Ten years ago yesterday, Colin Powell made the Bush administration's case for going to war against Iraq. Much of what he said about Iraq's threats to the United States was false. But the media coverage gave the opposite impression, and most of the pundits and journalists who promoted the justifications for the war paid no price for their failures.
As FAIR reported at the time, even before the Powell address there were reasons to be skeptical of the administration's claims. On February 4, 2003, FAIR published "Iraq's Hidden Weapons: From Allegation to Fact," which made the point that "it has not been demonstrated that Iraq continues to hold unconventional weapons." FAIR criticized coverage like that of the New York Times (2/2/03), which asserted that "nobody seriously expected Mr. Hussein to lead inspectors to his stash of illegal poisons or rockets, or to let his scientists tell all."
As the FAIR release concluded:
The media convey to the public the impression that the alleged banned weapons on which the Bush administration rests its case for war are known to exist, and that the question is simply whether inspectors are skillful enough to find them.
Powell's address was instrumental in pushing a faulty media line on Iraq's WMDs further. That much was clear in the coverage right after his appearance at the United Nations, as FAIR documented on February 10 in "A Failure of Skepticism in Powell Coverage."
In Andrea Mitchell's report on NBC Nightly News (2/5/03), Powell's allegations became actual capabilities of the Iraqi military: "Powell played a tape of a Mirage jet retrofitted to spray simulated anthrax, and a model of Iraq's unmanned drones, capable of spraying chemical or germ weapons within a radius of at least 550 miles."
Dan Rather, introducing an interview with Powell (60 Minutes II, 2/5/03), shifted from reporting allegations to describing allegations as facts: "Holding a vial of anthrax-like powder, Powell said Saddam might have tens of thousands of liters of anthrax. He showed how Iraqi jets could spray that anthrax and how mobile laboratories are being used to concoct new weapons." The anthrax supply is appropriately attributed as a claim by Powell, but the mobile laboratories were something that Powell "showed" to be actually operating.
Commentator William Schneider on CNN Live Today (2/6/03) dismissed the possibility that Powell could be doubted: "No one disputes the findings Powell presented at the U.N. that Iraq is essentially guilty of failing to disarm." When CNN's Paula Zahn (2/5/03) interviewed Jamie Rubin, former State Department spokesperson, she prefaced a discussion of Iraq's response to Powell's speech thusly: "You've got to understand that most Americans watching this were either probably laughing out loud or got sick to their stomach. Which was it for you?"
If you turn to FAIR's "Iraq and the Media: A Critical Timeline" (3/19/07), you see that February 6 Washington Post op-ed page had Mary McGrory writing: "I don't know how the United Nations felt about Colin Powell's 'J'accuse' speech against Saddam Hussein. I can only say that he persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince." She added that she "heard enough to know that Saddam Hussein, with his stockpiles of nerve gas and death-dealing chemicals, is more of a menace than I had thought."
And Richard Cohen (2/6/03) announced that the debate was over:
The evidence he presented to the United Nations–some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail–had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool–or possibly a Frenchman–could conclude otherwise.
Obviously, the fools and Frenchmen were correct. And as FAIR documented, independent-minded journalists were reporting that some of the administration's claims did not stand up to scrutiny. The Associated Press had a detailed look at the state of Iraq intelligence on January 18. The skepticism and good judgment of those reporters (and others) should have been the rule, not the exception, if journalists had been doing their jobs.
But most journalists did a different job. And most of them faced no consequences whatsoever for being so disastrously wrong.