Friday, June 08, 2007

Romney's Revision of History Ignored

June 8, 2007

At the Republican candidates' debate on June 5, White House contender Mitt Romney remarkably claimed that weapons inspectors were barred from entering Iraq before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But Romney's error was little noted by the mainstream media.

Asked if he thought it was "a mistake for us to invade Iraq," Romney declared the question a "null set," and explained:

"If you're saying let's turn back the clock, and Saddam Hussein had opened up his country to IAEA inspectors, and they'd come in and they'd found that there were no weapons of mass destruction, had Saddam Hussein, therefore, not violated United Nations resolutions, we wouldn't be in the conflict we're in. But he didn't do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point we made the decision to get in."

Romney's suggestion that weapons inspectors were not permitted into Iraq before the war started is, of course, incorrect. Weapons inspectors from UNMOVIC (the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission) returned to Iraq on November 18, 2002. Led by Hans Blix, the inspectors spent months in Iraq, issuing reports on Iraqi compliance that were a crucial part of the debate over whether to invade Iraq.

In previous debates, media have demonstrated a keen interest in maligning candidates they considered unworthy. For example, GOP candidate Ron Paul's comments about Al Qaeda's motivations in attacking the United States were seen as proof that he was not to be taken seriously—despite the fact that his comments were basically accurate (FAIR Media Advisory, 5/31/07). In the Democratic contest, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel were widely criticized for providing "a counterpoint of left-wing ideas that drew rebukes for a lack of seriousness" (David Broder, Washington Post, 4/27/07; FAIR Media Advisory, 5/8/07).

Romney's false statement, though, was barely mentioned in the press. During a post-debate discussion on CNN (6/5/07), Democratic strategist Paul Begala called it a "huge mistake.... like saying the Mexicans bombed Pearl Harbor." But Begala's co-panelists, Republican strategist Mike Murphy and conservative pundit Amy Holmes, challenged Begala's facts. The bizarre discussion closed with host Anderson Cooper saying, "We're not going to get this resolved tonight."

(Unfortunately, Begala accepted another piece of historical revisionism; when Murphy asserted that Iraq threw out inspectors in 1998, Begala agreed with him. The idea that Saddam Hussein expelled those inspectors is a long-running media myth; in fact, the inspectors were withdrawn under pressure in advance of a U.S bombing campaign. See Extra! Update, 10/02.)

Beyond Begala's CNN comments, media have shown little interest in correcting Romney's error. As Media Matters noted (6/6/07), the Washington Post had a "Gaffe of the Night" feature, but that honor went to candidate Mike Huckabee for getting Ronald Reagan's birthday wrong. The New York Times' Paul Krugman (6/8/07) cited the Washington Post's ignoring Romney's clear lack of understanding of the events that led us into the Iraq War in favor of the birthday goof as evidence that "the bad media habits that helped install the worst president ever in the White House haven't changed a bit."

A caller to NPR's Talk of the Nation (6/6/07) brought up Romney's "embarrassing gaffe" and asked NPR political editor Ken Rudin, "I'm just wondering, is he going to pay a price for this? Is anybody going to call him out?" Rudin's response was typical of the elite press—he referred to Romney's disappointing showing in the polls, noted that he's "getting more and more support," before finally declaring, "I'm wondering if it does hurt him down the line because, again, he looks very good, he gives a strong confident presence, but, again, on some basic facts, he may not have all the stuff with him."

Romney's error was serious—as Begala said on CNN, "If this were a general election debate, [it] would be a disqualifier." But if the press were to admit that rewriting of recent history was cause for alarm, they might have to acknowledge that George W. Bush has done the same thing. On July 14, 2003, Bush declared of Saddam Hussein, "We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." The comment received little media attention, with the Washington Post (7/15/03) saying only that his assertion "appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring." If the current occupant of the White House is given such a pass, perhaps it's no surprise that the same treatment is given to Republican candidates looking to succeed him.

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