No Time for the Timetable?

This morning, the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the LA Times—among many others—reported that the United States has agreed to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by next June. And from the rest of the country by the end of 2011.

Which means: not only has the White House’s infamously nebulous “time horizon” been officially upgraded to—wait for it—a timetable, but it’s also a timetable that would start the withdrawal process relatively soon.

Now, the agreement is by no means the final word on the timetable issue. “Both sides warned Thursday that political hurdles to a final settlement remain,” the LA Times writes in its lede, and it “still must be approved by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders before it goes before Iraq’s fractious Parliament,” the NYT article warns. The Bush Adminstration is referring to the 2009 and 2011 withdrawal dates specified in the draft agreement as “aspirational goals” rather than fixed deadlines.

Indeed, Rice downplayed the draft agreement’s military implications in a press conference yesterday (video via the AP):

Still, the unsurprising political downplay nonwithstanding, this is a big story. Not only does the specification of withrawal dates signal a significant shift in the rhetoric of the Bush administration, but it may also signal a shift in Iraqi attitudes. “Iraqi officials said they are ‘very close’ to resolving the remaining issues blocking a final accord that governs the future American military presence here,” the Post notes.

So, then: where’s the story? While it’s gotten some pickup, unsurprisingly, on the blogs, it’s gotten a surprisingly small amount of attention among the rest of the media. And it’s come nowhere close, of course, to dominating the day’s media narrative. Because, apparently,there’s one piece of news (well, “news,” at this point) bigger than troop withdrawals. Yep: Veepstakes!

Indeed. Little, apparently, can distract anchors and reporters from their salivation—and increasing indignation—over the fact that Obama has yet to release the name of his running mate. Indeed, “we’re still waiting to hear” has been the refrain among the media all day today. It’s hard to remember a time when so many news reports have reported that “we have nothing to report.”

On CNN’s Headline News this afternoon, the short interruptions in the nearly-incessant veep speculation have contained news not of the potential withdrawal agreement, but of: the shooting of a high school student in his Tennessee school’s cafeteria; an obese woman, charged with the murder of her two-year-old nephew, who may be “too fat to go to trial” (“she can’t fit through the door!” Chuck Roberts noted, glee seeping into his voice); a euthanized baby whale in Australia; the demolition of a firehouse in Peekskill, New York; and news about Kaylee Anthony, the missing Florida two-year-old.

Fox News interrupted its Veep Talk for a report on Anthony (during which Geraldo Rivera, “on the ground” in front of the Anthonys’ Florida home, declared, “this is the JonBenet case of the 21st century!”).

Perhaps it’s time for the media to set their own timetables—for reporting real news.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.