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What a Free Press Could Do for America

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When I picked up the morning today, a day dedicated to a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, I was greeted by headlines that Vice President Cheney believes failure to support the surge is handing Osama bin Laden a victory.

At moments like this, I get extremely frustrated with American journalism. How can Vice President Cheney's support for Bush's war policies be front-page news? Publishing press releases from the Vice President is just not good journalism.

What does the erosion of American journalism mean?

How can one blame Cheney when a press that voluntarily devoted eight years to zipper coverage has become dependent on the government for material?

The Bush Administration has used its ability to deny access to reporters to gain favorable coverage. As despicable as this practice is, it is apparently considered fair in this country of press freedom.

The Bush Administration has used its security powers to classify information needed to assess the effectiveness of their policies. In doing so, they deprive us all of the information we need to exercise our constitutional responsibilities as informed citizens.

The Bush Administration has also paid reporters to run stories and has planted stories domestically and abroad. These practices violate journalistic ethics and have resulted in disciplinary action against various journalists, but the practice of planting stories continues.

I am willing to give the journalists the benefit of the doubt and attribute their ineffectiveness to the GOP's efforts to muzzle them.

The Bush Administration has other, less direct means to muzzle the press.

A Bush Administration practice is to make their assertions seem unanimous and authoritative, hence their insistence on the untrue statement that "all pre-invasion intelligence indicated the existence of Saddam's WMD program," and their insistence that numerous officials fan out and repeat the party line.

Good journalism would inform us of these tactics.

Good journalism is not setting a Democrat to rebut the Administration's assertions. These rebuttals simply reinforce the Administration's message. To rebut the message, the opposition must necessarily repeat it. The repetition again reinforces it, and a rebuttal can never have the force of an oft-repeated assertion in influencing a fair-minded person's thinking.

The rebuttal statements are necessary for the political process, but it is poor journalism to limit reporting to assertions and rebuttals.

Good journalism would provide the background of the story. The background of the surge story is the Bush Administration's inability to get intelligence or to properly interpret the intelligence emanating from Iraq.

The Administration's repeated failures in gathering and interpreting intelligence since the invasion have resulted in their being surprised by every development in the war and our troops not being able to prevail.

To the Bush Administration everything about Iraq is an unknown unknown.

Good journalists would analyze the forces in Iraq, the conditions that the Iraqi people are living in, cost-benefit evaluations of our policy options, whether the current policies are effective and whether the proposed policy would address its failure.

There has been no such public discussion of the surge in America.

In contrast, I read an e version of a British paper this morning that broke down the combat capability of the Mehdi Army, the largest militia in Iraq.

The Mehdi Army appears to have the capability to hold Sadr City against an assault by US forces and has been positioning weapons, communications equipment and reinforcements in key tactical locations in anticipation of the an assault when the surge occurs.

According to this report, there are over 10,000 trained, equipped, capable and motivated men prepared to fight.

Our forces in all of Iraq will number 150,000 if the surge reinforces them.

But this number is deceptively large as a combat force, and overstates our combat strength.

A large percentage of our men are involved in support of US combatants. More still are detached from combat for the essential mission of training the Iraqis.

To a large extent, US forces have compensated for numerical inferiority through superior discipline, tactics and weaponry. But in the close quarter, house-to-house urban environment of Sadr City these advantages may be reduced or nullified.

In the battle against the Mehdi Army it is anticipated that small unit engagements in densely populated and congested neighborhoods will allow the Mehdi Army to engage our men from tactically strong positions.

It is also anticipated that the fighting will be conducted with small arms on both sides, hence the numerical ratios between the forces may become the determining factor in the outcomes of the combat.

So it is possible that the Mehdi Army may be able to achieve tactical superiority against us in the streets of Sadr City. This condition may enable them to force our men out Sadr City and to achieve a victory on the battlefield.

It is our sons, husbands, brothers and friends who will be called upon to kill and die in Sadr City if the surge is deployed and the war continues.

We will be forced to pay the bills and asked to send yet more men if the Bush Administration has devised yet another plan for failure.

Is it too much to ask that we be fully apprised of the risks BEFORE FORCES ARE COMMITTED?

Is it too much to ask that the Administration explain what benefit will accrue from subjecting a large section of an ancient and populous metropolis to the horrors of urban combat?

Could these questions be why our government withholds the information we need to analyze these things for ourselves?

These questions are the basic moral and political questions of war and peace.

The erosion of American journalism is why we lack the ability to conduct a public discussion of the basic questions of war and peace.

Is victory in Iraq worth the continued diminution of America's heritage of freedom?
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Robert Chapman is greatly interested in developing political awareness among as many people as possible.
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