US media organisations are now skewering President George W. Bush over his case for ousting Saddam Hussein, but few questioned the pro-war juggernaut in the run-up to battle.
Now, with the White House's once feared public relations machine misfiring, Bush's approval ratings plumbing their lowest depths, and US troops still dying in foreign fields, many commentators and journalists are piling on.
Iraqi woman sells newspapers in Baghdad. US media organisations are now skewering President George W. Bush over his case for ousting Saddam Hussein, but few questioned the pro-war juggernaut in the run-up to battle according to a new book by award-winning journalist Kristina Borjesson which demands an accounting from the media on its own pre-war errors(AFP/File/Ali Al-Saadi)
As the White House and suddenly bold Democratic rivals trade bilious charges over Iraq, a new book by award-winning journalist Kristina Borjesson demands an accounting from the media on its own pre-war errors.
In "Feet to the Fire, the media after 9/11", 21 reporters reflect on the Bush administration's case for the preemptive invasion of Iraq in 2003, on the grounds Saddam could offer weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.
Many of those interviewed penned questioning reports before the war, but were muffled by a drumbeat of bombastic television and newspaper coverage.
"The bottom line is that in this era of twenty-four hour cable news, there is less hard news and real information than ever on television about what is going on in this nation's arena of power and around the world," Borjesson writes.
"There is propaganda and fake news masquerading as real news courtesy of the US government," she wrote of a media establishment in which many luminaries seemed as keen to wage war as anyone in the White House.
"Feet to the Fire" features a roll-call of Washington reporters and war correspondents, including veterans Peter Arnett, Walter Pincus, and ABC News correspondent Ted Koppel.
It prompts questions over whether the US media was duped by the White House, was negligent or complicit in the rush to war, and whether senior reporters were too close to government sources.
"With few exceptions, both print and television provided very poor coverage," said independent intelligence expert and reporter James Bamford, in the book, exempting the Washington Post's Pincus and the Knight Ridder operation which feeds regional US papers.
"The problem was, these people were fighting an entrenched mind-set that was accepting the Bush administration's rationales for going to war, when they should have been doubting."
Helen Thomas, grande dame of the White House press corps, argues in the book the media was cowed by the fallout from the September 11 strikes in 2001.
"From 9/11, the American press suddenly had to be the superpatriots," she said. "The press went into a coma."
As the administration began to argue for war with Iraq, the country was still wallowing in wounded patriotism.
But that was no excuse for journalists not to ask awkward questions about the expansion of the 'war on terror' to Iraq, said John MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper's Magazine.
"It was just pathetic, it was the worst it's been since before Vietnam," Borjesson quotes him as saying.
Debate over the roots of the Iraq war has been fanned by the indictment last month of senior White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby in a CIA leak case.
Several top reporters, including former New York Times correspondent Judith Miller, stand accused of allowing themselves to be used by top officials peddling now discredited intelligence.
The Times and some other newspapers have published reviews and clarifications of their coverage, following the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Some observers believe the US press, its freedoms enshrined in the US constitution, is less inclined to challenge power than more adversarial colleagues abroad.
"Nobody wants to be isolated socially," said MacArthur, drawing a comparison between modern day Washington and the court of France's King Louis XIV.
"Everybody wants to be at Versailles. Versailles is Washington ... they want to be part of the power structure, and if taking the leak from the official source gets you credit within your news organisation ... getting close to Cheney, getting close to Rumsfeld ... if that brings you credit and gets you more promotions, it's a great way to live."
Borjesson argued in an interview with AFP that the lessons of the last few years show the media needs to change.
"Official source reporting needs to be given less emphasis, reporting from first hand sources who are lower down than official sources is the way to go."
Copyright © 2005 Agence France Presse