostensibly free press."
The New York Times got hold of the some of the counterfeit stories, one of which was headlined, "The Sands Are Blowing Toward a Democratic Iraq."
Once the chuckling died down, the Bush administration was accused of ochestrating, again, a devious project that American taxpayers, unknowingly, are paying for. Critics recalled the videotaped press releases that the administration passed off as news, and its hiring of the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who, along with others, was paid to write favorable stories for American newspapers. We won't even go into the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
But the Iraq program does have supporters. Walter Jajko, a retired Air Force brigadier-general, wrote on the Op-Ed page of the L.A. Times that "even third-rate countries routinely use information and disinformation as an instrument of foreign policy, often against the United States."
The Iraq stories are produced by the U.S. military and distributed by the Lincoln Group, a public-relations firm in Washington D.C. with a $5 million contract. For what? You could round up a posse of first-rate reporters from any newsroom in this country and have them churn out book-length features for a year on a fraction of that amount. Senior officials at the White House and the Pentagon claimed not to know about the program. And Rumsfeld blamed the U.S. media for getting the Iraq story wrong.
Bradley Graham reported in today's Washington Post that Rumsfeld accused U.S. news organizations of ignoring signs of progress in Iraq. "The worst about America and our military," Rummy said, "seems to so quickly be taken as truth by the press, and reported and spread around the world, often with little context and little scrutiny, let alone correction or accountability after the fact."
Ah, accountability. That's something Rummy avoids like the plague. Richard Cohen, in an Op-Ed column in today's Washington Post, said Rumsfeld's "mistakes, miscalculations and arrogant dismissal of dissent have cost American and Iraqi lives and prolonged the conflict."
Firing Rumsfeld would be a sign, Cohen said, "that this intellectually apathetic president is willing to question his assumptions, challenge his convictions and admit that he has been wrong."
This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.