Friday, August 25, 2006

Read It and Weep

Read through the heavy-handed media framing of this story and tell me what you think.

Republican Sen. John McCain said Friday he supports the U.S. mission in Iraq days after faulting the Bush administration for misleading Americans into believing it would be "some kind of day at the beach."

The potential 2008 presidential candidate and staunch war supporter issued a statement explaining his position after his headline-grabbing comments criticizing the Bush administration.

"I have never intended my concern that the American people be fully informed about the conduct and consequences of the war to indicate any lessening of my support for our mission there," McCain said in the statement.

One thing to note is the adverbial phrase "headline-grabbing." It's an admission that editorial weighting determines realities in the minds of the nation. Yet we in the media have a tendency to insist we merely observe and report. Ideally, we do, but since Heisenberg it's become hard to deny the essential truth of the notion that observation changes reality.

In physics, that's a random act, but with human minds at the helm, as in the media, it rarely is. Notice, for instance, how in reporting the new thing McCain is saying, which is in support of the war, the report manages to give more prominence, and priority in quoting, to the old thing he said which was pounced on as a prize by war opponents.

He complained in an appearance Tuesday about major mistakes by the administration, such as underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifices necessary. The comment prompted criticism from the right and left that McCain was flip-flopping, contradicting his backing for Bush's policy.

Haven't seen those "criticisms from the right," and none is offered as an example. I guess I'm supposed to take their word for it. In the past, I would have. Now I'm not so inclined to.

But such criticism would be nonsense. I can support the war and the goals of the war while deploring the errors we made along the way. I can support the men and women fighting to achieve these goals, while lamenting the tergic things that happen to them, or the bad deeds some few of them commit.

The whole middle half of the article, the meat of it, somewhat surprisingly, is a long recitation, with relish, of Bush's faux pas. Rather than allowing McCain to explain how it's perfectly logical and patriotic to hold both views, the article devotes itself to re-framing the "Bush is an incompetent liar" story.

When it gets back to McCain, it's to make him look like one, too:

In a March 2003 interview on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews," McCain was asked whether he believed the people of Iraq would treat U.S. forces as liberators.

"Absolutely. Absolutely," the senator replied.

No further elaboration. I guess we're supposed to all know by now (thanks to media framework and editorial weighting) that that never happened. But in fact, it did. It just didn't last very long. That doesn't mean it didn't happen.

Democrats criticized McCain on Friday, calling him a "Monday-morning quarterback" and arguing that he should try to change Iraq policy if he disagreed with Bush's handling of the war.

"McCain's latest criticism is simply more talk without action from a presidential wannabe," said Christy Setzer, spokeswoman for the Democratic group, Senate Majority Project.

Once again, McCain still hasn't had a chance to explain how he can loyally criticize the administration's handling of the war without backing off one step from his commitment to the goals we set out with.

The Democratic criticism is nonsense. Senators from Arizona don't run America's military. The president does. So in order to change our Iraq policy, which Setzer demands he do, McCain would have to get himself elected president -- which is exactly what Setzer accuses him of trying to do. The expression "Duh" comes to mind here.

Finally, after all that, after the story has jumped to the inside pages of the few newspapers who will bother to pick it up, and after 3/4 of the readers of those papers will have moved on to the sports section, someone explains McCain. Sort of.

Republican consultant Rich Galen, who worked in Iraq for the Defense Department, defended McCain, saying he was giving an "accurate description of where Americans are on this war" while also making the case it is necessary in the fight against terrorism.

And that's it. Then we're back to "it's all about the politics."

All the potential 2008 presidential candidates are trying to make strategic decisions about how close they need to be to Bush, said Stephen Hess, a politics expert at the Brookings Institution think tank. McCain needs Bush's support to appear presidential, but he also needs to maintain his maverick image.

"He's making adjustments," Hess said. "He's trying to adjust his position to be the most advantageous."

Then finally -- finally! -- as the very last words of the piece (in inverted pyramid style, the part deemed least significant and most cuttable), the AP gets around to admitting this was all just a media-generated flap. McCain's been saying this sort of thing all along.

Prior to this week, McCain has criticized Bush's public assessments of the war.

In a November speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he cautioned that the administration must accurately portray even negative events on the ground and tell the country that it will take a long time to win.

"If we can't retain the support of the American people, we will have lost this war as soundly as if our forces were defeated on the battlefield," he said in November.

But, you know, August is a slow month and for some reason violent death rates have been trending downward in Iraq, so we've had to shelve the "deteriorate" and "spiral out of control" and "collapse" headlines, at least for a few weeks.

But that makes us anxious: What if the people lose all the anger we've managed to whip up in them, and right before the election cycle? What if they forget? Well, we can always gin up an Remember,-people,-Iraq-is-a-failure story on our own, eve if our enemy-of-my-enemy allies in the Sunni and Shi'ite death squads are slacking off on the job.

Most amazingly of all, what the story never does tell you is what McCain actually said today, which, at least in theory, was the whole point of writing it. Here's what he said. It's not long.

“I agreed with the President’s difficult decision to go to war in Iraq. I remain fully supportive of his determination not to leave Iraq until the freely elected government of that country and its armed forces are able to defend their country from foreign and domestic enemies intent on thwarting the will of the Iraqi people to create a civil society in which the rights and security of all Iraqis are protected.

“I have often emphasized the importance of leveling with the American people about the high costs and many difficulties of the mission, the potentially calamitous consequences of failure and the many benefits of success, as the President has also frequently stressed. But I have never intended my concern that the American public be fully informed about the conduct and consequences of the war to indicate any lessening of my support for our mission there.

"On the contrary, I view a candid, informed public discussion of the war as critical to sustaining popular support for the war and, thus, indispensable to ensuring the ultimate success of our mission. And I commend the President for his public statements offering Americans an honest assessment of the progress we have made in Iraq and the challenges that still confront us there, and, of course, for his determination to defend American security and international peace and stability by succeeding in this arduous and costly enterprise.”

Now, you can like that or reject that. Or find two-thirds of it honest statement and the final sentence as a political sop to Bush and his die-hards. But unless you read it, you'll never know what you think about it, never change your mind, never have a debate. And AP never told you what he said.