Funny how we can't seem to hear the truth until it's uttered by a professional liar.
Thus Scott McClellan, who was George Bush's press secretary for three years, beginning shortly after we invaded Iraq -- the very Scott McClellan who personified lock-step obedience to the cause -- has acquired sudden street cred as Someone To Listen To, as he tells us what we already know. Our society may not convene truth commissions, but it does publish tell-all books by ex-aides of the powerful, which feed us pieces of truth in the form of scandal.
McClellan has given the country a bit more (unwanted, embarrassing) self-awareness than it had a week ago, prior to the release and subsequent media splash of "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." His book raises a lot of questions, but only one that matters: Now what?
So, OK, we have the word of an insider that Bush was a delusional egomaniac, the war was a sham from the get-go, and the media fawned and gushed and enabled when they should have . . . what? "Asked tough questions" is hardly adequate as a description for what they should have done. They should (at the very least) have listened to the war's opponents, and respectfully and in exhaustive detail presented their case against the war -- correct, it turns out, on every point -- to the American public before it began. They should have exercised skepticism in their pre-war coverage, yes, but even more importantly, intelligence and courage.
In this fleeting moment, while McClellan's gift of unavoidable awareness still shimmers in the consciousness of popular culture, I want to urge that we peer into the future at the same time that we squirm with uneasiness about the recent past.
Thanks to the truth window that McClellan opened, we now know, for instance, that: "The press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings," according to Jessica Yellin, who was an MSNBC reporter in 2003.
And: There was word from above to "really squash any dissent," according to Katie Couric, a co-host of NBC's "Today" when the war began, who said, "I think it's one of the most embarrassing chapters in American journalism."
And just in case we've forgotten, Jeff Cohen, who was then senior producer of Phil Donahue's primetime show on MSNBC, reminds us that the show, the network's most-watched program, was canceled three weeks before the war started. "Trust me: Too much skepticism over war claims was a punishable offense," he wrote recently for TruthOut. "I and all other Donahue producers were repeatedly ordered by top management to book panels that favored the pro-invasion side. I watched a fellow producer get chewed out for booking a 50-50 show."
And so a C-student's fantasy war was given a free pass through the media, which formed itself with interlocking groupthink into the world's most formidable PR agency -- and the already broken nation of Iraq was bombed into civil war. A million dead. Four million displaced. Three trillion dollars wasted.
Keith Olbermann, who interviewed McClellan last week, asked the question we all should be asking: "Scott, are they doing that now about Iran?"
"I certainly hope that that is not the case," McClellan said. "But . . . I don't know."
It could happen again. War with Iran is not off the table. It could happen before the year is out, before the next president takes office. We now know, as the guilty secrets about the Iraq war trickle out, that the corporate media has a systemic flaw, a cowardly predilection for what was once called yellow journalism but should probably simply be called another form of war profiteering.
McClellan's book could have more than just titillation value if we let it, if we demand more than patriotism-themed infotainment from our news purveyors. In the perfect storm of "media-crity" that followed 9/11, the major news organizations abetted a crime against humanity.
The war on terror is in fact far more than a small president's pipedream of historic greatness. In that it is unwinnable -- with a premise no less preposterous than the eradication of evil -- it is meant to be a permanent war. This is the present situation and the present danger.
Now what? Let the media begin redeeming themselves by telling the truth about it -- by rediscovering their intelligence and courage.
Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at email@example.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
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