Putting Words in the Spinmeister’s Mouth

Perusing coverage of the president’s break from his five-week Texas vacation this morning (to the White House press corps’ delight, he left Crawford for Salt Lake City to address a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention), we chanced upon this lead paragraph from an Editor & Publisher story:

Meeting briefly with reporters Monday aboard Air Force One, Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman subbing for Scott McClellan, said that President Bush believes that those who want the U.S. to begin to change course in Iraq do not want America to win the overall “war on terror.” [Emphasis added.]

Slightly stunned at this bold and unequivocal characterization of the president’s position, we consulted the transcript of yesterday’s press gaggle to find the relevant quote — only to come up somewhat unconvinced. In fact, nowhere did Duffy explicitly state what E&P assigns him — instead, he simply trotted out the standard-issue cliches about “differing opinions” between the president and his critics that we’ve been hearing since the war began.

So where did E&P get its contention that the president “believes that those who want the U.S. to begin to change course in Iraq do not want America to win the overall ‘war on terror’”?

At one point during the brief gaggle Duffy, questioned about anti-Bush protests in Salt Lake City, did say that “[the president] can understand that people don’t share his view that we must win the war on terror, and we cannot retreat and cut and run from terrorists, but he just has a different view.”

Close, but not quite a match. Duffy is implying that the Salt Lake City protestors don’t really want to win the war on terror, but it’s a leap to suggest, as E&P does, that the president’s spokesman was equating all criticism of the war with surrender in the fight against terrorism.

There are greater journalistic sins than this, and it may seem like we’re splitting hairs, but E&P, in portraying Duffy’s already divisive comments in such a harsh light and hyping his (Duffy’s) tone (the story’s headline was “Bush Believes Those Who Protest Iraq War Don’t Want U.S. to Win ‘War on Terror,’ Spokesman Says”), paints Duffy’s comments as more provocative than they were.

To be sure, Duffy was willfully disingenuous in his speech, as you would be hard pressed to find an American who doesn’t want to “win” the struggle against terrorism. (What, they want al Qaeda to win?) The White House’s comments seem constructed simply to further divide a nation already divided along pro- and anti-war factions, but in “sexing up” the facts, E&P has failed to bring the debate back to the realm of thoughtful analysis — a task it has previously done well at.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.