20 Years Later, the Stain of Corporate Media's Role in Promoting Iraq War Remains
"It should not be forgotten that this debacle of death and destruction was not only a profound error of policymaking; it was the result of a carefully executed crusade of disinformation and lies," said one prominent critic.
As the world this week mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, journalism experts weighed in on the corporate media's complicity in amplifying the Bush administration's lies, including ones about former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's nonexistent nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons upon which the war was waged.
"Twenty years ago, this country's mainstream media—with one notable exception—bought into phony Bush administration claims about Hussein's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, helping cheerlead our nation into a conflict that ended the lives of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis," Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian wrote Sunday.
That "one notable exception" was a group of journalists at the Washington, D.C. bureau of Knight Ridder—which was acquired by McClatchy in 2006—who published dozens of articles in several of the company's papers debunking and criticizing the Bush administration's dubious claims about Iraq and its WMDs. Their efforts were the subject of the 2017 Rob Reiner film Shock and Awe, starring Woody Harrelson.
"The war—along with criminally poor post-war planning on the part of Bush administration officials—also unleashed horrible sectarian strife, led to the emergence of ISIS, and displaced more than 1 million Iraqis," Abcarian noted.
That sad chapter in American history produced its share of jingoistic buzzwords and phrases: "WMD," "the axis of evil," "regime change," "yellowcake uranium," "the coalition of the willing," and a cheesy but terrifying refrain, repeated ad nauseam by Bush administration officials such as then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
"Of course," wrote Abcarian, "there was never any smoking gun, mushroom-shaped or not."
According to the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit investigative journalism organization, Bush and top administration officials—including then-Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Rice—"made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq."
Those lies were dutifully repeated by most U.S. corporate mainstream media in what the center called "part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses."
"It should not be forgotten that this debacle of death and destruction was not only a profound error of policymaking; it was the result of a carefully executed crusade of disinformation and lies," David Corn, the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for Mother Jones, asserted Monday.
Far from paying a price for amplifying the Bush administration's Iraq lies, many of the media hawks who acted more like lapdogs than watchdogs 20 years ago are today ensconced in prestigious and well-paying positions in media, public policy, and academia.
In a where-are-they-now piece for The Real News Network, media critic Adam Johnson highlighted how the careers of several media and media-related government professionals "blossomed" after their lie-laden selling of the Iraq War:
- David Frum—Bush's lead writer who coined the term "Axis of Evil" to refer to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—is "a well-paid and influential columnist for The Atlantic and a mainstay of cable TV."
- Jeffrey Goldberg, then a New Yorker reporter who pushed conspiracy theories linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11 and al-Qaeda to Iraq, is now editor-in-chief of The Atlantic.
- MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, an erstwhile Iraq War hawk, rebranded himself as a critic of the invasion and occupation, and is a multimillionaire morning show host on that same network.
- Fareed Zakaria hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN and writes a weekly column for The Washington Post.
- Anne Applebaum, a member of the Post's editorial board at the time who called evidence of Iraq's nonexistent WMDs "irrefutable," now writes for The Atlantic and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
"The almost uniform success of all the Iraq War cheerleaders provides the greatest lesson about what really helps one get ahead in public life: It's not being right, doing the right thing, or challenging power, but going with prevailing winds and mocking anyone who dares to do the opposite," wrote Johnson.
In an interview with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft—which is hosting a discussion Wednesday about the media's role in war and peace—Middle East expert Assal Rad noted:
Rather than challenging the narrative of the state, calling for evidence, or even humanizing the would-be victims of the war, the Iraqi people, reporters such as Thomas Friedman with significant platforms like The New York Times most often parroted the talking points of U.S. officials. There was little critical journalism to question the existence of WMDs and little reflection on important issues, such as the U.S. role in supporting Saddam Hussein in the 1980s against Iran, international law, or the humanity of Iraqis.
While there was some contrition from outlets including the Times as the Iraq occupation continued for years and not the "five days or five weeks or five months" promised by Rumsfeld, journalist Jon Schwarz of The Intercept noted that media lies and distortions about the war continue to this day.
"Perhaps the most telling instance of the media's acquiescence was a year after the Iraq invasion," said Rad, "when President Bush's joke at the White House Correspondents' dinner about finding no weapons of mass destruction was met with uproarious laughter from an audience of journalists."