The Iraq war anniversary: How the media failed us

    Ten years ago today, the American invasion of Iraq was underway. On this sad anniversary, there’s no need to recount the plottings of the Bush war planners; their perfidies will live in infamy. I’m more interested in the credulous cheerleaders who amplified the administration’s megaphone and helped grease the path to war.

    That would be the mainstream media.

    One of our great thigh-slapping canards is that the media is “liberal.” I have to wonder whether the people who believe that were actually alive 10 years ago. Because that was when the mainstream outlets (led in those days by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the TV networks) behaved not as watchdogs, but as lapdogs. They rolled over for the architects of war fever. They aided and abetted the Bush team’s ideologically-driven deceptions.

    What happened 10 years ago was arguably the most shameful episode in contemporary journalism. What it demonstrated is that the mainstream media, far from being “liberal,” is simply pro-establishment. Especially in Washington, it has a bias for authorized government sources. The scariest phrase in a typical story 10 years ago was “…Bush administration officials said today.” There was abundant evidence, in the runup to war and in the months after it began, that their WMD claims were a crock, but most of the ostensible watchdogs went belly up.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    For instance, The New York Times repeatedly cluttered its front page with the hypings of Judy Miller, the reporter who helped sell the fiction that Saddam Hussein was armed with WMDs; she got her faux-scoops from a defector closely allied to the Bush team. It was a great deal for the war planners. They’d plant a WMD lie in The Times, courtesy of defector Ahmad Chalabi, and Dick Cheney would go on Meet The Press and cite The Times story as proof that Hussein possessed mass weapons.

    To its credit, The Times owned up to its failures in a lengthy 2004 apologia, although, by then, it was too late: “We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been….Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the (Bush) claims as new evidence emerged – or failed to emerge….Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.”

    Burying the watchdogs

    But the paper that specialized in burial was The Washington Post.

    Hawkish proclamations by the Bush team landed on page one. Skeptical stories, citing skeptical intelligence sources, repeatedly got buried. Walter Pincus, a Post investigative reporter, was the prime victim. On the eve of war, he wrote that, despite Bush’s WMD claims, “U.S. intelligence agenciews have been uable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned weapoins or where they are hidden.” His story wound up on page 17. A few days later, he and White House correspondent Dana Milbank wrote this opener: “As the Bush administration prepares to attack Iraq this week, it is doing so on the basis of a number of allegations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that have been challenged – and in some cases disproved – by the United Nations, European governments, and even U.S. intelligence reports.” That story landed on page 13. Back in the fall of 2002, reporter Thomas Ricks quoted Pentagon offocials who were worried that the risks of an invasion were being underestimated. The Post killed that story entirely.

    The Hall of Shame has many plaques. On the eve of war, MSNBC fired a popular talk show host, Phil Donahue, because he was voicing skepticism about the imminent invasion; according to a leaked internal memo, the brass was concerned that Donahue presented “a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. In translation, the network feared that any hint of a watchdog sensibility would hurt its ratings.

    Playing it for laughs

    But the lowest moment occurred in March 2004, at an annual Washington dinner where journalists ritually rub shoulders with government big shots. President Bush presided. At one point, he narrated a slide show that was intended as humor. He flashed a photo of himself looking out the Oval Office window, and he said, “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere.” The lapdogs laughed. Then, a photo of himself looking under the Oval Office furniture – and he said, “Nope. No weapons over there.” More laughter. Then, a photo of himself searching around the room – and he said, “Maybe under here.” More laughter.

    Journalists and government officials, joined in mirth. Granted, American soldiers and Iraqi civilians were needlessly dying every day, and the American price tag was on its way to the current $2.2 trillion, but Bush and the mainstream media were bonded. He had sold his lies, and the media had packaged them for public consumption. Surely there had to be some shared humor in that.

    Fortunately, not everyone was a lapdog 10 years ago. The Knight Ridder Washington bureau broke a string of skeptical stories, many of which ran in a major KR paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer. The problem was, KR didn’t have any papers in New York or Washington, and if stories didn’t run in New York or Washington, they had the impact of a tree falling in a distant forest. (If only Twitter had existed then. Those KR stories would’ve found a mass audience – to wit, this dispatch in October 2002: “A growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats in Bush’s own government privately have deep misgivings about the administration’s double-time march toward war.”)

    As one insider from that ignominous era recently concluded, “Bush and his White House were engaging in a carefully-orchestrated campain to shape and manipulate sources….And through it all, the media would serve as complicit enablers. Their primary focus would be on covering the campaign to sell the war, rather than aggressively questioning the rationale for war or pursuing the truth behind it….And the truth – about the actual nature of the threat posed by Saddam, the right way to confront it, and the possible risks of military conflict – would get largely left behind.”

    So writes former Bush administration spokesman Scott McClellan, who, long after the fact, laments “our lack of candor and honesty in making the case for war.” The mainstream media’s enduring shame is that it played along. We can only hope that coverage will be more vigilant when the next ginned-up war comes along.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal