I CANNOT IMAGINE what it would be like to lose my child the way Cindy Sheehan lost her son, Casey, in Iraq. The bereaved mother, who until Thursday had been camped outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, has every right to protest the war, and her demonstration was certainly news.
But in its apparent zeal to portray Sheehan as the Rosa Parks of the antiwar movement, the Los Angeles Times has omitted facts and perspectives that might undercut her message or explain the president's reluctance to meet with her again.
For example, The Times uncritically reported Sheehan's claim that the president had behaved callously in a June 2004 meeting with her and her husband, refusing to look at pictures of Casey or listen to stories about him. The Times claimed without qualification that Sheehan "came away from that meeting dissatisfied and angry."
But the article failed to mention that Sheehan had previously described Bush as sincere and sympathetic in the meeting. According to an interview with her hometown paper, the Vacaville Reporter, Sheehan had said that although she was upset about the war, she decided not to confront the president -- who clearly left a favorable impression: "I now know he's sincere about wanting freedom for the Iraqis.... I know he's sorry and feels some pain for our loss. And I know he's a man of faith."
Of that trip, Sheehan said: "That was the gift the president gave us, the gift of happiness, of being together." In the 11 articles and columns about Sheehan that The Times had run on its news pages as of Friday, there is no hint of her previous praise for the president.
Ironically, columnists Jonathan Chait and Margaret Carlson evidently assumed that The Times had informed its readers about Sheehan's contradictions, and ran columns that unconvincingly tried to reconcile Sheehan's varying versions. But even the Washington Post -- no bastion of the fabled vast right-wing conspiracy -- saw discrepancies between Sheehan's former and current descriptions of her meeting with the president.
Lending credence to Sheehan's earlier positive account, Newsweek has reported that families in similar meetings have been impressed by Bush's "emotionalism and his sincerity." Inclusion of that fact would certainly have changed the tone of any story about Sheehan in The Times.
Sheehan's changing accounts of her meeting with Bush are relevant to understanding the president's decision not to meet with her again. So are her descriptions of the president in a Dallas speech reported by leftist newsletter Counterpunch as a "lying bastard," a "maniac" and the leader of a "destructive neocon cabal." In an article for CommonDreams.org, she called that supposed cabal "the "biggest terrorist outfit in the world."
She also has turned her son's death into a tax protest, refusing to pay her income taxes for 2004, the year her son died, reportedly saying in the Dallas speech: "You killed my son, George Bush, and I don't owe you a penny." Sheehan's use of such inflammatory rhetoric sheds light on why Bush likely sees little upside in a public confrontation with her. But you would never know about these statements from reading The Times' news pages.
Nor would you learn that Casey Sheehan reenlisted after the war started. And only The Times' April 2004 obituary for the 24-year-old Army specialist noted that he bravely volunteered for the rescue mission in which he was killed by terrorists.
Likewise, while The Times reported that Cindy's husband, Patrick Sheehan, has filed for divorce -- which may or may not pertain to her recent activities -- it has not mentioned that other members of Sheehan's family have clearly distanced themselves from her protest, as reported in the San Jose Mercury News.
Of course, hundreds of mothers across the country also continue to support the war despite having lost their own sons in Iraq. These mothers have no less moral authority than Cindy Sheehan, but their views have been sorely lacking in The Times' unbalanced coverage of Sheehan's protest.
Also missing is the perspective of Iraqis who lost loved ones to the bloodthirsty reign of Saddam Hussein, during which 300,000 to 1 million civilians were slaughtered. An Iraqi named Mohammed at the blog Iraq the Model (iraqthemodel.blogspot.com) recently explained the importance of that fact, in a moving message addressed to Sheehan: "Your face doesn't look strange to me at all; I see it every day on endless numbers of Iraqi women who were struck by losses like yours. Our fellow countrymen and women were buried alive, cut to pieces and thrown in acid pools and some were fed to the wild dogs....
"I ask you in the name of God or whatever you believe in; do not waste your son's blood."
Sheehan probably would gain more from a single meeting with Mohammed than a second meeting with Bush. Times readers also would benefit from occasional exposure to perspectives such as Mohammed's -- as well as the missing facts about Sheehan's antiwar activism.
Rational people can disagree whether the war in Iraq is justified. But a newspaper's job is to report all relevant facts and present different perspectives, not just those that suit one particular viewpoint.
By that measure, The Times has woefully failed its readers with its one-sided coverage of the Cindy Sheehan story.