Of all the unhappy trends I have witnessed–conservative swings on television networks, dwindling newspaper circulation, the jailing of reporters and “spin”–nothing is more troubling to me than the obsequious press during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. They lapped up everything the Pentagon and White House could dish out–no questions asked.
Reporters and editors like to think of themselves as watchdogs for the public good. But in recent years both individual reporters and their ever-growing corporate ownership have defaulted on that role. Ted Stannard, an academic and former UPI correspondent, put it this way: “When watchdogs, bird dogs, and bull dogs morph into lap dogs, lazy dogs, or yellow dogs, the nation is in trouble.”
The naïve complicity of the press and the government was never more pronounced than in the prelude to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The media became an echo chamber for White House pronouncements. One example: At President Bush’s March 6, 2003, news conference, in which he made it eminently clear that the United States was going to war, one reporter pleased the “born again” Bush when she asked him if he prayed about going to war. And so it went.
After all, two of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, had kept up a drumbeat for war with Iraq to bring down dictator Saddam Hussein. They accepted almost unquestioningly the bogus evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the dubious White House rationale that proved to be so costly on a human scale, not to mention a drain on the Treasury. The Post was much more hawkish than the Times–running many editorials pumping up the need to wage war against the Iraqi dictator–but both newspapers played into the hands of the Administration.
When Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his ninety-minute “boffo” statement on Saddam’s lethal toxic arsenal on February 5, 2003, before the United Nations, the Times said he left “little question that Mr. Hussein had tried hard to conceal” a so-called smoking gun or weapons of mass destruction. After two US special weapons inspection task forces, headed by chief weapons inspector David Kay and later by Charles Duelfer, came up empty in the scouring of Iraq for WMD, did you hear any apologies from the Bush Administration? Of course not. It simply changed its rationale for the war–several times. Nor did the media say much about the failed weapons search. Several newspapers made it a front-page story but only gave it one-day coverage. As for Powell, he simply lost his halo. The newspapers played his back-pedaling inconspicuously on the back pages.
My concern is why the nation’s media were so gullible. Did they really think it was all going to be so easy, a “cakewalk,” a superpower invading a Third World country? Why did the Washington press corps forgo its traditional skepticism? Why did reporters become cheerleaders for a deceptive Administration? Could it be that no one wanted to stand alone outside Washington’s pack journalism?
Tribune Media Services editor Robert Koehler summed it up best. In his August 20, 2004, column in the San Francisco Chronicle Koehler wrote, “Our print media pacesetters, the New York Times, and just the other day, the Washington Post, have searched their souls over the misleading pre-war coverage they foisted on the nation last year, and blurted out qualified Reaganesque mea culpas: ‘Mistakes were made.'”