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“Complicit enablers”: 20 years later, the press corps has learned nothing

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Dan Froomkin writes at Press Watch:

In a nation that considers itself peaceful and civilized, the case for military action should be overwhelmingly stronger than the case against. It must face, and survive, aggressive questioning.

When political leaders are too timid to push back, that responsibility falls entirely to the media.

But in 2002 and 2003, covering the run-up to war in Iraq, our nation’s top reporters and editors blew it badly. Their credulous, stenographic spreading of the administration’s deeply deceptive arguments made them de facto accomplices to a war undertaken on false pretenses.

I’ve written about this failure countless times, but – believe it or not — the best thing I’ve ever read about it was actually written by Scott McClellan, the former Bush White House press secretary. In an era of almost universally self-congratulatory memoirs from government officials, McClellan’s 2008 book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” was full of confessions and accusations.

first wrote about it for NiemanWatchdog.org, a since-shuttered website from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, where I served as deputy editor.

As press secretary, McClellan was a robotic and iconic source of deception himself. But then he came clean. This is what he wrote in his book:

In the fall of 2002, Bush and his White house were engaging in a carefully-orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate sources of public approval to our advantage. We’d done much the same on other issues–tax cuts and education–to great success. But war with Iraq was different. Beyond the irreversible human costs and substantial financial price, the decision to go to war and the way we went about selling it would ultimately lead to increased polarization and intensified partisan warfare…

And through it all, the media would serve as complicit enablers. Their primary focus would be on covering the campaign to sell the war, rather than aggressively questioning the rationale for war or pursuing the truth behind it… the media would neglect their watchdog role, focusing less on truth and accuracy and more on whether the campaign was succeeding. Was the president winning or losing the argument? How were Democrats responding? What were the electoral implications? What did the polls say? And the truth–about the actual nature of the threat posed by Saddam, the right way to confront it, and the possible risks of military conflict–would get largely left behind…

If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq. The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should have never come as such a surprise. The public should have been made much more aware, before the fact, of the uncertainties, doubts, and caveats that underlay the intelligence about the regime of Saddam Hussein. The administration did little to convey those nuances to the people, the press should have picked up the slack but largely failed to do so because their focus was elsewhere–on covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.

In this case, the “liberal media” didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.

It took members of the elite media a remarkably long time after the invasion and the resulting chaos to realize just how credulous and wrong they had been. In a February 2004 piece in the New York Review of Books, media observer Michael Massing then asked the obvious follow-up question: Why?

In recent months, US news organizations have rushed to expose the Bush administration’s pre-war failings on Iraq. “Iraq’s Arsenal Was Only on Paper,” declared a recent headline in The Washington Post. “Pressure Rises for Probe of Prewar-Intelligence,” said The Wall Street Journal. “So, What Went Wrong?” asked Time. In The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh described how the Pentagon set up its own intelligence unit, the Office of Special Plans, to sift for data to support the administration’s claims about Iraq. And on “Truth, War and Consequences,” a Frontline documentary that aired last October, a procession of intelligence analysts testified to the administration’s use of what one of them called “faith-based intelligence.”

Watching and reading all this, one is tempted to ask, where were you all before the war? Why didn’t we learn more about these deceptions and concealments in the months when the administration was pressing its case for regime change—when, in short, it might have made a difference?…

The nearer the war drew, and the more determined the administration seemed to wage it, the less editors were willing to ask tough questions.

Bill Moyers devoted a show on PBS in 2007, entitled Buying the War, to the issue:

How mainstream journalists suspended skepticism and scrutiny remains an issue of significance that the media has not satisfactorily explored. How the administration marketed the war to the American people has been well covered, but critical questions remain: How and why did the press buy it, and what does it say about the role of journalists in helping the public sort out fact from propaganda?

The heroes of Moyers’s story are editor John Walcott and reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, then of the Knight Ridder Washington bureau. Their relentlessly skeptical reporting was nearly unique in Washington – and almost entirely ignored.

In 2008, Walcott was the first person to receive the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence from the Nieman Foundation – an honor I’m proud to say I helped create.

We asked him and other astute observers – among them New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, author Tom Rosenstiel, and Massing – how to encourage the kind of courageous journalism practiced during that period by Knight Ridder.

They agreed that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2023 at 2:50 pm

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