BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Thursday, House Democrats finally unveiled their plan for ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq. It sets a timetable for withdrawing troops, a timetable that would be expedited if the Iraqi government doesn't make progress of its own along the way.
The plan was immediately rejected as a nonstarter by the White House, just as an earlier version by Congressman John Murtha was dissed by House Republicans as a "slow bleed." REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN: Their so-called "slow bleed" approach— REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN: Lending support to the slow bleed doctrine - REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN: Commence a, quote, "slow bleed," end quote, of funding cuts – REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN: We cannot, cannot accept this slow bleed strategy. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The phrase has appeared hundreds of times in editorials, op-eds and letters to the editor. Now, astute news consumers might assume it was dreamed up by Republican politicos to vilify Murtha's plan, but, in fact, "slow bleed" appeared first not in the rhetoric of politicians but in the lead of an article in the online journal The Politico.
Top House Democrats, the story read, have decided against using Congressional power to force a quick end to U.S. involvement in Iraq and instead will pursue a slow bleed strategy designed to gradually limit the administration's options.
The author of the phrase in question is Politico editor John Harris, formerly of The Washington Post, and he stands ready to take the blame. Welcome to the show. JOHN HARRIS: Hi, glad to be here. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So can you briefly give us a play-by-play of how "slow bleed" came into being? JOHN HARRIS: Absolutely. We had a story, a good one, by our Capitol Hill bureau chief, John Bresnahan. It was the first to lay out in detail what Congressman Murtha was proposing to do, his effort to restrict the Bush administration's flexibility to carry out this surge but not do so by essentially pulling money back away from troops in the field.
Anyway, he turned the story into us, and, as often happens when editors see a story come in, we think, well, this is good but the writing isn't necessarily as bright or as vivid and evocative as it needs to be.
Jim VandeHei, my co–editor, we sat down and crafted the lead. And as we did it, we made it tighter, shorter, and that phrase, "slow bleed", creeped into it. It was clear in context. I must tell you, Brooke, that what was the slow bleed was bleeding away the Bush administration's authority – slow bleed as contrasted with a quick kill.
The problem is when our article ran, people, I think, made the psychological leap that slow bleed referred to troops in the field rather than bleeding away the Bush administration's support and its ability to carry out the war. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when did you first notice that it was being used incorrectly?
JOHN HARRIS: Well, we noticed it instantly, because the Republican National Committee sent out a fundraising appeal in which they stated that "slow bleed" was Murtha's own phrase that said, you know, the Democrats have finally come forward with what they call their "slow bleed strategy." And so in the next day's paper, we did make clear that that was not Murtha's phrase, that was our own description, and noted that the phrase was being expropriated by Republicans.
Even with that, the phrase continued to echo. Ten days later or so, I actually laid out precisely what happened. I did so as a way to draw back the curtain on how the news business works. People often have a sense that we have more agenda or method than we really do. Watching [LAUGHS] these decisions get made on the fly, by improvisation – and that's precisely what happened here. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how did you feel when you saw it being used incorrectly? I mean, did you feel queasy? JOHN HARRIS: If I could, Brooke, I'd take back that phrase [BROOKE LAUGHS] because of the ease with which it was misused. And I would happily acknowledge that we should have been a little more careful with that phrase. I don't want to award myself a gold star, but what I do think is important for media, all media, is to open the window as much as possible into their process. When they make mistakes, admit it candidly. Explain how decisions get made.
Our organization was attacked by Media Matters. That's a liberal group devoted to critiquing coverage and calling out where they see things that are biased in a conservative direction. They wrote an Op-Ed accusing our publication of being a house organ for Republicans, and that's emphatically not true.
But, we tried to respond non-defensively. We published that this week online and then actually carried out a kind of an online dialog with our staff, with four members of our staff, in which we went through the piece line by line. Some people agreed that there were good points that the Op-Ed made. Other people didn't think it made any good points.
But we aired that. We ventilated that. We don't speak with one voice here. We don't make pretensions to being infallible. This slow bleed controversy is a clear example of how we're not infallible.
I don't think the public, Brooke, expects us to be infallible. I do think they expect us to be transparent and to own up to our judgments, and, occasionally, misjudgments. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, there's this joke about editors. I wonder whether you've heard it. A reporter and an editor are going through a desert. They're really parched. They come upon a pristine pool of water. The reporter jumps right in. The editor, on the other hand, drops his trousers and begins to urinate.
And the reporter says, what are you doing? What are you doing? And the editor says, it's okay, it's okay. I'm making it better. JOHN HARRIS: [LAUGHS] Brooke, when I first heard that joke, I was a reporter. I thought it was quite funny. Now, in hearing you retell it, it just doesn't seem as funny anymore. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] John, thank you very much. JOHN HARRIS: Thank you, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Harris is editor-in-chief of The Politico.