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Media strafe Obama from both sides as he grapples with Syria decision

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Aug. 22, 2013: President Obama speaks at the University at Buffalo, in Buffalo, N.Y.AP

Howard Kurtz’s "Media Buzz" program will debut Sunday, Sept. 8 at 11 a.m. EST.

The media have launched a preemptive strike against President Obama.

Here’s how it usually works: A president confers with his team, reaches a military decision, makes his case to the public—and wins support from some commentators and opposition from others.

But in the case of Syria, Obama is getting hammered from the right and the left, even though he hasn’t done anything so far.

This is in part because of our hyper-partisan environment and in part because the media are hypersensitive to the well-deserved criticism that they blew it during the run-up to the Iraq war.

That, combined with the 24/7 pressures on the opinion-mongering business, is an explosive mixture.

The bottom line: the president is damned if he bombs and damned if he doesn’t.

Some on the left, like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, are urging Obama to fully consult with Congress before taking action. But others, like Salon’s Patrick Smith, go further.

“The fabrications and duplicity put before us as Washington prepares to ‘respond’ to the latest savagery in Syria are so strangely formed that it is hard to follow the bouncing ball,” he writes. “The Obama people have changed their story diametrically before our eyes, casting aside all consistency, self-evidently making it up as they go along.”

The media, meanwhile, “are delivering the goods with irresponsible single-source stories dressed up as responsible multiple-source stories,” Smith says. “When was it that journalists began thinking of themselves as national security operatives? It is getting unbearable, this errand-boy act in the face of power. If journalists did their jobs properly we would get into fewer messes such as Syria and would be more nationally secure.”  

Now I have reported extensively on the many press failures in 2002 and 2003, including the lack of skepticism about the Bush administration’s claims and the heavy reliance on official sources who were peddling a line that turned out to be false. 

But make no mistake: the press cannot prevent a determined president from going to war. Nor can journalists go to Syria and investigate for themselves whether Bashar Assad used chemical weapons. 

They need to do their jobs “properly,” and of course they influence public opinion, but they don’t control the armed forces.

On the right, Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin ripped Obama administration officials for “arbitrariness, incoherence and, of course, rank stinking hypocrisy” for having slammed the Bush folks for making war unilaterally -- and now edging toward the same approach. 

For good measure, Malkin called the president “flippant, arrogant and contemptuous” for his conduct on Syria.

Overheated adjectives aside, it’s perfectly fair to contrast what Obama and company said about Iraq with their current handling of international crises. 

But Obama argues that he is consulting with such allies as France and Britain (whose Parliament rejected military action yesterday) but will not grant them veto power over American intervention. 

Beyond the finger-pointing, some news organizations are starting to engage in old-fashioned reporting. Most notably, the Associated Press, citing unnamed intelligence officials, says that “the intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack is no ‘slam dunk,’ with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike.” 

The slam dunk phrase, of course, is a reference to George Tenet’s insistence when he ran the CIA that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The New York Times weighs in with milder language that nonetheless offers the kind of skepticism that was missing from most press accounts a decade ago.

“American officials said Wednesday there was no ‘smoking gun’ that directly links President Bashar al-Assad to the attack, and they tried to lower expectations about the public intelligence presentation," the paper said. "They said it will not contain specific electronic intercepts of communications between Syrian commanders or detailed reporting from spies and sources on the ground.”

The Washington Post warns (again with more forethought than in the we-will-be-greeted-as-liberators days) that air strikes could drag this country into war. 

The paper quotes retired Gen. Anthony Zinni as saying: “The one thing we should learn is you can’t get a little bit pregnant. If you do a one-and-done and say you’re going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in.”

This kind of reporting lays the groundwork for a healthy debate, although I’m struck by the undercurrent in most stories of when we launch an attack, as opposed to if.

But the loudest voices tend to be employed in ideological warfare. And they are castigating Obama from opposite sides for a decision he has not yet made. 

O'Reilly's Apology 

I mentioned in yesterday's column that Bill O'Reilly was among those criticizing the March on Washington for its complete absence of GOP speakers. 

I noted that George W. Bush had turned down an invitation, but it turns out a whole lot of other Republicans did too. 

And the Fox News host, to his credit, apologized last night: 

"During my discussion with James Carville about the Martin Luther King commemoration I said there were no Republican speakers invited. Wrong. ... Some Republicans were asked to speak. They declined. And that was a mistake. They should have spoken. Now, the mistake, entirely on me. I simply assumed that since all the speakers were liberal Democrats, Republicans were excluded. So, here's the 'Tip of the Day' -- Always check out the facts before you make a definitive statement. And, when you make a mistake, admit it. By the way, I'm sorry I made that mistake." 

Good advice about the need to apologize. 

Zimmerman vs. Zimmerman

It’s probably a bad thing to learn about your possible divorce on television.

I don’t feel sorry for George Zimmerman, especially after he visited a Florida factory that made the gun he used to kill Trayvon Martin—and posed for pictures. Talk about the height of insensitivity.

Along comes "Good Morning America," which snags an interview with his wife Shellie, who was asked: “Are you together?”

“I’m not going to answer that,” she replied.

Not exactly a vote of confidence. And when she was asked whether she would stay married to George and have children with him, she said: “That’s something I’m going to have to think about.”

Shellie Zimmerman admitted in the ABC interview that she didn’t agree with her husband’s gun factory stunt (“he is doing things … that none of us can understand”). She also talked about pleading guilty to perjury on Wednesday: “I can rationalize a lot of reasons for why I was misleading, but the truth is I knew that I was lying.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that in a tragic murder case that played out on television, we would also get to watch the deterioration of the Zimmerman marriage—a painful footnote in a very painful story.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.