After the Fall

If Republicans lose control of the House or Senate in November, don't be surprised if the media start tearing into the war in Iraq as they have never done before. The pack will smell blood.

The media wisdom of the moment is that the GOP might just lose the House in November. The New York Times made it official earlier this week with a front-page lead story declaring, "Sixty-five days before the election, the signs of Republican vulnerability are widespread." At one point, the story referred to the situation as "a gathering storm" for the Republicans, unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) taking the administration's recent penchant for Churchillian allusion and throwing it back at them.

This is how it goes lately between the White House and the press corps—constant sniping and gibes, a battle fought largely between the lines. "You guys are a bunch of negative, nattering, pro-terrorist pinkos." "Oh yeah? Well you're gonna lose big-time in November."

Nobody says it exactly this way, but if you had a magic decoder ring and pointed it at the daily news cycle, that would be the translation.

So let's assume the latest oracular visions are correct and the GOP suffers a major defeat, something approaching if not matching the stunning Democratic losses of 1994. That would be the political equivalent of an earthquake. But would it have any implications for the media? Would it change the dynamic between the Bush team and the journalists who cover them?

Absolutely. And if the media are true to form, the most dramatic shift would not be in political journalism per se, but in coverage of the most important story of this moment: the Iraq war.

Journalists like to think they are reporting just the facts, straight and unaffected by circumstance. The story is the story is the story. In fact, news is a highly atmospheric product: The way a story is presented, framed, and played (up or down) depends heavily on matters beyond the facts themselves. In Washington, the balance of power between the parties on one hand and between the administration and the media on the other is a hidden but immensely important factor in determining how the news reads and sounds.

When the White House is riding high, as it was in early 2005 (the days of the Bush "mandate"), story lines that are implicitly critical of the administration don't get much of a ride. Elite journalists are pack creatures, and when the pack is moving one way, everyone else sort of slides in that direction.

This is especially true on a story where the stakes are as high as they are in this war, which threatens to consign Bush to the dreaded "failed presidents" file. Establishment media outlets are not reporting the story that way now—not as forcefully as they might. Why? Because: 1) the war isn't over yet, and 2) despite the bad news that keeps happening in Iraq, the president's party still controls Washington.

This war is a debacle, and plenty of prominent journalists have written and said as much all over the media. One of the best-selling books in the nation right now is Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, the war book by Washington Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks, whose title says it all. Still, if you follow the daily coverage, you'll see media outlets spending a lot of time tempering the basic reality of Iraq, with pulled punches, qualifiers, and other moves that make the fiasco seem a lot less fiasco-like.

Thus, The Times' story about the "gathering storm" for Republicans shared the front page with a story about how in one corner of Iraq the death toll has been dropping, a development to which the GOP's most loathed media outlet actually applied the word "progress." For years now, mainstream outlets have been bending over backward to disprove administration critiques and show the upside of the war, minuscule though it is.

A November defeat for the Republicans will change everything. If Bush suffers a major political setback, the media will feel freed up to tear into this war as they have never done before. Again, it will not be a conscious, orchestrated decision—there will be no covert meeting at which senior editors and producers conspire to declare Iraq an epic failure. But the pack will change direction, as it always does when it smells blood.