The Washington Post’s report of a Bush press conference reports the president absolutely on-message with his chorus of “we will not surrender”. It begins:
President Bush said yesterday that “cold-blooded” killers will fail in their attempt to drive the United States out of Iraq prematurely, as he defended the administration’s war strategy and its policies for secretly detaining hundreds of alleged terrorists around the world.
But the war strategy is not really the subject of the report. As with much political reporting it is a fascinating mix of obsequious stenography, adversarial murmurs and transparent reflection on political process. The key paragraph is not about what is happening in Iraq it is about what is happening in Washington:
The president’s short-term solution to ease the public anxiety is to spend more time talking about the mission and his vision for victory, aides say.
While this seems to carry an implicit criticism, the demands of objective journalism demands that the journalists give him a platform to do exactly that.
The press conference was held after Bush met with a delegation from the European Union and the report moves back and forth between issues relating to the war and issues such as world poverty discussed with the delegation. The final question concerns Guantanamo Bay.
Pressed by a European reporter, Bush showed no signs of backing away from his policy of detaining alleged terrorists at a U.S. military installation in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at secret facilities in other countries. “The fundamental question facing our government is, what do you do with these people?” he said. Bush, who recently raised the possibility of shutting down the prison in Cuba, shifted gears somewhat yesterday when he staunchly defended the detention center and repeatedly urged reporters to view conditions there firsthand.
“We want to learn as much as we can in this new kind of war about the intention, and about the methods, and about how these people operate,” Bush said. “And they’re dangerous, and they’re still around, and they’ll kill in a moment’s notice.”
It is of course instructive that it was a “European reporter” who asked the question. But what is equally instructive is that the report ends just as it began with choice examples of Bush’s dehumanising rhetoric which is undoubtedly a key part of his “short-term solution to ease the public anxiety”.
The report’s lead opens with reference to “cold-blooded killers” and wraps with “these people” who will “kill in a moment’s notice.” Both statements are rhetorically strong and have a natural attraction as “lead” material but the continual reporting of these kind of statements ends up giving Bush a free ride.
It could be argued that the reporter by foregrounding the strategy issue and by noting that Bush is facing criticism has done his best to temper the statements. But in this “new kind of war” where politicians are deft at delivering rhetoric rather than content journalism needs to rethink its rules of engagement.