John Murtha, Overnight American Idol

Making a mountain out of a molehill is becoming a national media specialty. The news media ought to be awarded advanced degrees for fixing their political microscopes on whatever amoeba of a story will serve their stubborn template: The Iraq war is hopeless; it’s Vietnam in the desert.

Take Congressman John Murtha, the liberal media’s overnight American Idol. Last week, he was almost anonymous. (Bet you couldn’t name which state he represents.) By the weekend, he had his name in lights like Cindy Sheehan—another helping of powdered instant media-manufactured anti-war hero.

Mr. Murtha boldly declared that the Iraq war could not be won militarily, going so far as to say American was making it far worse—that we were “the problem,” not the solution. Suddenly, by Thursday night, he was leading the nightly TV newscasts. ABC called him an “influential Democrat.” CBS said “on military matters, no Democrat in Congress is more influential.” NBC’s Brian Williams put it this way: “When one congressman out of 435 members of Congress speaks out against the war in Iraq, it normally wouldn’t be news. But it was today, because of who he is.”

Really? Let’s start here with some Journalism 101. How is Murtha actually the most influential Democrat in Congress on military matters? The networks certainly didn’t think so before last week if we measure him by his TV time. They’ve been much happier discussing Iraq with Sen. Kerry over the last two years, and if you’re not counting presidential candidates, Murtha can’t hold a candle to Sen. Joe Biden, or Nancy Pelosi, or a number of other Democratic leaders. What they were trying to say was Murtha had sudden clout because he was, they say, a “hawkish” House Democrat for withdrawal.

But weirder yet, what was new in Murtha’s Iraq stance? Doesn’t his feeling that the war is hopeless have to be new to be defined as “news”? Answer: Of course not. It’s the crude liberal propaganda value that matters. On May 10, 2004, he stood next to ultraliberal aspiring speaker Pelosi and said the war was unwinnable. (Ted Koppel liked that so much he awarded him a half-hour “exclusive” interview that night.) But wait, there’s more. In the New York Times of Sept. 17, 2003, Murtha complained that the top Pentagon brass should be fired since they misled him into voting for war. In other words, Murtha’s been anti-war for years.

But the really amazing turn in the rapid ascent of John Murtha, our instant Exit-Iraq-Now hero, was what happened next. On Friday, House Republicans finally showed some spine and did something wonderful. They called for an up-or-down vote on withdrawal, and put everyone formally on the record.

So much for the most “influential Democrat” in the Congress. The House—Democrats and Republicans—handed Murtha (and the press) one of the most lopsided, humiliating defeats imaginable. The House vote for withdrawal: three in favor, 403 against. So much for that “growing” public demand for the removal of American troops. The headline should have been “Overwhelming House Majority Votes to Support Bush in Iraq.”

But no. The next morning, the newspaper spin was bizarre. The New York Times headline was “Uproar in House as Parties Clash on Iraq Pullout.” Uproar? The story by Eric Schmitt didn’t get to the overwhelming majority vote until paragraph five. Schmitt considered it more important to highlight obscure newbie Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, who relayed to Murtha a message from a soldier suggesting that “cowards cut and run, Marines don’t,” and how when, Democrats screamed and howled, Rep. Schmidt withdrew the implication that Murtha was a coward.

The Washington Post story by Charles Babington began with news of an “explosion of angry words and personal insults” over Jean Schmidt’s remarks. The vote was then summarily dismissed in the third paragraph: “The Republican-proposed measure was rejected 403 to 3, a result that surprised no one.”

Amazing. After glorifying the prestige and influence of the man whose idea for rapid withdrawal is absolutely crushed, reporters declare there was now nothing of interest—of news—here. Even more bizarre: Babington strangely insisted Murtha’s plea for withdrawal nevertheless “struck a chord” in the party that wouldn’t vote for it.

The whole experience inspired Howard Fineman to write an article titled “Bush at the Tipping Point.” The “political center of gravity” shifted,” and liberal hero Murtha, the “gruff, taciturn pasha,” was tipping Bush over. The vote was meaningless, a “trap” made to make Democrats sound “as cravenly anti-war as possible.”

No, the vote was designed to make anti-war Democrats put up or shut up. Final vote: Bush 403, Murtha 3. Now it’s time for reporters to shut up, too.