Accuracy in Media

Congressman John Murtha made headlines by calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. He used the word “immediate.” He said, “I believe we must begin discussions for an immediate re-deployment of U.S. forces from Iraq.” He added that “the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice that the United States will immediately redeploy.” He explained that redeployment meant getting out of Iraq immediately. Yet the new ombudsman, or consumer advocate, of the Washington Post says immediate may not have meant immediate.

Murtha’s call for an immediate withdrawal was so radical that only three members of the House voted for the proposal. And Murtha himself wouldn’t even vote for the resolution incorporating a demand for an immediate withdrawal.

Nevertheless, the media reported Murtha’s call. Now Deborah Howell, the ombudsman of the Post, is faulting her paper for reporting that he had called for an immediate withdrawal.

She says in her December 4 column: “Several Post stories were written about [the] resolution he offered in the House on withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Most of the stories used the word ‘immediate.’ I received a number of calls and e-mails-perhaps politically motivated-saying his statement did not call for immediate withdrawal.”

Now get this: she says, “An editor and I checked Murtha’s Web site. While Murtha did use the word ‘immediately’ in his news release, both his House resolution and his news release had qualifiers.” She went on to say that Murtha’s own resolution called for redeployment “at the earliest practicable date” and that he issued a release calling for redeployment “consistent with the safety of U.S. forces.”

Howell’s conclusion was that “While ‘immediately’ wasn’t wrong, it wasn’t quite right, either. It would have been better to say ‘at the earliest practicable date’ somewhere in the stories or to add the qualifiers.”

This criticism of the Post is not justified. How can a paper be criticized for using the word “immediate” when that word was used by Murtha himself? What she is saying is that the paper ought to have sanitized his proposal by adding the qualifiers that Murtha added to make his proposal more palatable.

The correct response would be to note that Murtha tried to dilute the nature of his own proposal because it was too controversial to pass. In fact, Murtha lied about the specific nature of his proposal and then expected the media to obscure its nature when he came under strong attack for it. The Post ombudsman wanted the Post to play that game-a game that involves the lives of our soldiers and the Iraqis who depend on us.  She ought to go on Murtha’s payroll.

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