Warbloggers endured a bleak November, watching their political heroes suffer the loss of both houses of Congress, while President Bush's approval ratings fell toward Nixonian levels, the mainstream media finally conceded the battle for Iraq had broken down into a civil war, and even war architect Donald Rumsfeld was tossed overboard. Everything warbloggers had championed over the past five years -- waging war with Islamists and creating a permanent Republican majority inside the Beltway -- came undone, and the chronically incorrect warbloggers, angry ideologues who make Sean Hannity look like a man of reason, slipped into the realm of the laughingstock.
But then on November 24, a ray of hope appeared, a much-needed spark that self-anointed war scribes rallied around to lift their spirits. Amidst the carnage inside Iraq and the political collapse at home, warbloggers identified America's most treacherous enemy -- a stringer for the Associated Press.
In a November 24 dispatch, the global news giant, quoting Iraqi police Capt. Jamil Hussein, reported that Shiite militiamen had "grabbed six Sunnis as they left Friday worship services, doused them with kerosene and burned them alive near Iraqi soldiers who did not intervene." Warbloggers were skeptical of the chilling report, in part because no other news organizations could confirm the horrific event. The U.S. Central Command's communications machine then jumped in, issuing a statement that it could not corroborate the killings and that Hussein was not a Baghdad police captain, and even if he were, somebody of his rank was not authorized to speak to the press. Central Command then filed an official complaint with the AP and demanded a retraction.
The AP stood by its story, though, calling CENTCOM's allegations "ludicrous" and noting that Hussein had been providing AP reporters with reliable information for months. The AP also didn't think much of CENTCOM's suggestion that reporters only quote people found on the government's approved list of sources.
For the record, along with Hussein, the AP based its Burned Alive reporting on an account from Imad al-Hashimi, a Sunni elder who told Al-Arabiya television about the killings. (He later recanted his story after being visited by a representative of the defense minister.) The AP also spoke to three independent eyewitnesses (two shopkeepers and a physician) and confirmed the story with hospital and morgue workers. Nonetheless, CENTCOM raised doubts about Hussein, so warbloggers, hearing a reassuring narrative they loved, pronounced the AP guilty of manufacturing news and quickly referred to Hussein as a "fake policeman" and to the Burned Alive story as a "fairy tale."
By inflating the disputed incident into a monumentally important press story, warbloggers, who have excitedly pounded the story for weeks, convinced themselves that blame for the United States' emerging defeat in Iraq lay squarely at the feet of the press. Specifically, warbloggers claim that American journalists, too cowardly to go get the news themselves, are relying on local Iraqi news stringers who have obvious sympathies for terrorists and who purposefully push propaganda into the news stream -- the way Hussein did with the Burned Alive story -- to create the illusion of turmoil. Warbloggers, who have virtually no serious journalism experience among them, announced that what's coming out of Iraq today is not news at all, but simply terrorist press releases -- "a pack of lies" -- regurgitated by reporters (or "traitors") who want to see the insurgents succeed.
"[M]any in the American media ... have a vested interest in exaggerating the violence as much as possible," announced warblogger Michelle Malkin, whose reassuring analysis was echoed by warbloggers such as the Anchoress, Power Line, Little Green Footballs, Flopping Aces, Instapundit, Redstate, The Belmont Club, Wizbang, and Pajamas Media, among others. Fox News, the New York Post, The Examiner of the Washington, D.C., area, and National Review Online also gave the story attention.
Should the AP be held responsible for its reporting, and should the global news agency be diligent about whom it hires inside Iraq? Of course. And there should be hell to pay if it's proven any news events were manufactured. But warbloggers aren't interested in an honest, factual debate about a single instance of journalistic accountability. And they're not really interested in the specifics of the Burned Alive story. They're interested in wide-ranging conspiracy theories and silencing skeptical voices.
As American Prospect blogger Greg Sargent noted, "Malkin and her compadres are trying to accomplish one thing, and one thing only: They want to staunch the flow of images back to America of President Bush's disastrous war in Iraq." Indeed, censorship via intimidation -- not authentic media criticism -- has always been atop the warbloggers' agenda. (Their main beef with the press is that it exists.)
