- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

Young journalism school students should be taught “by their stories, you shall know them.” The media reveal their opinions about the world not only in their endless pontificating verbiage but in the topics they choose. The “news” becomes whatever floats their boat, whatever they urgently want the people to know.

It’s no surprise that one thing the left wants the people to believe is that those who took the country to war in Iraq are not only foolishly hawkish but tactically incompetent. Just because the people heard this ad nauseam and re-elected Team Bush anyway doesn’t mean the left will stop. John Kerry and the Democratic National Committee will no longer lead the charge. The press will.

Take the latest example. At a “town meeting” with American troops in Kuwait, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was confronted by a soldier asking why he and his buddies had to dig through landfills to find armor for their vehicles in Iraq. Oh, how the media adored this story — “Rummy flummoxed by grunt at the front” — and they all led the nightly news and front pages with it.

But how newsworthy was it? When CNN Pentagon reporter Jamie McIntyre was asked about it, he replied: “This issue has been around a long time. Lots of stories have been written about it. Congress has been asking questions. Stories have been written.” Mr. McIntyre could have added that John Kerry slammed the Bush administration over Iraq in nearly every speech. What makes this otherwise been-there-done-that story new? Mr. McIntyre explained it was just the “who” and the “where,” the identity and location of the questioner, a soldier confronting the boss in the theater of combat.

Then, within hours, it was revealed Mr. Rumsfeld had been pranked by — surprise — a reporter. The soldier was actually serving as a ventriloquist’s dummy for Edward Lee Pitts, a reporter with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, who filed his “story” without telling his readers about his own role in manipulating this “gotcha” gag on Mr. Rumsfeld.

But Mr. Pitts couldn’t hold back with his own editors, sending an e-mail bragging of his exploit: “I went and found the Sgt. in charge of the microphone for the question-and-answer session and made sure he knew to get my guys out of the crowd. … The great part was that after the event was over the throng of national media following Rumsfeld — the New York Times, AP, all the major networks — swarmed to the two soldiers I brought from the unit I am embedded with.”

Let’s be clear: The reporter has a right to throw Mr. Rumsfeld an honest hardball in a press conference. The soldier, too, has the right to ask the question if invited to do so. But this reporter whispered that question into the soldier’s ear.

Once the soldier asked the question, it was no longer the issue of vehicle armor that was news. It was the controversy, the revolt of the rank and file confronting the commander, that drove the story. Except it was all staged by the press. And then covered up.

Armed with this new evidence exposing the staged news event, CBS chose not to update its viewers about it, while the others downplayed it. On ABC, Peter Jennings relayed it and dismissed it: “It was certainly clear from the other soldiers’ reaction to the question, that better protection is a big issue.” On NBC, reporter Jim Miklaszewski didn’t even want to verify that Mr. Pitts fed the question: “Whoever came up with the question, it’s put the debate over the safety of American troops front and center.”

That’s bad spin. The point was not to put troop safety front and center. The point was to shoot at Mr. Rumsfeld. As one trend-watcher put it, Mr. Rumsfeld may be the left’s new John Ashcroft, the primary Cabinet punching bag.

No one should buy that the Pitts gambit was not a setup, a sleight of microphone, because the soldier embraced the question, or because the grunts applauded. Let’s grant it as obvious the troops are interested in questions and answers about their safety. But take the Pitts stunt and put it somewhere else.

Imagine the October presidential debate in St. Louis where the citizen questioners pressed the candidates. Imagine if the moderator stealthily had encouraged a citizen to ask a real brushback question to John Kerry, and then it came out later, after a dramatic exchange topped the news, that the moderator was responsible. The question and answer might be important, but the news story would be denounced as manipulated media fakery.

By all means, let’s unite as Americans behind better equipment for our troops. But let’s also agree we need much more honesty from some media outlets covering them.

L. Brent Bozell III is the president of the Media Research Center and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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