In a nation that considers itself peaceful and civilized, the case for military action should be overwhelmingly stronger than the case against. It must face, and survive, aggressive questioning.
When political leaders are too timid to push back, that responsibility falls entirely to the media.
But in 2002 and 2003, covering the run-up to war in Iraq, our nation’s top reporters and editors blew it badly. Their credulous, stenographic spreading of the administration’s deeply deceptive arguments made them de facto accomplices to a war undertaken on false pretenses.
I’ve written about this failure countless times, but – believe it or not — the best thing I’ve ever read about it was actually written by Scott McClellan, the former Bush White House press secretary. In an era of almost universally self-congratulatory memoirs from government officials, McClellan’s 2008 book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” was full of confessions and accusations.
I first wrote about it for NiemanWatchdog.org, a since-shuttered website from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, where I served as deputy editor.
As press secretary, McClellan was a robotic and iconic source of deception himself. But then he came clean. This is what he wrote in his book:
In the fall of 2002, Bush and his White house were engaging in a carefully-orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate sources of public approval to our advantage. We’d done much the same on other issues–tax cuts and education–to great success. But war with Iraq was different. Beyond the irreversible human costs and substantial financial price, the decision to go to war and the way we went about selling it would ultimately lead to increased polarization and intensified partisan warfare…
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… the media would neglect their watchdog role, focusing less on truth and accuracy and more on whether the campaign was succeeding. Was the president winning or losing the argument? How were Democrats responding? What were the electoral implications? What did the polls say? 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…
If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq. The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should have never come as such a surprise. The public should have been made much more aware, before the fact, of the uncertainties, doubts, and caveats that underlay the intelligence about the regime of Saddam Hussein. The administration did little to convey those nuances to the people, the press should have picked up the slack but largely failed to do so because their focus was elsewhere–on covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.
In this case, the “liberal media” didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.
It took members of the elite media a remarkably long time after the invasion and the resulting chaos to realize just how credulous and wrong they had been. In a February 2004 piece in the New York Review of Books, media observer Michael Massing then asked the obvious follow-up question: Why?
In recent months, US news organizations have rushed to expose the Bush administration’s pre-war failings on Iraq. “Iraq’s Arsenal Was Only on Paper,” declared a recent headline in The Washington Post. “Pressure Rises for Probe of Prewar-Intelligence,” said The Wall Street Journal. “So, What Went Wrong?” asked Time. In The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh described how the Pentagon set up its own intelligence unit, the Office of Special Plans, to sift for data to support the administration’s claims about Iraq. And on “Truth, War and Consequences,” a Frontline documentary that aired last October, a procession of intelligence analysts testified to the administration’s use of what one of them called “faith-based intelligence.”
Watching and reading all this, one is tempted to ask, where were you all before the war? Why didn’t we learn more about these deceptions and concealments in the months when the administration was pressing its case for regime change—when, in short, it might have made a difference?…
The nearer the war drew, and the more determined the administration seemed to wage it, the less editors were willing to ask tough questions.
How mainstream journalists suspended skepticism and scrutiny remains an issue of significance that the media has not satisfactorily explored. How the administration marketed the war to the American people has been well covered, but critical questions remain: How and why did the press buy it, and what does it say about the role of journalists in helping the public sort out fact from propaganda?
The heroes of Moyers’s story are editor John Walcott and reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, then of the Knight Ridder Washington bureau. Their relentlessly skeptical reporting was nearly unique in Washington – and almost entirely ignored.
In 2008, Walcott was the first person to receive the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence from the Nieman Foundation – an honor I’m proud to say I helped create.
We asked him and other astute observers – among them New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, author Tom Rosenstiel, and Massing – how to encourage the kind of courageous journalism practiced during that period by Knight Ridder.
They agreed that fear was the biggest factor in the press’s decision not to challenge Bush and his aides as they made what turned out to be a plainly specious case for war. The country was solidly behind Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, his White House maligned those who raised too many questions as unpatriotic. Corporate chieftains were afraid they’d lose audience if they were seen as un-American. And newsroom managers went along.
The group also agreed on some good rules going forward. The top-level rubrics:
- Be particularly vigilant and work hard to route around what’s become a highly professional misinformation machine.
- Acknowledge scoops by rival news organizations, then follow them up, like a relay team.
- Don’t just write for people inside the Beltway.
- Beat reporters should be doing accountability stories.
- Cover the federal agencies.
- Avoid he-said she-said reporting in favor of trying to ascertain the truth.
- Embrace the frankness, the authority and the transparency of journalistic blogs.
Walcott himself this week wrote in Foreign Affairs that “What distinguished the Knight Ridder Washington bureau from its peers in the Washington press corps was its remove from power and politics.”
As a result, he wrote, his team “spent their time earning the trust of people closer to the ground and further from the politics.”
Landay, Strobel and Walcott have since reunited on the Reuters international affairs team.
Back in 2007, I also put together a list of lessons that should have been learned after Vietnam, and then again after Iraq. The rubrics:
- You Can’t Be Too Skeptical of Authority
- Provocation Alone Does Not Justify War
- Be Particularly Skeptical of Secrecy
- Watch for Rhetorical Traps
- Don’t Just Give Voice to the Administration Officials
- Look Outside Our Borders
- Understand the Enemy
- Encourage Public Debate
- Write about Motives
- Talk to the Military
But no one in our elite newsrooms listens to criticism, even the constructive kind.
The Opposite of Accountability for Pundits
As Parker Molloy wrote this week in her Substack newsletter:
One would think that cheering on the disaster that was the Iraq invasion would be a career-destroying mistake. As it turns out, the opposite seems to be true.
Her post reminds us of statements made at the time by the likes of Matt Yglesias, Fareed Zakaria, Anne Applebaum, Jeffrey Goldberg, David Remnick, Bill Keller, David Brooks, Tom Friedman, and Jonathan Chait.
Similarly, former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges wrote about all the people who got it wrong and were never held accountable, even as his antiwar views sabotaged his own career.
And David Corn of Mother Jones made an important point: That even those pundits who have gotten credit for admitting they were wrong actually did no such thing.
Many of the Iraq War regretters insist they pursued the war in good faith predicated on solid assumptions and propelled by genuine concern for US security. What they don’t confess to is being part of an effort to purposefully bamboozle the American public and whip up support for the war with scare-’em tactics and disinformation.
Baying for Blood
As I wrote at the top of this piece, talk of war should prompt extraordinary skepticism from the media. But in reality, the opposite is true. The elite, corporate media consistently marginalizes antiwar views. We’ve seen that in the coverage of drum-beating about Syria and Iran.
And of course we see it now in the media’s unrelenting enthusiasm about arming Ukraine without even raising the obvious questions about the risks of doing so.
As I wrote last May:
Iraq is no excuse for Ukraine. But Iraq is a reminder of how we are not always the good guys; that what seems like a good idea at the time can end up making things much worse; and that the press’s role should be to aggressively question every act that leads to death and destruction, even if the intent seems noble…
Asking questions and encouraging debate doesn’t mean you’re a Putin apologist or a Trumpian neo-isolationist. It means you remember history.
The reality is that our elite newsrooms, which define themselves as standing above the partisan fray, in fact rigidly adhere to fanatical political positions including a defense of the status quo, faith in some sort of middle ground, an obsession with cutting spending on the poor, and contempt for the antiwar mindset.
None of that has changed, even as the status quo becomes more obviously unsustainable, Republicans pursue white-supremacist authoritarian rule, wealth inequality increases dramatically, and wars almost always make everything worse.
And it won’t change until our top newsrooms get new leaders willing to learn from the failures of the past.