In today’s edition of “The Swamp,” the blog of the Chicago Tribune’s Washington Bureau, reporter Frank James engages in a little bit of journalistic malpractice that, unfortunately, has become SOP for the mainstream press.
“Generals to Bush: Soldiers Not Props,” is the title of his piece. It’s based on a conference call with three retired Army Generals, held just before President Bush’s afternoon visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Reading the headline–and the comments that followed–readers would believe that these retired officers didn’t want the visit to become a political forum, giving the Commander-in-Chief a backdrop to score points against Democratic war opponents.
But who were those generals? The Tribune identified them, respectively, as retired Major General Paul Eaton, former Lieutenant General Robert Garde and retired National Guard Major General Mel Montano. All insisted that the President should focus on the problems at Walter Reed–and not politics–during his visit. Here’s a sample quote from General Eaton:
“Gen. Garde is on target, that the president is going to visit our wounded soldiers. I’m convinced that he would honor them more if he would refrain from using soldiers as props in political theater.
We have a commander-in-chief who does very well when he is unscripted, unrehearsed and engaging with soldiers. But too often those who handle his performances try to turn the American fighting man and woman into a political prop for the scenery.”
If the names of those retired general officers should familiar, they should. All are prominent critics of the Bush Administration’s management of the military, and its policies in Iraq. Just over a year ago, Major General Eaton penned an op-ed for The New York Times, demanding the resgination of former defense secretary Don Rumsfeld. Mr. James identifies Eaton as “the father of the Iraqi Army,” but that’s largely inaccurate. As we noted last April, Eaton’s tenure as head of the U.S. training mission in Iraq was largely a failure, characterized by Iraqi units that sometimes broke and ran under fire. General Eaton was eventually replaced by Lieutenant General David Petraeus, who turned the program around and trained more than 80 Iraqi battalions in a little over a year. Petraeus recently returned to Iraq as the commander of U.S. forces in that country, while Eaton never earned his third star. Could it be possible that he has a little grudge against the Bush Administration and the guy who used to run the Pentagon?
As for Generals Garde and Montano, they are affiliated with a group called Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, which (in turn) has ties to a number of liberal organizations such as MoveOn.org. As the Raleigh News & Observer reported on 21 March, Garde and Montano were part of a seven-state “barnstorming tour,” urging Congress to draft legislation that would remove American troops from Iraq. During remarks at the Raleigh-Durham Airport, General Garde compared Iraq to Vietnam, and advocated a “political solution” to the war:
“Will the Congress have the political courage,” Gard said. “Or will we look back five years from now after this surge with many more U.S. combat casualties and wonder why we did not take action to achieve a political solution?”
And who was standing next to Garde when he made those comments? None other than retired Major General Montano, former Commander of the New Mexico Army National Guard.
Make no mistake: Generals Eaton, Garde, and Montano are entitled to their opinions–and they are free to speak out against the war. But, by failing to identify them as past critics of the Bush Administration and the War in Iraq, Mr. James is guilty of professional malpractice, perhaps borderline fraud. Interestingly, Jay Price, the News & Observer reporter who covered the North Carolina event, managed to identify Garde and Montano’s affiliation with liberal groups and their anti-war positions. But somehow, Mr. James of the Tribune conveniently ignored those ties. We’re also never told who arranged the conference call. Did the Trib simply contact the generals out of the blue, or was the session arranged by the anti-escalation group? Readers certainly have a right to know.
But Mr. James doesn’t provide that information, which would certainly cast the generals’ comments in a different light. Instaed, he depicts the trio as concerned, retired military officers–which may be an apt description. However, they are also on the record as outspoken administration critics, facts that never made it into “The Swamp,” but (clearly) should have been part of the story.
You can contact the Trib’s public editor at (312) 222-3348, or PublicEditor@tribune.com.
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