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By Bill Gallagher

DETROIT -- President Bush and company are blaming the media for distorting the situation in Iraq. The daily deaths, routine assassinations, suicide bombings, chaos, riots, lack of medical care, lack of electricity and sewage facilities, failure to get the oil flowing, general civil unrest and the $4 billion-a-month bill for the American taxpayers -- those things just don't tell the true story of the great "progress" being made in Iraq.

The supreme irony in all of this whining is the Bush crowd blaming the media that helped make the war possible in the first place. They charge the media with undermining public support for the bloody occupation and enormous task of attempting to govern a conquered people and rebuild a war-ravaged nation, which has become a magnet for Islamist terrorists.

The president and his pals are so used to having a compliant, cheerleading media that, when the administration's work finally undergoes the scrutiny it always should have, they squeal like stuck pigs.

The vast American corporate-owned media, especially the networks and cable news channels, went through a prolonged stupor and critical hibernation from September 2001 through May 2003. That 21-month hiatus allowed the Bush administration to do and say just about anything. Lies and distortions were routinely repeated, as reporters became little more than puppets for the politicians who pulled their strings.

In the history of our nation, it's difficult to find another major event regarding which the media was so wrong so often and misled the people so effectively. We, the media, are supposed to probe and challenge the assertions of authority, not simply regurgitate government-approved information.

Instead of carrying out the basic mission of questioning and examining the arguments and motives of the politicians who wanted war, the American media largely rolled over and played dead, becoming a shameless propaganda machine that served the government's desires at the expense of the public's right to know the truth.

It is stunning that the media-coddled Bush administration has now become a chorus of crybabies begging for immunity from the criticism the failed policies in Iraq richly deserve. The president visited yet another military base to sell his message that great "progress" is being made.

Keenly aware that most Americans now believe the occupation of Iraq is a mess, the president sounded the trumpet of optimism on the six-month anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, reminding the gathered Reservists and National Guard members in Portsmouth, N.H., about the glorious day when Saddam's statue fell.

The president didn't mention that 94 Americans have been killed in Iraq since he himself declared major combat was over. Damn those details.

Bush blamed his longtime ally, "the news media," for the public's bleak assessment of the colonial experience in Iraq. He assured us that "life is getting better. It's a lot better than what you think." He pointed to the infrastructure improvements in Iraq.

Well, hell, we better be building more than new soccer fields over there, since the Bush administration has given multibillion-dollar blank checks to its favorite contractors to spend in Iraq in cost plus no-bid contracts. It's just coincidence that Vice President Cheney's old company, Halliburton, has done so well with the sweetheart deals. Same goes for Bechtel, a company with deep Republican roots.

Money for his corporate pals aside, Bush complained that people just don't have his rosy insights and that the occupation in Iraq is "much different from the perceptions that you're being told life is like."

That same day, eight people died in a bombing at an Iraqi police station, a U.S. soldier was killed in an attack on a convoy, and a Spanish diplomat was assassinated at his home.

The next day, 10,000 angry Shiite Muslims staged an anti-American protest after U.S. forces killed two men. Their funeral turned into a a bitter demonstration, with people chanting, "No, no to Americans."

This happened in Sadr City, a poor area in Baghdad where most of the inhabitants are Shiites, who were repressed under Saddam Hussein and were the people most jubilant when he left town.

So much for the Bush administration argument that resistance comes from Saddam's old Baath Party loyalists and newly arrived al-Qaeda types.

Vice President Cheney left his bunker long enough to lash out at critics of the Iraq policies that have his fingerprints all over them. Cheney rarely speaks publicly anywhere except at Republican fund-raisers. Last week, he boldly appeared before 200 invited guests at the conservative Heritage Foundation powwow at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. Boy, he's got guts.

Cheney, using the theme, "Keep the Lies Alive," repeated his favorite canards. Cheney has always linked Saddam to Sept. 11, and he told the faithful that critics are dangerous and naive and that he knows Iraq's departed leader "had established relationships with al-Qaeda."

Even President Bush now admits that there is "no evidence" of any ties between Saddam and Sept. 11. Cheney won't let his boss's honest admission get in the way of his deceptive rhetoric, which he uses to sell his view of the United States as the world's bully, using military might to spread freedom and democracy. Cheney is dangerous and needs a leash.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld joined in the bash-the-media chorus, whining about the coverage of the bad news from Baghdad, and saying, "The part of the picture that's negative is being emphasized and the part of the picture that's positive is not."

Rumsfeld is taking his lumps since the White House left him out of the loop in the decision to make National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice the new viceroy for Iraq. Field Marshall Rumsfeld is not taking the demotion well, and he went ballistic when a German reporter pressed him on why he was cut out of meetings on the reorganization of administrative duties in Iraq.

"I said I don't know. Isn't that clear? You don't understand English?" Rumsfeld bellowed at the reporter asking the right questions. How classy. I know many German reporters and they all speak excellent English. Most American journalists struggle with the mother tongue, let alone any other.

That episode, however, does underscore what a petulant, arrogant person Rumsfeld is. That same attitude has cost our nation dearly in Iraq and around the world. I'd put him and Cheney in the same hut and let them play gin rummy, tell war stories and complain about the media to each other, sparing civilization from more of their follies.

My visceral sense and anecdotal observations lead me to the conclusion that mistaken impressions the media fostered helped the Bush administration sell the war to the American people.

Now the hard evidence is in.

The University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes has analyzed attitudes and misconceptions regarding the war in Iraq. The results are stunning. They show how bum information shaped opinions. They also reveal great differences between news organizations in the degree of misinformation their customers reflected.

Responders in the survey were asked about these misconceptions:

The study found that 60 percent of Americans held at least one of those false views. For people who relied on the Fox News Channel as their primary source for news, 80 percent had one or more of the mistaken impressions.

For regular newspaper readers, the mistaken impression number drops to 47 percent. For those who rely on PBS or National Public Radio, only 23 percent fell into the ranks of the misinformed.

These gaps are instructive. How is it that nearly four times as many Fox viewers got it wrong than people who listen to NPR?

Susan Moeller, a University of Maryland professor, notes that much of the war reporting was simply "stenographic coverage of government statements," rather than any real effort to determine whether the government's statements were accurate.

The study also showed that, while stories of "finding" weapons of mass destruction were given prominent coverage, when those reports proved to be wrong, the truth got little play.

The war was sold to the American people with unfair and unbalanced reporting, and that served the president's war agenda just fine.

Now that more in the media are back to reporting, people are deciding they don't like what's happening in Iraq. George W. Bush doesn't like that at all.

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox2 News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com October 14 2003