As we approach the eleventh anniversary of the US attack on Iraq this week, we may face a bit more media coverage of that tragic conflict than usual. How much of it will focus on the media misconduct that helped make the war possible (and then continue for so long)? It’s certainly not something the media like to dwell on.
For now, let’s relive just some of the good, the bad and the ugly in war coverage from the run-up to the invasion through the five years of controversy that followed. In updating the first e-book version of my book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits—and the President—Failed on Iraq, which features a preface by Bruce Springsteen, I was surprised to come across once-prominent quotes and incidents that had faded a bit, even for me. Here is a list of fifteen episodes, in roughly chronological order.
1) In late March 2003, the day before the US invasion, Bill O’Reilly said, “If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it’s clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation; I will not trust the Bush administration again, all right?”
2) After the fall of Baghdad in April, Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC, said, “I’m waiting to hear the words ‘I was wrong’ from some of the world’s most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood types.”
3) The same day, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews declared, “We’re all neocons now.”
4) Thomas Friedman, who had called this a “legitimate war of choice,” now wrote at The New York Times, “As far as I am concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war…. Mr. Bush doesn’t owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons.”
5) Phil Donahue suddenly lost his show at MSNBC, he later claimed, because he did not wave the flag enough. A leaked NBC memo confirmed Donahue’s suspicion, noting that the host “presents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war…. At the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
6) President Bush’s “comedy” routine during the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner on March 24, 2004—nearly one year into the war—included a bit about the still-missing WMD. While a slide show of the president searching the White House was projected on the wall behind him, he joked, “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere… Nope, no weapons over there… Maybe under here?” Most of the crowd roared, and there was little criticism in the media in following days. David Corn, then Washington editor of The Nation, was one of the few attendees to criticize the routine. Corn wondered if they would have laughed if Ronald Reagan had, following the truck bombing of our Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241, said at a similar dinner, “Guess we forgot to put in a stoplight.”
7) When The New York Times carried its belated editors’ note on May 26, 2004, admitting some errors in its WMD coverage, it appeared on page A10 and Judith Miller’s name was nowhere to be found. The note is often described today as an “apology,” but it was no such thing. On the day it ran, Executive Editor Bill Keller (who once called himself a “liberal hawk” on Iraq) termed criticism of the Times’s coverage “overwrought” and said that the main reason it even published the note was because the controversy had become a “distraction.”