Last week, Democratic Congressman John Murtha called for a resolution terminating U.S. troop involvement in Iraq. Amid an increasingly acrimonious debate on the Iraq war, his comments drew an extremely sharp reaction from congressional Republicans and the White House. Bob talks to Mark Halperin, political director of ABC News and editor of The Note, about the press coverage of this latest war of words.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:: And I'm Bob Garfield. After three years of war and mainly muted dissatisfaction, suddenly there came a tipping point.
JOHN MURTHA:: Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course.
BOB GARFIELD:: John Murtha, the 17-term conservative Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania, declared the war in Iraq militarily unwinnable. And suddenly the debate was muted no more. Here was the reaction of Republican Congresswoman Jean Schmidt of Ohio.
JEAN SCHMIDT:: A few minutes ago, I received a call from Colonel Danny Bubp, Ohio representative from the 88th District in the House of Representatives. He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do. [SOUND OF HOUSE FLOOR REACTION] Danny and the rest of America - [BACKGROUND HUBBUB]
BOB GARFIELD:: All hell broke loose on the floor of the House, and in the media.
REPORTER:: Debate over the war heating up in Washington after calls for a pull-out by a former war supporter - [SOUND TRAILS OFF]
REPORTER:: -the decorated war hero who backed the Iraq invasion but now wants U.S. troops out in six months.
REPORTER:: - veteran who voted for the war called for troop withdrawal within six months. [MUSIC UP AND OVER]
REPORTER:: We'll talk to the man who pushed the country to a tipping point on the war. [MUSIC TAG]
BOB GARFIELD:: The full-fledged national debate on Iraq had finally arrived with the same players but new dynamics, such as an emboldened press and a beleaguered White House. It was almost weird to witness, not least because in the midst of debate about mischaracterized intelligence, the media themselves this week frequently mischaracterized Murtha's proposal as a call to bring the troops home now. That shorthand cut both ways politically, but ABC News political director Mark Halperin says, either way, oversimplification was inevitable.
MARK HALPERIN:: There is kind of a simplification, which to some extent has worked to the White House's benefit in saying, as you suggest, as some of the coverage suggests, that Congressman Murtha wants everybody out of there in 20 minutes and lock the door behind you. And, of course, one of the things Congressman Murtha has called for is a pretty sizeable force to stay in the region for a while, to deal with any emergencies. So there is complexity here. If you just go from the cable headlines, if you just go from the short snippets that some people get their news from, I think you would see oversimplification. And that's unfortunate, particularly since the Congressman's goal, which the White House now says they celebrate and welcome, is a full debate.
BOB GARFIELD:: On this program, we have frequently criticized the press corps, particularly the White House press corps, for being excessively deferential, even timid with respect to the President, especially after 9/11 and the lead up to war. That's changed pretty dramatically in the last couple of weeks. We've also observed the phenomenon where historically the press corps sometimes needs some sort of political cover to get very aggressive on a story, maybe action in Congress, what have you. Is that what's happened here, that the Murtha resolution has given the press permission to suddenly get confrontational?
MARK HALPERIN:: The Murtha announcement is just one of a series of things and the most recent that, I think, has given the political press kind of a booster shot of recollection about what our role is in being aggressive at covering any government. I think when the Republicans in the Senate moved to demand increased reporting from the White House that the press also felt more of a license to ask hard questions. It hasn't changed everything, and I think it's still a press corps searching for the right posture to have, as you said, post-9/11, during a time of war. When the White House calls the accusations saying our opponents who question the war are perhaps giving aid and comfort to the enemy and demoralizing our troops, I think unfortunately a lot of reporters feel the sting of that. The White House has criticized the New York Times in a press release. A White House spokesperson criticized, by name, a reporter for NBC News in an interview. It's the White House's right to push back, as they say, against the press, and it's the press's responsibility to take criticism that's justified into account but to not be cowed.
BOB GARFIELD:: From the days of their first campaign, the Bush team has been very, very good at responding to attacks of all kind of stuff, mainly by going on the attack themselves. This week, the White House went right back into that mode, chiefly with Vice-President Cheney, questioning the integrity and the patriotism of some war critics. But the echoes in the media seem different now. Have you noticed that? Has the media ecosystem adapted to the Bush Administration?
MARK HALPERIN:: This White House is very aggressive. They use the President, the Vice-President, and all the spokespeople for the White House to be very aggressive, and, in fact, in the view of some Republicans, even in the White House, too aggressive in going after Congressman Murtha. But I don't think that the press, as much as they are inclined to perhaps discount the White House in that mode, I don't think the press kept the White House from getting done what it wanted to get done, which was to try to recalibrate the argument, not about is the President doing a good job on Iraq but should the Democrats be more trusted to deal with Iraq in the White House, and I think the White House got that point, at least, across.
BOB GARFIELD:: Okay, Mark. Well, as always, thanks very much.
MARK HALPERIN:: Okay, Bob. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:: Mark Halperin is editor of The Note and political director of ABC News.