Accuracy in Media

The Washington Post is reporting that a majority of Americans believe that President George W. Bush “lied or deliberately exaggerated evidence” about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. That’s based on a Post-ABC News poll taken February 10-11. Post reporters Richard Morin and Dana Milbank write that this shows the public “increasingly questioning the president’s truthfulness.” What it really demonstrates is the impact of biased media coverage on public opinion.

First, this is not the first time that polling data have yielded such a result. On its Internet website, the Post included data from the same question posed in July 2003. In that July poll, 50 percent of respondents answered yes to the same question, but Morin and Milbank don’t report that. Nor did they mention some apparent contradictions in the polling data. For example, the Post’s website also published responses to the question, “Regardless of whether or not it exaggerated the evidence do you think that the Bush administration honestly believed that Iraq has WMD or not?” By a margin of 68 to 27 percent, respondents answered yes to that question.

Since that would appear to undercut their overall theme of erosion in the President’s credibility, they ignored that data. Another polling question ignored by Morin and Milbank concerned approval for the administration’s handling of the war on terrorism. On that question, respondents overwhelmingly said yes. But whatever the results of the Post-ABC News poll, it is clear that the media’s recent coverage of the Iraqi WMD issue is cutting into the White House’s credibility.

For weeks, the media have endlessly repeated former weapons inspector David Kay’s judgments that Iraq did not possess stockpiles of WMD before the war. His statements came in the wake of his resignation after internal disputes about the allocation of resources to the weapons search. Kay has repeatedly said that the search is 85 percent complete and that the results show that U.S. intelligence was wrong in its pre-war estimates.

Kay and the media have been criticized for implying the WMD search is over. CIA Director George J. Tenet gave a major speech at Georgetown University in which he strongly objected to Kay’s statements. Tenet said that the team still out in the trenches had told him that the job is “nowhere near 85 percent finished.” House Republican Curt Weldon, Vice Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that there are “tens of millions of documents” as yet unexamined and “innumerable leads” still to pursue.

But it is also true that the President undercut his supporters during his recent appearance on Meet the Press. In the interview, President Bush agreed with Tim Russert’s assertion that intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s WMD was wrong. After reading out the President’s March 17th declaration that there was “no doubt that the Iraqi regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised,” Russert then said “That is apparently not the case.” The President replied, “Correct.” Tenet, Weldon, and the inspectors still out in the field must have been dismayed at that response.

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