It should be noted that Malkin's breathless excitement over the AP story nearly matches the enthusiasm she used to spread online smears about the press in the spring of 2005 during the Terri Schiavo right-to-die controversy. That's when Malkin backed the novel conspiracy theory that press reports about how congressional Republicans had drafted a talking-points memo in order to properly spin the Schiavo story were all wrong. In fact, according to Malkin's fact-free analysis, an unknown Democratic operative had concocted the phony GOP talking-points memo and duped the media in order to make Republicans look bad.
Ignoring the carnage
For today's right-wing warbloggers, whose contempt for journalists is matched only by their unbridled hatred of Arabs and Muslims, the AP kerfuffle represented a perfect solution that, at least temporarily, lifted their November blues. By early this month, they had dubbed the scandal "Jamilgate," with Malkin referring to the AP as "The Associated (with terrorists) Press." (Get it?)
Keep in mind that in the seven days surrounding the Burned Alive story, hundreds and hundreds of Iraqis were killed in sectarian violence. Here's a very small sampling, via Reuters, of the bloodshed that flowed around the time of the Burned Alive dispatch:
- Mosul -- Police said they recovered 14 bodies, including three women, in different areas of Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad. [November 22]
- Baghdad -- Up to six car bombs killed 133 people in a Shi'ite militia stronghold in Baghdad and a further 201 people were wounded, police said. [November 23]
- Baghdad -- Baghdad police recovered 30 unidentified bodies around the capital in the 24 hours to late Friday, an Interior Ministry source said. [November 24]
- Baghdad -- Baghdad police retrieved 30 bodies of victims of violence on Friday and 17 on Saturday, an Interior Ministry source said. [November 25]
- Baquba -- Police in Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, found the bodies of 25 people, including seven teenagers blindfolded and each with a single gunshot wound to the head, in various parts of Baquba in the past 24 hours, police said. [November 26]
- Baghdad -- Baghdad police retrieved 39 bodies in the 24 hours to Monday evening. [November 27]
To date, warbloggers have not raised serious questions about any of those slayings or the reporting surrounding them. Yet viewing Iraq through the soda straw that is the Burned Alive story, they insist the press, thanks to its pro-terrorist sympathies, is creating the illusion of "chaos" in Iraq.
Whereas readers like you and me might see a completely illogical obsession with the Burned Alive story, given the statistical fact that the Iraqi civil war will likely claim six more victims within the next hour, for the warbloggers the half-dozen fatalities represent something much more important -- an exit strategy, a way out of their own man-made disaster that is Iraq. Because warbloggers think they can claim the whole Iraq fiasco was the media's fault, that the press did the terrorists' bidding, spread their propaganda, turned Americans against their fighting sons and daughters, and ruined what would have otherwise been a brilliant Bush foreign policy maneuver to spread Western-style democracy throughout a troubled part of the world.
In other words, the press lost the war. Period. And worse, the press lost the war through phony, biased reporting. My hunch is the Burned Alive excitement revolves around the fact warbloggers see an opening to try to raise doubts about, and even dismiss, all the Iraq reporting. "In short, the AP has been relying on a bogus source for much of its reporting on Shia violence against Sunnis since at least April," right-wing blogger Jeff Goldstein wrote at Protein Wisdom.
Warblogger Confederate Yankee went one better. Leaning heavily on the CBS Memogate analogy from the 2004 election, the warblogger insisted Jamil Hussein was just one of an army of "phony" sources the AP had been using to manufacture fake reports inside Iraq. "Quite literally, almost all AP reporting from Iraq not verified from reporters of other news organizations is now suspect. ... 'Jamilgate' means the Associated Press may have been delivering news of questionable accuracy to one billion people a day for two years or more." [Emphasis in original.]
Warning: Confederate Yankee is the same warblogger who recently posted a Reuters photo of an elderly Iraqi woman wrapped in a headscarf and crying beside a coffin. Confederate Yankee sensed foul play and claimed the picture had been mischievously doctored by the wire service because the Iraqi woman's face was actually George Bush's mug superimposed onto the picture. I kid you not.
It's clear warbloggers long ago passed the breaking point in terms of Iraq. But to see them recoil and lash out with such unhinged and oddly personal hatred for the press is shocking. While the rest of the real world debates serious options to curtail the losses in Iraq, warbloggers obsess over treacherous journalists who are endangering U.S. forces. At least according to warblogger Anchoress: "I wonder how many of our troops are being further endangered by the fakery we're discovering here? I wonder how many of their deaths in the coming weeks will be due to this sort of stuff? ... The press is literally trying to not simply destroy the man [Bush] but take down his government and surrender a military action that is important to the survival of our identity."
