On the morning of this day eleven years ago, in 2003, I happened to be sitting in the ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans waiting for Dick Cheney. This may sound like the beginning of a joke, perhaps with a musical or culinary kicker, but the punch line in this case is quite tragic.
I was covering a newspaper convention as editor of Editor & Publisher and the vice president had been scheduled weeks earlier as the featured morning speaker. We wondered if he’d show up: US forces had just entered central Baghdad and victory had been declared. Now, along with millions of others, I watched as locals, apparently acting on their own, toppled a giant statue of Saddam Hussein. I remember it well. There were two giant, if fragile, screens set up on either side of the stage where Cheney would soon appear—and just as the statue of Saddam was pulled down, live, the screen on the right also started to topple.
I should have known the worst was yet to come right there. Actually, unlike most in the mainstream media, I’d been warning about that for weeks, just the previous weekend on Bill Moyers’s PBS show.
A few minutes later, Cheney arrived and naturally hailed the events of the day. He also told us that critics of our conduct of the war were merely ”retired military officers embedded in TV studios.” Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, back in Washington, gushed, “The scenes of free Iraqis celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”
Okay, we expected nothing less from the architects of the war. But what about our media? Commentators suffered from premature ejaculations. Chris Matthews on MSNBC announced, “We’re all neo-cons now.” Joe Scarborough, also on MSNBC, declared: “I’m waiting to hear the words ‘I was wrong’ from some of the world’s most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood types.”
Fred Barnes at Fox News said: “The war was the hard part. The hard part was putting together a coalition, getting 300,000 troops over there and all their equipment and winning. And it gets easier. I mean, setting up a democracy is hard, but it is not as hard as winning a war.” Dick Morris at Fox News: “Over the next couple of weeks, when we find the chemical weapons this guy was amassing, the fact that this war was attacked by the left and so the right was so vindicated, I think, really means that the left is going to have to hang its head for three or four more years.”
And William Safire in The New York Times:
Like newly freed Parisians tossing flowers at Allied tanks; like newly freed Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall; like newly freed Russians pulling down the statue of the hated secret police chief in Dzerzhinsky Square, the newly freed Iraqis toppled the figure of their tyrant and ground their shoes into the face of Saddam Hussein….
Even in the flush of triumph, doubts will be raised. Where are the supplies of germs and poison gas and plans for nukes to justify pre-emption? (Freed scientists will lead us to caches no inspectors could find.) What about remaining danger from Baathist torturers and war criminals forming pockets of resistance and plotting vengeance? (Their death wish is our command.)
Alas, extensive looting soon began in Baghdad and many other large cities, with prizes ranging from household items to deadly weapons and bomb-making equipment. Rumsfeld explained, “Stuff happens…. Freedom’s untidy.” Mobs were greeting Americans as something less than liberators. On April 18, tens of thousands of Iraqis demonstrated against a US occupation in Baghdad. In late April, in separate incidents in Baghdad and Fallujah, US troops fired on demonstrators, killing more than dozen and inspiring grenade attacks on Americans.
Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times, “As far as I’m 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.” David Ignatius of The Washington Post wrote a column along the same lines. Richard Perle on May 1 advised in a triumphal USA Today op-ed, “Relax, Celebrate Victory.”
The same day, President Bush, dressed in flight suit, would land on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declare an end to major military operations in Iraq—with the now notorious “Mission Accomplished” arrayed behind him in the war’s greatest photo op. Chris Matthews called Bush a “hero” and PBS’s Gwen Ifill said he was “part Tom Cruise, part Ronald Reagan.”
Of course, there is much that can be, and has, been written about the decade that followed in Iraq, the treasure squandered, the media malpractice, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost (see my updated book on Iraq and the media, So Wrong for So Long). But on this day, I’d simply recommend a now-forgotten 2011 piece at The New Yorker and Pro Publica by Peter Maass.
He had covered the taking of Baghdad for The New York Times that day as a non-embedded or “unilateral” reporter. His article lays out, in detail, what actually happened that day in Baghdad—revealing the full nature of the media malpractice. The crowds that gathered around the statue of Saddam were much smaller and less enthusiastic than the TV images showed, and US marines played a central role in pulling down the statue. And the images would have profound and long-lasting negative effects in America, he argues. He also quotes from the likes of John Burns of The New York Times admitting that his gratitude toward the US marines that day was explicit. “They were my liberators, too. They seemed like ministering angels to me.”
Maas reveals that two CNN correspondents elsewhere in Baghdad were each ready to go on air with coverage of Iraqis firing on US troops but producers kept the focus on the statue for two hours. One of them, Walter Rodgers, seemed to defend this later: “Pictures are the mother’s milk of television, and it was a hell of a picture.”
Meanwhile, on CNN, Wolf Blitzer described the toppling as “the image that sums up the day and, in many ways, the war itself” and anchor Bill Hemmer added, “You think about seminal moments in a nation’s history … indelible moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.” Fox anchor Brit Hume said, “This transcends anything I’ve ever seen…. This speaks volumes, and with power that no words can really match.”
Maass relates that a study found that between 11 am and 8 pm that day, “Fox replayed the toppling every 4.4 minutes, and CNN every 7.5 minutes. The networks also showed the toppling in house ads; it became a branding device.”
Anne Garrels, a leading NPR reporter in Baghdad, revealed that her editors requested that she emphasize the celebratory angle, because the television coverage was more upbeat. In an oral history, Garrels claimed she told her editors that they were getting the story wrong: “There are so few people trying to pull down the statue that they can’t do it themselves…. Many people were just sort of standing, hoping for the best, but they weren’t joyous.”
Robert Collier, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, “filed a dispatch that noted a small number of Iraqis at Firdos, many of whom were not enthusiastic. When he woke up the next day, he found that his editors had recast the story. The published version said that ‘a jubilant crowd roared its approval’ as onlookers shouted, ‘We are free! Thank you, President Bush!’” Collier told Maass, “That was the one case in my time in Iraq when I can clearly say there was editorial interference in my work. They threw in a lot of triumphalism. I was told by my editor that I had screwed up and had not seen the importance of the historical event. They took out quite a few of my qualifiers.”
Among Maass’s conclusions:
I had little awareness of the media dynamics that turned the episode into a festive symbol of what appeared to be the war’s finale. In reality, the war was just getting under way. Many thousands of people would be killed or injured before the Bush administration acknowledged that it faced not just “pockets of dead-enders” in Iraq, as Rumsfeld insisted, but what grew to be a full-fledged insurgency. The toppling of Saddam’s statue turned out to be emblematic of primarily one thing: the fact that American troops had taken the center of Baghdad. That was significant, but everything else the toppling was said to represent during repeated replays on television—victory for America, the end of the war, joy throughout Iraq—was a disservice to the truth….
The media have been criticized for accepting the Bush administration’s claims, in the run-up to the invasion, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The WMD myth, and the media’s embrace of it, encouraged public support for war. The media also failed at Firdos Square, but in this case it was the media, rather than the government, that created the victory myth.
Among the handful of studies of Firdos Square, the most incisive was George Washington University’s, led by Sean Aday, an associate professor of media and public affairs. It concluded that the coverage had “profound implications for both international policy and the domestic political landscape in America.” According to the study, the saturation coverage of Firdos Square fueled the perception that the war had been won, and diverted attention from Iraq at precisely the moment that more attention was needed, not less. “Whereas battle stories imply a war is going on, statues falling—especially when placed in the context of truly climactic images from recent history—imply the war is over,” the study noted.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: “New Surge in Death and Violence in Iraq—Eleven Years After We Took Baghdad.”