This beat is sure to be something of a lightning rod in our partisan and hair-trigger political culture, and so it would make sense to utilize a news organization’s Web operation to provide some transparency. Readers could see the sources reporters used to reach their conclusions, for instance, and it could also house a searchable database of words and phrases that had been taken apart. The leap, at this point, would not be so great. In recent months, both the St. Petersburg Times (together with its sister publication, Congressional Quarterly) and The Washington Post have begun online fact-checking operations for the presidential campaign. Building on the ad-watches and Web-watches now routinely deployed at campaign time, PolitiFact and The Fact Checker, respectively, are the next evolutionary step in the mainstream press’s slow and at times grudging embrace of the role of adjudicator of factual disputes. Both operations are about checking verifiable statements of fact by politicians and their supporters—and more important, rendering verdicts on the relative veracity of those statements. Neither is expressly taking on campaign rhetoric, but they could. Scott Montgomery, the politics and government editor in St. Pete who helped develop PolitiFact, said that although he and his colleagues did not discuss the idea of parsing campaign rhetoric, “Maybe we should. It’s all part of this fog of information that we are trying to get at.”
It’s too late to adjust the war frame that was constructed after the attacks on 9/11. But there is another monumental framing debate looming. For the first time since Vietnam, the U.S. is stuck in an increasingly unpopular foreign conflict with no clear way out. It is undeniable that bad information, ushered into the realm of “fact” in some cases by rhetorical malfeasance, played a central role in getting us there. Now the nation’s focus is shifting to how and when to get out and, more important for our purposes, there is a corollary need to describe the getting out. Richard Engel, NBC’s Middle East correspondent who has covered the fighting in Iraq since the beginning, wasn’t too excited by my idea of a rhetoric beat when I called him in Beirut to discuss it. “I wouldn’t want it,” he said. “It sounds kind of academic. I like to think of myself as more of a hunter-gatherer.” Fair enough, but Engel clearly has thought a great deal about the language that journalists and politicians use to describe the fighting in Iraq. Last summer he took apart the word “war” as applied to Iraq from a different standpoint in a piece for Nieman Reports. Engel, one of the few U.S. reporters in Iraq who speak Arabic, wrote that there is not the one war in Iraq that has been defined by the Bush administration—and reflected in the press—between “Freedom Lovers and Freedom Haters,” but rather “many wars, some centuries old, playing out on this ancient land.” This oversimplified frame that has dominated our national discourse about what is happening in Iraq, he suggests, muddles the effort to define success and failure. As Engel writes, “U.S. politicians and military commanders often complain that the Iraqi government ‘won’t step up and do its job.’…Perhaps the question should be, ‘Which job?’ Iraqi officials, religious leaders, militia groups, Syria, Iran, and al Qaeda are struggling and dying to get a ‘job done’ in Iraq, though it does not appear to be the job the White House would like them to be doing.”
Now, Engel says, he can see the contours of the final clash of frames (my words, not his) for the U.S. involvement in Iraq taking shape. “There is going to be an effort to make sure we don’t have a similar sense of national failure after Iraq,” he said, like the one that followed Vietnam and has persisted to this day. In the White House and the U.S. military, Engel says, the nascent message he hears is: sure, we made mistakes, but we fought an honorable fight and a good fight. We gave the Iraqis the opportunity to live like civilized people, but they were too embroiled in tribal wars that are thousands of years old.
Engel says this understanding of the U.S. role in Iraq is inaccurate to the point of absurdity, yet he worries that it will be easy for the press to fall into the trap of just repeating it uncritically to the nation. “Just as in the last few years we in the press have had to resist the formulation, ‘Iraq, comma, the front line of the war on terror,’” he says, “in the coming years we will need to resist the formulation, ‘We won the war in Iraq, but the Iraqis lost it.’”