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Jewish World Review Nov. 13, 2001 / 27 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Memo to U.S. media: stop spreading negativism over war -- I FINALLY figured out why I was so depressed last Sunday. It was from reading stories about the anti-terror war in The New York Times.

This is a war that the United States and its allies simply must win - as President Bush said on Tuesday, civilization depends upon it - but the message from the Times was we're gonna lose.

One front-page story reprised "Hijackers' Meticulous Strategy of Brains, Muscle and Practice" leading up to Sept. 11, while another declared that, on our side, "Afghan Rebels Seem a Reluctant Force So Far."

Then on the first page of the A Nation Challenged section, a headline read, "More and More, Other Countries See the War as Solely America's." The story predicted that any day now "the world's people" would be confronting this country with "raised fists."

In the Week in Review section, the top headline was "The Coalition Is Broad. But Can It Hold?" That was above a story in which veteran correspondent R.W. Apple opined that a "crunch" was surely coming for the alliance and the prospect of it made Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "squirm."

Then on the op-ed page the redoubtable Maureen Dowd gleefully whacked one federal anti-terror agency after another, summing up that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden may be "medieval" but "they're outmaneuvering us."

Dowd did have a quasi-constructive suggestion to make: Fire everyone in government and maybe replace them with corporate tough guys. And - surprise! - she came off her usual schtick that President Bush is a dumblebum and conceded he now can stay on top of his briefing books.

Is all this accurate reporting and fair comment? Or rampant negativism?

It's some of both, of course, but the balance, I think, is toward negativism. The media have a tendency to see every U.S. armed conflict as a Vietnam "quagmire" in the making and to look for evidence of its unfolding.

Indeed, "Johnny" Apple himself wrote on Oct. 31 that "The ominous word 'quagmire' has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy." He acknowledged that Vietnam analogies might be "premature" but proceeded to indulge in them anyway.

The stories cited above rather underplayed the facts that the U.S. campaign against the Taliban is only 4 weeks old, that U.S. diplomacy has Afghanistan surrounded by Taliban opponents, that most of the world's leaders have pledged support, and that the American public is 85 percent behind the Bush administration - even in the case of a long war.

Sunday's Times was especially depressing, but evidence suggests that Vietnam syndrome in the media is chronic.

Reviewing network coverage before and during the 1991 Gulf War, for instance, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that nearly 60 percent of commentary tilted against U.S. policy, even though the results were a military success.

During the war the networks broadcast nearly twice as many stories on demonstrations against the conflict as those in favor of it, despite the fact that a Los Angeles Times poll revealed that three times as many Americans attended pro-war rallies as anti-war events.

The overall network numbers were skewed by the marked anti-war bias of ABC News, three-fourths of whose evaluations of U.S. policy were negative.

ABC is at it again this year too. By the Media Research Center's count, Peter Jennings' "World News Tonight" devoted nearly 16 minutes of coverage to Afghan civilian casualties from Oct. 8 to Oct. 31, nearly twice the time the topic received on NBC and almost four times that at CBS.

In an infamous piece of self-revelation, ABC News President David Westin, asked on Oct. 23 whether the Pentagon was a "legitimate military target," replied, "I actually don't have an opinion on that, and it's important I not have an opinion on that" as a news executive.

He later apologized, more or less, but there is a strong tendency on the part of the U.S. media to forget what the stakes are in this conflict and indulge in their peacetime tendency to look for the downside in all government policy.

I'm not suggesting that the media ignore mistakes, stop asking penetrating questions or sugarcoat problems - just observe the balance that CNN's boss, Walter Isaacson, found it necessary to urge upon his minions in the matter of civilian casualties.

The public needs to know that the Taliban is using civilians as shields, Isaacson observed, and that bin Laden is responsible for the deaths of nearly 5,000 innocent civilians on Sept. 11.

It's good that the Bush administration has begun selling its policy to the world. Some of it may rub off on the U.S. media. The President's first, most essential point was, if we don't win this war, the world terror network will have nuclear and biological weapons and use them to kill millions of people.

Proving how wedded some media types are to negativism, however, Dowd responded that Bush was "hyperventilating" about the nuclear and biological risks - or maybe trying to divert attention from the government's failure to solve the anthrax threat.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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