But the U.S. media’s debacle over Iraq – failing to
seriously question George W. Bush’s case for invasion and often acting
as pro-war cheerleaders as the casualty lists lengthened – has dealt a
death blow to that 30-year-old mythology. The bloody spectacle of Iraq
has become the Waterloo of Washington’s “Watergate press corps,” its
Even the nation’s preeminent news outlets, such as
the New York Times and the Washington Post, were sucked into the fiasco,
shattering the trust that many Americans had placed in their “free
press” as a vital check and balance on Executive power.
By contrast, many poorly funded Web sites did a
much better job of standing up to the political pressures, showing
skepticism and getting the story right.
The third anniversary of Bush’s Iraq invasion
stands as a marker, too, for the slide of the U.S. news media’s big-name
talking heads into the status of laughingstock, even if they’re too vain
to know that the derision’s about them. [For details, see below.]
Over the past three years, as the Bush
administration has unveiled the United States as an imperial power that
plays by its own rules, it has dawned on more and more Americans that
the old institutions – the Congress, the courts and the press – that
were supposed to protect the Republic had long since crumbled into
Yet, because of the lingering Watergate myth, many
Americans were most shocked to find that the scrappy, idealistic
Washington press corps had evolved into a careerist, courtier news
media. Even well-informed Americans were perplexed over how the press
had become almost the opposite of its press clippings.
After all, in the 1970s, American reporters became
heroes to many for exposing Richard Nixon’s crimes and revealing other
abuses, such as the Pentagon’s Vietnam War lies and CIA spying on U.S.
citizens. Conversely, the reporters were hated by Nixon’s loyalists, who
called them the “liberal media.”
Though these extremes of Watergate images – of
heroes or villains – never captured the precise picture, they did serve
real political and professional needs. The news media relished its
elevated heroic status, while the detractors built a cottage industry
around the goal of neutralizing the “liberal media.”
In truth, however, reporters always operated within
tight parameters set by their publishers and news executives, most of
whom could be counted as wealthy members of the Establishment.
Journalists rarely wandered too far afield out of fear of losing a job
or a promotion.
But the Vietnam War and Nixon’s Watergate excesses
shattered the national political consensus, creating a brief period of
competing power centers and relative openness. The divisions within the
Establishment, in effect, gave the reporters space to obtain information
and publish stories that previously would have been kept secret.
By the 1980s, however, that moment had passed. A
new framework was put in place to constrain press independence. [For
details, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
Still, right-wing press “watchdogs” and an
expanding conservative media hammered away at perceived “liberal bias,”
and mainstream reporters learned that the biggest threat to their
careers was to be stuck with the “liberal” label.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks made dissent and
skepticism even riskier. Journalists, politicians and even citizens who
questioned Bush and his emerging “preemptive war” policies were
denounced as unpatriotic and unhinged. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Politics
As a result, the media’s pro-Bush pandering reached
new heights. For instance, on Dec. 23, 2001, NBC’s Tim Russert joined
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and First Lady
Laura Bush in musing about whether divine intervention had put Bush in
the White House to handle the Sept. 11 crisis.
Russert asked Mrs. Bush if “in an extraordinary
way, this is why he was elected.” Mrs. Bush objected to Russert’s
suggestion that “God picks the President, which he doesn’t.”
Giuliani thought otherwise. “I do think, Mrs. Bush,
that there was some divine guidance in the President being elected. I
do,” the mayor said. McCarrick also saw some larger purpose, saying: “I
think I don’t thoroughly agree with the First Lady. I think that the
President really, he was where he was when we needed him.”
In this climate of fear and fawning, U.S.
journalists knew intuitively that to question Bush’s leadership could be
fatal to one’s career. News organizations and individual journalists
concluded that their corporate and personal financial interests were
best served by waving the Red-White-and-Blue, instead of raising red
As the Iraq War hysteria built in 2002, the New
York Times published false stories about Iraq building a nuclear bomb.
The Washington Post’s opinion pages virtually excluded skeptical
commentary and its own editorials cited Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass
as a fact, not a point in dispute.
The U.S. news media’s “group think” reached its
zenith on Feb. 6, 2003, the day after Secretary of State Colin Powell
detailed the supposed U.S. evidence of Iraqi WMD before the United
Nations Security Council.
The Washington Post’s editorial pages stood as a
solid phalanx behind Powell’s presentation. The newspaper’s editorial
board judged Powell’s WMD case “irrefutable” and added: “it is hard to
imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass
That opinion was echoed across the Post’s Op-Ed
“The evidence he (Powell) presented to the United
Nations – some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling
in its detail – had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t
accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still
retains them,” wrote Post columnist Richard Cohen. “Only a fool – or
possibly a Frenchman – could conclude otherwise.”
Post columnist Jim Hoagland demanded the surrender
of any Bush-doubting holdouts: “To continue to say that the Bush
administration has not made its case, you must now believe that Colin
Powell lied in the most serious statement he will ever make, or was
taken in by manufactured evidence. I don’t believe that. Today, neither
Not that there were many skeptical voices in the
U.S. media still needing silencing. [In contrast to the mainstream
coverage on Feb. 6, 2003, Consortiumnews.com published a contrary view
about Powell’s credibility, “Trust
Competing with Fox News to “brand” its news product
as super-patriotic, MSNBC fired host Phil Donahue because his show
allowed on some war opponents. Also, reflecting its new direction, MSNBC
gave day-long coverage to a diner that renamed “French fries” as
After Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq on March
19, 2003, U.S. news outlets dropped even the pretense of objectivity. TV
anchors opined about what strategies “we”
should follow in prosecuting the Iraq War.
