Sunday, February 18, 2007

Profiles in Courage at the Sun-Times

Copy editors are often the quiet heroes of journalism. Among their duties at our nation's newspapers is the critical task of providing short and informative headlines for pieces written by other journalists.

A good headline entices a reader and accurately conveys the content of the piece. But sometimes a column catches a copy editor in a moral dilemma: will he serve the interests of his employer by enticing the reader to waste his time reading an illogical, disingenuous piece or will he bravely serve the reader with a headline that accurately conveys the weakness of the column?

So God bless the copy editors at your Chicago Sun-Times.

By titling Steve Huntley's column "'Toothless' Congress resolution might end up having real bite" the copy editor took a stand for the reader. By letting us know up front that the column's author would never take a strong stand and instead wander about aimlessly, the copy editor let a discriminating reader know that he could move along without missing anything of substance.

But rather than wisely heed our heroic copy editor's warning, I foolishly staggered into the tangled thicket of Steve Huntley's column.
The Democrats pushing the resolution [against the troop surge in Iraq] express the hope that a big vote for it -- and up to a dozen Republicans back it -- means Bush at last will realize that he must change his policy. But it appears that only facts on the ground in Iraq will ultimately sway Bush.
Due to an utter absence of evidence, Huntley offers no instances where the Bush administration has ever, in any way, been influenced by "facts on the ground in Iraq."
Foes of the resolution see its meaning as undermining the morale of our troops in Iraq and giving comfort and encouragement to our enemies. It's true that al-Qaida has made clear that the Islamist killers believe Americans have no stomach for a drawn-out guerrilla war.
In addition to "Islamist killers," the Bush administration clearly believed that Americans have no stomach for a drawn-out guerrilla war. That is why the invasion's architects -- and its media cheerleaders -- told the American people the Iraq war would be short and simple.

But apparently America should continue to feed troops into the Iraq meat-grinder so that men like George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Steve Huntley can hide from the ugly reality of a protracted guerrilla war in Iraq -- an Iraq war that the Sun-Times editorial page helped sell.

Of course, this is a Steve Huntley column, so inevitably we must face his weekly illogical attack on Sen. Barack Obama:
Sen. Barack Obama proposes a bill to start a "redeployment" of U.S. forces May 1 and have "all combat brigades" out by March 31 of next year but has no funding component to enforce its goals. The Constitution does not empower the Senate to direct troop movements.
I'm sure that, despite teaching the subject at the University of Chicago, Sen. Obama appreciates Mr. Huntley's efforts to instruct him on constitutional law.
Obama and other Democratic leaders oppose a funding cutoff because they think it comes across as not supporting the troops.
"It comes across as not supporting the troops" is Mr. Huntley's coy way of saying, "Will be portrayed as not supporting the troops."

Mr. Huntley then immediately proceeds to put forth just such a portrayal.
Obama got into a bit of trouble the other day when he talked about the lives of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq as being "wasted." The Democratic presidential candidate quickly backed away from that word, but one could be forgiven for suspecting that it expressed his true sentiment. After all, he famously referred to Iraq as "a dumb war." What's noble about dying for a dumb war?
Note Mr. Huntley's use of the false dichotomy: "Noble deaths" versus "Wasted deaths." Of course, those capable of complex thinking recognize that a solider can lead a brave and noble life but still have his or her courage and nobility wasted by foolish and craven leaders.

And with regard to Sen. Obama's characterization of the Iraq invasion as a "dumb" war, let's recall the invasion apologists' rationale for the invasion, i.e. because of Iraq's close ties to al Qaida, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's imminent threat to the U.S.

Wrong. wrong and wrong.

Wrong and dumb.

Mr. Huntley continues:
And if young lives are being flushed away in a hopeless cause, a conflict already lost, wouldn't the right thing to do be to exercise leadership and take the tough measure of defunding the war?
And on the issue of whether "young lives are being flushed away in a hopeless cause," wouldn't the right thing for a newspaper columnist to do be to stop the cutesy rhetorical questions, man up and take the tough measure of declaring a position one way or the other?

Mr. Huntley then takes cover behind the writing of others:
The Web site, which first reported this development, described Murtha's plan to reduce the number of units deemed combat ready and available for Iraq as "a slow-bleed strategy." Is that a phrase the Democrats want to carry to the American people, or the soldiers?
Certainly they wouldn't. Which is why Mr. Huntley dragged out that web site quote. [UPDATED below]

But what the hey, Mr. Huntley's cheap rhetorical tricks might be fun -- so lets give 'em a try: In the comments on this blog, Greg described Mr. Huntley's paper as "a waste of trees." Is that a phrase the Sun-Times wants to carry to its advertisers, or its subscribers?

Hey that was fun! But it left me feeling a little dirty and ashamed. Back to Mr. Huntley:

The Democrats say they want, as the House proposal puts it, "to support and protect" the troops. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the smart and affable majority leader in the House, declared Wednesday that "there is not a member of this body, not one, on either side of the aisle, who does not pray for our nation's success in Iraq."

The American people haven't heard much of that.

Mr. Huntley, the editorial page editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, seems to be at a loss as to why the American people have not been exposed to this message. Personally, I have a couple of ideas...
The desire to support the troops doesn't seem to go so far as having the anti-surge resolutions include language along the lines of saying, for example, "whatever our reservations about the president's policies, we fervently hope and pray that the troops are successful in their mission."
So on the one hand, Mr. Huntley is annoyed by the empty rhetoric of the House resolution against the Iraq surge, but on the other hand he is annoyed that it doesn't have enough empty rhetoric. It's almost like opponents of the Iraq occupation can't do anything in the eyes of Mr. Huntley. But if that were true, surely Mr. Huntley would say so rather than hide behind quotes from web sites and rhetorical questions.
One unintended outcome from their effort may be to leave the Democrats appearing to the American public as having a political stake in failure by the troops in Iraq. They can counter that Bush's strategy doomed the troops to failure from the start. Still, given the passions unleashed by the war, and the emotions and recriminations that would accompany defeat, who can tell what judgments the public ultimately will make?
Yes, we can't know their ultimate judgment but we do know who will help craft the public's judgment -- brave journalists like Steve Huntley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

UPDATE: At the time of the original post I was unaware that Mr. Huntley's use of the Republican catch phrase "slow bleed" was a cornerstone of the GOP's national strategy (mp3 download) for opposition to bringing troops home from Iraq.

Mr. Huntley's zealous use of the Republican leadership's term of choice shows exactly where he's getting his talking points and by extension exactly which side of the Iraq occupation debate he is supporting.

My apologies.

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