16 November 2006

Rumsfeld, "Media Darling"

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I was shocked to hear these words strung together in this fashion: “Donald Rumsfeld was master of the Pentagon briefing room and a media darling.” In a segment last weekend exploring the media’s relationship to Donald Rumsfeld, Brooke Gladstone, host of NPR’s On The Media, exposed (perhaps inadvertently?) one reason why we, the American people, have suffered the last six years: bad journalism. (Transcript available here.)

Donald Rumsfeld was no “master” of press briefings, he was a caricature of evasion and deception – which should hardly make him a “media darling.” Gladstone’s guest, CNN Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre, goes on to discuss how Rumsfeld wouldn’t answer questions, would challenge the basis of questions he didn’t like, or would simply answer with a non-answer. I certainly agree with that analysis. But the real issue for On The Media to explore should have been how American journalists responded to Rumsfeld in the face of his very evident antagonism.

How a journalist handles someone – even a high-ranking government official – who patently refuses to answer a simple question will, absolutely, affect the coverage that results. If no answer is forthcoming, they should restate the question and ask it again. No one can force a Donald Rumsfeld type to answer questions, but journalists can make their non-answers evident and unavoidable by acknowledging them, openly, for what they are: evasions. By sustaining a polite journalistic tradition – one that that asks a question and generally accepts the answer, whatever it is – we lose the benefit of seeing people squirm, of understanding the discomfort a person should feel as they try to avoid answering a difficult questions or come up with lies in response. The reaction to a question may be worth as much as the answer.

At one point during the program, McIntyre said: “He [Rumsfeld] did blame the media. And I remember having this discussion with members of his staff about why they weren't getting better coverage of the war. And, of course, the real bottom line is if the war is going better, then you get better coverage.” However, there is a chicken-and-egg situation here: if coverage of the build-up to war had been better – more critical, more insightful, more challenging of Bush Administration Bullshit – the war itself might have been avoided. Instead, we have had six years, almost four during war time, in which the Secretary of Defense has been allowed to bamboozle (or, apparently, charm) American journalists, and avoid – as anyone who has watched these briefings knows – most of the tough questions and necessary scrutiny that could have brought about his downfall months, if not years, earlier. As Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld was a public official, and he should have been held accountable by President Bush (who is also, apparently, easily bamboozled) and by the media who report on the intentions and actions of our government.

It is disappointing that On The Media’s analysis didn’t switch gears, to explore in more depth the real problems behind journalists’ relationship to Rumsfeld and the nature of news coverage during his tenure. American media played a large role in allowing the Secretary of Defense to escape the deep scrutiny that was needed and that the American people deserved to see. Tough questions should have been asked, and asked again, and yet again – and asked long before a new Democratic majority in Congress made Rumsfeld’s resignation a political inevitability.


Backwards links: a few related articles from the TTAISI archives: American Delirium, Noble Warriors Appreciate Indecision, Under The Rug, The Meta-Coverage, and The Importance of Good Intelligence


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