Glenn Kessler’s piece on the SOTU address has generated some criticism in the blogosphere, as well as some confusion over the line between “news” and “analysis” in the Post’s pages. I called Kessler and asked him about the response to his piece, in which he accuses Bush of presenting “an arguably misleading and often flawed description of ‘the enemy’ that the United States faces overseas.”
Several bloggers, such as Mary Katharine Ham and Warner Todd Huston, have taken issue with the Post’s decision to publish a statement like that in its news pages. They argue that Bush’s characterization of the enemy was not misleading or flawed. Like Kessler, they provide facts to back up their argument.
There is room for reasonable people to disagree about whether Bush was right to call “Shia and Sunni extremists… different faces of the same totalitarian threat.” The question is, did the Post present one side of that disagreement as “news.”
Kessler’s piece appears under the heading, “For the Record,” which, according to Kessler, is a feature in which Post reporters fact-check what politicians say in major speeches and debates. “‘For the Record’ is supposed to be a kind of dispassionate accounting of the facts,” Kessler said.
In the opening paragraphs of this “For the Record,” Kessler writes:
In his State of the Union address last night, President Bush presented an arguably misleading and often flawed description of “the enemy” that the United States faces overseas, lumping together disparate groups with opposing ideologies to suggest that they have a single-minded focus in attacking the United States.
Under Bush’s rubric, a country such as Iran — which enjoys diplomatic representation and billions of dollars in trade with major European countries — is lumped together with al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat,” Bush said, referring to the different branches of the Muslim religion.
Criticizing Kessler’s analysis, Huston wrote: “The president said that the Shia extremists in Iran are ‘second only to al Qaeda’ among the enemies we face. He did not, however, say they were one and the same.”
When I asked him if he thought his critics like Huston have a point, Kessler said that his aim was to supply context about the differences among the disparate groups Bush was lumping together with the single phrase, “the enemy.” He said that at several points in the speech, Bush used the phrase in a way that could have confused listeners into thinking that all of America’s enemies are in league with one another. He said that as a matter of fact-checking it was a tough call, because it wasn’t as simple as an exaggerated number or a flat-out lie. But he argued that the president had oversimplified things in a way that merited correcting.
My take? After reading the speech, I think Bush makes it clear that, although the groups he’s talking about have their differences, each is inimical in its own way to U.S. national security interests — i.e., they are all enemies. Kessler is drawing pretty thin when he asserts as a matter of fact that this is a misleading and flawed characterization. It depends on how one defines U.S. national security interests.
I agree with a number of the factual issues Kessler raises in the last two-thirds of the article — particularly when he contrasts the line, “free people are not drawn to violent and malignant ideologies,” with the clear popular support such ideologies enjoy in the Middle East. But his subjective criticism of Bush’s “enemy” talk goes beyond simple fact-checking. If “For the Record” is going to go beyond fact-checking and include this type of subjective analysis, then it should be labeled as an analytical feature.