“One of the things that
we don’t want to do is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in
a few days we’re going to own that country,” NBC’s Tom Brokaw explained
as he sat among a panel of retired generals on the opening night of
“Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
Electronically waving the flag, Fox and MSNBC
superimposed Old Glory on scenes from Iraq. The networks also broadcast
Madison Avenue-style montages of heroic American soldiers at war, amid
thankful Iraqis and stirring background music.
Fox described the Iraqi
militia fighters as “Saddam’s goons” and adopted Bush’s preferred
phrasing for “suicide bombings” as “homicide bombings.” While denouncing
Iraqi TV for showing pictures of U.S. POWs, Fox and other U.S. news
footage of Iraqi POWs being paraded before U.S. cameras.
CNN wasn’t far behind in the super-patriotism
sweepstakes, adopting the U.S. code name “Operation Iraqi Freedom” for
its coverage, even as televised scenes showed
captured Iraqis handcuffed and kneeling before U.S. soldiers.
After U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s statue
in Baghdad three weeks into the conflict, pro-war pundits grew even more
intolerant of dissent.
Fox News anchor Brit Hume chastised journalists who
had doubted the ease with which the Iraq War would be won. “They didn’t
get it just a little wrong,” Hume said. “They got it completely wrong.”
Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas demanded that the
words of the doubters be archived so they would be permanently
discredited. “When these false prophets again appear, they can be
reminded of the error of their previous ways and at least be offered an
opportunity to recant and repent,” Thomas wrote.
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer
declared that “the only people who think this wasn’t a victory are Upper
Westside liberals, and a few people here in Washington.”
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough singled out former U.N.
weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who had doubted the existence of Iraqi
WMD, as the “chief stooge for Saddam Hussein” and demanded that Ritter
and other skeptics apologize.
“I’m waiting to hear the words ‘I was wrong’ from
some of the world’s most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood
types,” Scarborough said. “Maybe disgraced commentators and politicians
alike, like Daschle, Jimmy Carter, Dennis Kucinich, and all those
others, will step forward tonight and show the content of their
character by simply admitting what we know already: that their wartime
predictions were arrogant, they were misguided and they were dead
“We’re all neo-cons now,” chimed in MSNBC’s Chris
“The Tommy Franks-Don Rumsfeld battle plan, war
plan, worked brilliantly, a three-week war with mercifully few American
deaths or Iraqi civilian deaths,” said Fox News commentator Morton
Kondracke. “All the naysayers have been humiliated so far. … The final
word on this is hooray.”
CNN’s Lou Dobbs said, “Some journalists, in my
judgment, just can’t stand success, especially a few liberal columnists
and newspapers and a few Arab reporters.”
A couple of weeks after Baghdad’s fall, the George
W. Bush cult literally took flight when Bush donned pilot gear and
landed on a U.S. aircraft carrier off the California coast. On May 1,
2003, he appeared under a “Mission Accomplished” banner and declared the
end of major combat.
Much of the U.S. news media rhetorically swooned at
“We’re proud of our President,” Chris Matthews
said. “Americans love having a guy as President, a guy who has a little
swagger, who’s physical. … Women like a guy who’s President. Check it
out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our
“Picture perfect,” said PBS’s Gwen Ifill. “Part
Spider-Man, part Tom Cruise, part Ronald Reagan. The President seized
the moment on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.”
“If image is everything, how can the Democratic
presidential hopefuls compete with a President fresh from a war
victory,” said CNN’s Judy Woodruff.
[For a contrary view at the time, see
Matrix.” Some pundit quotes above were compiled by
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
Also, see Norman Solomon’s “War-Loving
Pundits,” March 16, 2006]
Only after the promised discovery of WMD
caches didn’t occur – and a bloody insurgency did – did the U.S. news
media temper its enthusiasm.
The New York Times and the Washington Post
recanted some of their false reporting and the major newspapers finally
began writing more skeptical articles, including revelations about
torture policies and warrantless wiretapping of Americans.
Yet, even as the death toll of American soldiers
exceeds 2,300 and the number of Iraqi dead soars into the tens of
thousands, it can’t be said that the career calculations made by most
journalists three years ago – to hop on the Bush bandwagon – didn’t work
out well for most of the leading pro-war pundits.
Indeed, except for New York Times correspondent
Judith Miller (who resigned amid a controversy over her coziness with
administration sources) and Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly (who
died in a vehicle accident in Iraq), the roster of leading American
pundits remains almost unchanged.
Their new “take” on the war is that Bush and his
high command deserve credit for orchestrating a brilliant military
campaign on behalf of a noble cause but that mistakes were made in not
having better WMD intelligence, in not committing more troops and in not
implementing a better occupation plan.
As recently as last year, many of the
top pundits hailed Bush as “visionary” for supposedly
infusing the Middle East with democracy.
Bush got credit for the Iraqi voter turnout, even
though it was driven by the Shiite grab for political dominance; for the
anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon over which he had almost no influence;
and for some regional elections, like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia,
that were shams.
It was not until Islamic militants in Hamas won
electoral control of the Palestinian Authority that the U.S. press corps
noticed the flaws in Bush’s “democracy” justification for the Iraq War,
which had surfaced after the WMD stockpiles didn’t.
But the bottom line for high-paid Washington
journalists is that pandering to Bush still makes great career sense.
Not only is it easier to take the propaganda
handouts from the Bush administration – than to go digging out stories
that rely on some terrified whistleblowers – but there is almost no
downside to the propaganda stories even when they turn out to be wrong.
You can just say you were writing the same thing everyone else was.
For American democracy, the only lasting answer to
this media crisis will be to build independent press outlets staffed by
honest journalists who put truth ahead of career advancement.
But without doubt, one of the uncounted casualties
of the Iraq War is the death of the Watergate myth, the notion that
Washington journalists are heroes fighting for the public’s right to
know and protecting the U.S. Constitution.