Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Kennedy had good reason to be screaming mad

By DeWayne Wickham

If you listened closely to the high-pitched rant of Rep. Patrick Kennedy that was played over and over again on television news shows like a Saturday Night Live parody of a politician gone wild, you might have heard a valid complaint.

I did.

"We ought to be after the Taliban and the terrorists, anybody who is organizing to strike in our country," instead of bogging down American troops in a military campaign that seeks to hew together Afghanistan's fractious tribes, the Rhode Island Democrat said breathlessly in a recent speech on the House floor.

Then, looking up to the press gallery, Kennedy screamed: "If anybody wants to know where cynicism is, cynicism is that there's one, two press people in this gallery. We're talking about Eric Massa 24/7 on the TV. We're talking about war and peace — $3 billion, 1,000 lives, and no press! No press! ... It's despicable, the national press corps right now," he said.

While it is an exaggeration to say this nation's media are obsessed with Massa and underreporting the Afghan war, it's not a big stretch. Massa, the latest member of Congress to get caught up in sexual misconduct charges, resigned his seat after the House ethics committee started looking into accusations that he inappropriately groped several male staff members. The ugly details of those charges and Massa's admission of strange behavior did get vastly more media attention than the debate of the Afghan war.

Especially lacking in the news media's coverage of the U.S. fighting in Afghanistan, now in its ninth year, is reporting on those who question the rationale for the war. War, even a nearly decade-old one like this one, should never be treated as fait accompli. But when the re-election of an Afghan government — one that is widely believed to have stuffed ballot boxes the last time voters went to the polls — gets more media attention than a debate over withdrawing U.S. troops, Kennedy has a good reason to holler.

A year after President George W. Bush launched a war in Iraq, The New York Times and The Washington Post apologized for their failure to aggressively cover critics of the war or question the rationale for that conflict.

"In most cases, what we reported was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time. ... But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged," the Times editors wrote in a 2004 open letter to readers.

Nearly three months later, The Washington Post confessed its failure to give balanced treatment to opponents of the Iraq war. The paper was so "focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page," Executive Editor Leonard Downie said.

Of course, the Post and Times weren't alone in giving war opponents short shrift. In fact, they probably did a better job than most news organizations. But to see a debate on the Afghan war take place before a nearly empty press gallery makes me wonder why more members of Congress aren't screaming mad.

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