“Bruising” Press Critique, Bruised Ego?

What the NYT left out of its Ricardo Sanchez story

It was shocking enough to read on Saturday morning that another retired general was lambasting the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq, but even more disconcerting to discover that it was Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, himself a former top commander of the war, who was now describing the situation as no less than “a nightmare with no end in sight.”

Now, there are many reasons to question Sanchez’s credibility. It’s not unusual to wonder if he’s just trying to exculpate himself from his own role in the war’s early debacles, including the unforgettable Abu Ghraib scandal. But David S. Cloud’s front-page account in The New York Times this Saturday had such an air of cynicism about Sanchez’s remarks that it was hard to seriously examine their content.

Already by the fifth paragraph, Cloud was adding this caveat:
“But his own role as commander in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandal leaves him vulnerable to criticism that he is shifting the blame from himself to the administration that ultimately replaced him and declined to nominate him for a fourth star, forcing his retirement.”

Cloud then wrote that Sanchez himself had become a “symbol of ineffective American leadership early in the occupation.”

And even when he reported straightforwardly on what Sanchez said, Cloud allowed in an almost ironic tone that had the immediate effect of sweeping away every one of the general’s three stars. Like this: “Asked after his remarks what strategy he favored, General Sanchez ticked off a series of steps—from promoting reconciliation among Iraq’s warring sectarian factions to building effective Iraqi army and police units — that closely paralleled the list of tasks frequently cited by the Bush administration as the pillars of the current strategy.”

Cloud seemed to me to be doing much more than just reporting what Sanchez said— he was subtly undermining him at the same time.

I wondered what could be behind this unusually harsh tenor until I heard the Times reporter being interviewed on NPR Saturday afternoon. Cloud was asked to describe Sanchez’s remarks and in doing so revealed something that didn’t make it into the article:

It was a lengthy and sort of slashing speech in which General Sanchez seemed to have much he wanted to get off his chest. He hasn’t spoken much in public since retiring late last year and he spent the first fifteen minutes of his speech laying out a fairly bruising critique of the press’s performance in Iraq and then went into another bruising critique of the civilian leadership’s performance in Iraq and then took questions in which he went on and on on the same themes.

Cloud’s remarks left me with two questions. First, why didn’t he include any mention in his article of the press criticism made by Sanchez? It’s not even peripherally mentioned in Cloud’s piece. Granted it may have been the same old points that are made again and again, but if it constituted half of what the general had to say, shouldn’t it at least be included in a report on his speech?

But the more pressing question is this: Was Sanchez’s criticism so “bruising” that Cloud felt a bit of animosity towards him? After all, even though we don’t know exactly what Sanchez said, the Times likely was among those in his crosshairs (explicitly or not) when he went “on and on,” as Cloud put it, on this subject. Isn’t it legitimate to wonder if this biased Cloud against the general and everything he had to say? (It would have made me incapable of writing a measured story, were I in Cloud’s position.) At the very least, shouldn’t Cloud have acknowledged the press criticism as a way of letting us know that it might be a mitigating factor in his objectively covering Sanchez’s remarks? I think so.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.