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Ten Years Ago: How US Media 'Bungled' Coverage of the Early Days of the Iraq War | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Ten Years Ago: How US Media 'Bungled' Coverage of the Early Days of the Iraq War


A building burns during the bombardment of Baghdad on March 21, 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File.)

Coverage of the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war peaked a few days ago and now is trailing off. Most observers—including yours truly—have focused on the run-up to the war and media failures (or apologized for them). But the cheerleading media coverage of the actual US invasion also deserves scrutiny, although it received relatively little criticism at the time.

Ten years ago today, I wrote a piece for Editor & Publisher, the magazine I then edited, on fifteen stories the media had “already bungled.” It opened this way:

The war is only a week old and already the media has gotten at least 15 stories wrong or misreported a sliver of fact into a major event. Television news programs, of course, have been the prime culprits. Newspapers, while they have often gone along for the ride, have been much more nuanced and careful. Newspaper coverage has not been faultless, as photos and headlines often seem shock-and-awe-struck but, compared with TV, newspapers seem more editorially—and mentally—balanced. Some have actually displayed a degree of skepticism of claims made by the military and the White House—what used to be known as “journalism.”

On Monday, I received a call from a producer of a major network’s prime time news program. He said they wanted to interview me for a piece on how the public’s expectation of a quick victory somehow was too high. “But,” he hastened to add, “we don’t want to focus on the media.” I asked him where he thought the public might have received the information that falsely raised their hopes. In chat rooms, perhaps? The problem, I suggested, is that most of the TV commentators on the home front appear to be just as “embedded” with the military as the far braver reporters now in the Iraqi desert.

Surely this is a bipartisan issue. While many on the antiwar side complain about the media’s alleged “pro-war bias,” those who support the war have also been ill served by overly-positive coverage that now has millions of Americans reeling from diminished expectations.

Among the stories I felt were “bungled” were the following: (1) Saddam may well have been killed in the first night’s surprise attack (March 20). (2) Even if he wasn’t killed, the Iraqi command and control was no doubt “decapitated” (March 22). (5) Iraqi citizens are greeting Americans as liberators (March 22). (7) Several Scud missiles, banned weapons, have been launched against U.S. forces in Kuwait (March 23). (11) A captured chemical plant likely produced chemical weapons (March 23). (15) A convoy of 1,000 Iraqi vehicles and Republican Guards are speeding south from Baghdad to engage US troops (March 25).

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Reports had Umm Qasr “taken” on at least three different days before it actually was under control.

Also on this date ten years ago emerged one of the most infamous quotes of the entire debacle, but I could not have known at the time how absurdly faulty it was.

It came from deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz (who last week continued to defend the war), who told the House Appropriations Committee that oil revenue earned by Iraq alone would pay for Iraq’s reconstruction after we quickly ended the war. “The oil revenues of that country,” he said, “could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years. Now, there are a lot of claims on that money, but … We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon.”

How did that turn out?

Also ten years ago, Howard Kurtz at The Washington Post wrote a lengthy and important piece about how the BBC was covering the war in far more objective—and sane—way than US networks, even though 1.) the Brits were our main allies in the war and 2.) the BBC is heavily funded by the government to say the least.

And, around this date in 2003, we saw the first critiques of media policy that was denying Americans at home an accurate view of the costs of war on our soldiers falling in the invasion. More on that tomorrow. See much more on all this in my book So Wrong for So Long, just published in a new e-book edition and updated to controversies of this past week.

Greg Mitchell last wrote about The Washington Post recently spiking his critical piece on war coverage to publish one denying culpability.

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