Of all the unhappy trends I have witnessed--conservative swings on television networks, dwindling newspaper circulation, the jailing of reporters and "spin"--nothing is more troubling to me than the obsequious press during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. They lapped up everything the Pentagon and White House could dish out--no questions asked.
Reporters and editors like to think of themselves as watchdogs for the public good. But in recent years both individual reporters and their ever-growing corporate ownership have defaulted on that role. Ted Stannard, an academic and former UPI correspondent, put it this way: "When watchdogs, bird dogs, and bull dogs morph into lap dogs, lazy dogs, or yellow dogs, the nation is in trouble."
The naïve complicity of the press and the government was never more pronounced than in the prelude to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The media became an echo chamber for White House pronouncements. One example: At President Bush's March 6, 2003, news conference, in which he made it eminently clear that the United States was going to war, one reporter pleased the "born again" Bush when she asked him if he prayed about going to war. And so it went.
After all, two of the nation's most prestigious newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, had kept up a drumbeat for war with Iraq to bring down dictator Saddam Hussein. They accepted almost unquestioningly the bogus evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the dubious White House rationale that proved to be so costly on a human scale, not to mention a drain on the Treasury. The Post was much more hawkish than the Times--running many editorials pumping up the need to wage war against the Iraqi dictator--but both newspapers played into the hands of the Administration.
When Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his ninety-minute "boffo" statement on Saddam's lethal toxic arsenal on February 5, 2003, before the United Nations, the Times said he left "little question that Mr. Hussein had tried hard to conceal" a so-called smoking gun or weapons of mass destruction. After two US special weapons inspection task forces, headed by chief weapons inspector David Kay and later by Charles Duelfer, came up empty in the scouring of Iraq for WMD, did you hear any apologies from the Bush Administration? Of course not. It simply changed its rationale for the war--several times. Nor did the media say much about the failed weapons search. Several newspapers made it a front-page story but only gave it one-day coverage. As for Powell, he simply lost his halo. The newspapers played his back-pedaling inconspicuously on the back pages.
My concern is why the nation's media were so gullible. Did they really think it was all going to be so easy, a "cakewalk," a superpower invading a Third World country? Why did the Washington press corps forgo its traditional skepticism? Why did reporters become cheerleaders for a deceptive Administration? Could it be that no one wanted to stand alone outside Washington's pack journalism?
Tribune Media Services editor Robert Koehler summed it up best. In his August 20, 2004, column in the San Francisco Chronicle Koehler wrote, "Our print media pacesetters, the New York Times, and just the other day, the Washington Post, have searched their souls over the misleading pre-war coverage they foisted on the nation last year, and blurted out qualified Reaganesque mea culpas: 'Mistakes were made.'"
All the blame cannot be laid at the doorstep of the print media. CNN's war correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, was critical of her own network for not asking enough questions about WMD. She attributed it to the competition for ratings with Fox, which had an inside track to top Administration officials.
Despite the apologies of the mainstream press for not having vigilantly questioned evidence of WMD and links to terrorists in the early stages of the war, the newspapers dropped the ball again by ignoring for days a damaging report in the London Times on May 1, 2005. That report revealed the so-called Downing Street memo, the minutes of a high-powered confidential meeting that British Prime Minister Tony Blair held with his top advisers on Bush's forthcoming plans to attack Iraq. At the secret session Richard Dearlove, former head of British intelligence, told Blair that Bush "wanted to remove Saddam Hussein through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
The Downing Street memo was a bombshell when discussed by the bloggers, but the mainstream print media ignored it until it became too embarrassing to suppress any longer. The Post discounted the memo as old news and pointed to reports it had many months before on the buildup to the war. Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Michael Kinsley decided that the classified minutes of the Blair meeting were not a "smoking gun." The New York Times touched on the memo in a dispatch during the last days leading up to the British elections, but put it in the tenth paragraph.
All this took me back to the days immediately following the unraveling of the Watergate scandal. The White House press corps realized it had fallen asleep at the switch--not that all the investigative reporting could have been done by those on the so-called "body watch," which travels everywhere with the President and has no time to dig for facts. But looking back, they knew they had missed many clues on the Watergate scandal and were determined to become much more skeptical of what was being dished out to them at the daily briefings. And, indeed, they were. The White House press room became a lion's den.
By contrast, after the White House lost its credibility in rationalizing the pre-emptive assault on Iraq, the correspondents began to come out of their coma, yet they were still too timid to challenge Administration officials, who were trying to put a good face on a bad situation.
I recall one exchange of mine with press secretary Scott McClellan last May that illustrates the difference, and what I mean by the skeptical reporting during Watergate.
Helen: The other day, in fact this week, you [McClellan] said that we, the United States, are in Afghanistan and Iraq by invitation. Would you like to correct that incredible distortion of American history?
Scott: No. We are...that's where we are currently.
Helen: In view of your credibility, which is already mired...how can you say that?
Scott: Helen, I think everyone in this room knows that you're taking that comment out of context. There are two democratically elected governments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Helen: Were we invited into Iraq?
Scott: There are democratically elected governments now in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are there at their invitation. They are sovereign governments, but we are there today.
Helen: You mean, if they asked us out, that we would have left?
Scott: No, Helen, I'm talking about today. We are there at their invitation. They are sovereign governments.
Helen: I'm talking about today, too.
Scott: We are doing all we can to train and equip their security forces so that they can provide their own security as they move forward on a free and democratic future.
Helen: Did we invade those countries?
At that point McClellan called on another reporter.
Those were the days when I longed for ABC-TV's great Sam Donaldson to back up my questions as he always did, and I did the same for him and other daring reporters. Then I realized that the old pros, reporters whom I had known in the past, many of them around during World War II and later the Vietnam War, reporters who had some historical perspective on government deception and folly, were not around anymore.
I honestly believe that if reporters had put the spotlight on the flaws in the Bush Administration's war policies, they could have saved the country the heartache and the losses of American and Iraqi lives.
It is past time for reporters to forget the party line, ask the tough questions and let the chips fall where they may.