- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday ridiculed the news media for prematurely disparaging the week-old war effort, prompting indignation from reporters who resent being viewed as "silly" by President Bush.
"One week and a few minutes ago, the air war began in Iraq," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told journalists at the Pentagon. "And, interestingly, in that short period of a week, we have seen mood swings in the media, from highs to lows to highs and back again sometimes in a single 24-hour period."
At the White House, a senior administration official told reporters that Mr. Bush has "some level of frustration with the press corps" for their constant questions about when the war in Iraq will be over. The official called those questions "silly and not borne out by the facts."
Incredulous reporters took umbrage with this assessment at the daily White House press briefing.
"Does the president think it's appropriate for the public, the news media, to question him at all about the conduct and the progress of the war?" demanded NBC's David Gregory.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said yes, but added that reporters are repeating the similar rush to judgment that occurred during the Afghanistan war.
"Just several weeks into the Afghanistan theater, people said: 'Why isn't it over?'" the spokesman recalled. "I think there's been some sense of that already, just one week into the Iraqi theater.
"One newspaper today on its front page reported that the Marines and the Army are quote-unquote, 'bogged down,'" Mr. Fleischer added. "Now, I don't know anybody who would support that notion from the military point of view, that our troops are bogged down."
Bill Plante of CBS blamed the White House for not correcting the media's expectations for a quick end to the war.
"You did very little to lower expectations in the run-up to this," he told Mr. Fleischer. "Even if you didn't raise them yourself, you did nothing to lower what we were hearing from the Pentagon and from other outside pundits about how well, how quickly this war would go."
"I could not dispute that more strongly," replied Mr. Fleischer, who proceeded to cite early White House warnings of a protracted war.
"Military conflict could be difficult," Mr. Bush said during a major speech to the nation on Oct. 7 in Cincinnati. "An Iraqi regime faced with its own demise may attempt cruel and desperate measures. There is no easy or risk-free course of action."
Mr. Bush renewed the warning during his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, which was watched by 62 million Americans.
"The technologies of war have changed; the risks and the suffering of war have not," the president said. "For the brave Americans who bear the risk, no victory is free from sorrow. This nation fights reluctantly, because we know the cost and we dread the days of mourning that always come."
Mr. Fleischer himself repeatedly warned the media of a lengthy conflict.
"I think people have to prepare for the fact that it may not be short," he told the White House press corps on March 18.
Three days later, before the air campaign began over Baghdad, the spokesman was asked about the possibility of surrender talks.
"I think it's important for the American people to remember that this still can be a long, lengthy, dangerous engagement," Mr. Fleischer replied. "This is, as the president said, the opening phase. It can be a long, lengthy, dangerous engagement because this is war."
Yesterday, ABC's Terry Moran accused the White House of refusing to admit that it had misjudged the level of Iraqi resistance that American troops would encounter.
"It just seems like you're unwilling, as a matter of policy, to acknowledge that the president and the political leadership of this government might have miscalculated not in any fatal or even dangerous way but might have miscalculated the response of the Iraqi army," he said.
Mr. Fleischer drew an analogy to World War II, which only seemed to further irritate some members of the press.
"On June 13, 1944, would somebody had said to the Allies: 'You've had one week after D-Day. When will it be over?'" he said, referring to the military campaign that eventually liberated Western Europe from Nazi occupation.
"You don't mean to draw an analogy between the complexity of the post-D-Day operation and the complexity of this operation?" asked David Sanger of the New York Times. "I'm just trying to figure that one out."
On Oct. 14, 2001, seven days after the United States began its attack on Afghanistan, R.W. "Johnny" Apple of the New York Times became the first major journalist to compare the campaign to the Vietnam War. On Oct. 31, Mr. Apple authored another piece that carried the front-page headline "Another Vietnam?" and likened the Afghanistan conflict to a "quagmire."
"'Quagmire,' 'Vietnam,'" Mr. Bush later muttered to a reporter from The Washington Times. "I mean, we were at this thing for three weeks, and all of a sudden there was kind of a breathless condemnation of the strategy."
The condemnation has been even swifter this time around, according to the White House. Still, Mr. Fleischer acknowledged that the press has a right to ask Mr. Bush how long the conflict will last.
"But I do think there is a difference between asking that question and the suggestion that 'Why isn't it over already?'" he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld agreed.
"Well, we're one week into this, and it seems to me it's a bit early for history to be written," he said.
The defense secretary said the media's second-guessing was not affecting public perceptions of the war in Iraq.
"For some, the massive volume of television and it is massive and the breathless reports can seem to be somewhat disorienting," he said.
"Fortunately, my sense is that the American people have a very good center of gravity and can absorb and balance what they see and hear."

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