Did you get that? The Associated Press is killing U.S. soldiers, destroying the presidency, taking down the American government, and surrendering its national security. Who knew?
Michael Novak, in what may go down as The Weekly Standard's loopiest Iraq essay ever (no small task), insisted that "[t]o achieve this victory over America, it is not even necessary to create actual 'chaos,' but only its appearance." (Love the quotation marks around chaos, as if it's in doubt.) Adopting the voice of an insurgent, Novak announced, "What we have discovered in Iraq is the weakest link in the ability of the United States to sustain military operations overseas. That link is the U.S. media. They are Islamists' best friends. ... Without qualm or fear, therefore, they do our bidding day after day. Willingly, gleefully, with much self-congratulation, they pump our storyline into the bloodstream of the Western public."
To watch warbloggers taunt journalists for being cowards is also unsettling. Curt at Flopping Aces wrote: "If the reporters would leave their comfy hotel rooms and actually go out and survey the scenes themselves then I am sure we would get a completely different picture." Honestly, is there any irony sharper than members of the 101st Fighting Keyboardists, blogging comfortably from their air-conditioned stateside offices while obsessively googling AP dispatches in search of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that don't meet the right-wing standard of excellence, lecturing on-the-ground news reporters about the need to witness the Iraq conflict up close? (Here's the Crooks and Liar video of neocon columnist Mark Steyn pretty much calling reporters sissies for being "hunkered down" in the Green Zone and not reporting that "most of the schools in Iraq are open, most of the hospitals in Iraq are open.")
The notion is demented, but given their wild online rants, I don't think it's out of bounds to suggest that warbloggers want journalists to venture into exceedingly dangerous sections of Iraq because warbloggers want journalists to get killed. That's how deep their hatred for the press runs. (Since March 2003, 126 members of the media -- reporters and their support staff -- have been killed in Iraq.) Also, by publicly demanding the AP "produce" Capt. Hussein -- for him to hold some sort of a press conference and announce his presence at a time when Iraqi police officers are being targeted daily for assassination -- indicates that warbloggers don't much care whether Hussein lives or dies either, as long as they can peddle their anti-media rants.
The truth is that most administration officials, as well as most adults on Capitol Hill, long ago abandoned the meme that the press simply wasn't reporting all the "good news" from Iraq and that Americans were being denied the torrent of feel-good stories blossoming from Basra to Mosul. But not the warbloggers. As the situation in Iraq grows more dire, they simply cling tighter to their Hail Mary claim that American reporters are to blame for a foreign policy debacle.
Of course, the only way the Iraq press hoax can sustain itself is if the entire American media infrastructure is in on it. On that, warbloggers are clear; none of the mainstream media can be trusted. Nobody is telling the truth about Iraq and its non-civil war.
Slight problem with that conspiracy theory: Why haven't openly conservative news outlets like the New York Post and The Washington Times been telling a drastically different story about Iraq? Why haven't they flooded the airwaves and news pages with the obvious "good news" stories the mainstream media won't touch because of their political bias? If the press (not to mention the bipartisan Iraq Study Group) is making up this dark narrative about "chaos" inside Iraq, then why, according to the Nexis electronic database, has The Washington Times published nearly 300 columns and articles in the past two years that contained both "Iraq" and "chaos"? And why did the New York Post on November 27 report that Iraq's prime minister was under increasing pressure to "stem the chaos in his country"? Are The Washington Times and the New York Post now part of the far-reaching liberal media cover-up, too?
A footnote: It's odd that warbloggers have expended an enormous amount of time and energy trying to pick apart a single source from a single, relatively brief AP dispatch, arguing that the misleading information in that article somehow calls into question all of the Iraq reporting, yet warbloggers have been relatively silent about the recent string of book-length critiques of the war. I'm thinking in particular about Thomas Ricks' excellent book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Penguin Press, July 2006), which, in its first 100 pages, tells readers all they need to know about the botched war. Warbloggers either don't read books, or are so completely overwhelmed by the definitive evidence produced in a book like Fiasco, which relies heavily on sources from within the U.S. military to paint its convincing picture of Bush administration incompetence, that warbloggers simply have no choice but to turn away and focus their attention on evil AP stringers.