What was the role of the American media in ''manufacturing consent'' among the American people for the war in Iraq and its aftermath?
Jingoistic journalism has helped bring about more than one war. The most notorious example is the Spanish-American war of 1898, in which the yellow journalism of the time played a key role by whipping up anti-Spanish sentiment among the populace.
Is there a parallel in Iraq? Did the media cross the line beyond reporting into assisting or cheerleading the war effort? Did even the ''nation's newspaper of record,'' The New York Times, help Washington's hawks make a case for the war by lending excessive credibility to the official story regarding weapons of mass destruction? And, if that bastion of alleged liberal media bias succumbed to the enormous power of government manipulation, what can be said for lesser media?
The question arose anew last week with the case of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who specializes in the Middle East, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. As reported in The Washington Post by Howard Kurtz and by other media, Miller's relations not only with the military unit to which she was assigned but also with civilian hawks in the Pentagon and in hard-line Washington think tanks gives a new definition to the term ``embedded.''
In the run-up to the war, Miller helpfully passed along information leaked anonymously by U.S. government officials and Iraqi exiles implying the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi government's intention to use them. On Nov. 12, in a Times front-page story, Miller wrote that ``senior Bush administration officials report Iraq has ordered large quantities of a drug used to counter effects of nerve gas . . . and suggest Iraq may be taking steps to protect its own soldiers in the event it uses nerve agents.''
The nerve gas never materialized. Suffering enormous carnage, defeated on every front, the Iraqi army somehow never got around to using weapons of mass destruction. Or, more likely, they didn't have them, and that's why they haven't been found two months after victory was declared. No matter: The information battle to justify the war was won with a helping hand from the ''liberal'' media.
After the war, The Washington Post published an internal May 1 Times e-mail in which Miller stated that exiled Iraqi leader Ahmad Chalabi ''provided most of the front-page exclusives on WMD to our paper.'' That's amazing, given that Chalabi, a darling of Washington hard-liners, had a vested interest in selling the idea of a dire Iraqi threat as a way of riding into power on the backs of American soldiers. Chalabi's credibility is suspect as well because of his exaggerated claims about his own popularity in Iraq.
Judging by the reliability of her sources, it's not surprising that Miller's sensational post-war stories (U.S. analysts link Iraq labs to germ arms; U.S. experts find radioactive material in Iraq; U.S.-led forces occupy Baghdad complex filled with chemical agents) later turned out to be groundless. (Is it any wonder one-third of Americans believe weapons of mass destruction have been found?)
No weapons, no problem, a convenient explanation for their nonexistence can be found, and Miller once again is the ideal conduit. On April 21, Miller reported in The Times that an Iraqi scientist had asserted Iraq only destroyed its weapons of mass destruction on the eve of war. But Miller's story was based on what officials told her the Iraqi scientist said; she was not allowed to interview him. Meanwhile, Newsweek was reporting that, despite tough interrogation, numerous Iraqi scientists were all saying the weapons had been destroyed many years earlier.
In the case of Jayson Blair, the reporter who faked dozens of stories, Times editors waited far too long. Now they are defending Judith Miller, whose reporting on Iraq seems to be ''all the news that fits the official story.'' Have they learned nothing?
Copyright 2003 Knight Ridder