As we approach the tenth anniversary of the US attack on Iraq on Tuesday we may face more media coverage of that tragic conflict that we’ve seen in the past two or three years combined. How much of it will focus on the media misconduct that helped make the war possible (and then continue for so long)? We will see, and I’ll be charting it all here.
For now, let’s relive some of the good, the bad and the ugly in war coverage from this date in 2003 to the invasion through the five years of controversy that followed. In updating the new edition (and first e-book version) of my book, published this month, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits—and the President—Failed on Iraq, I was continually surprised to come across once-prominent names, quotes and incidents that had faded, even for me. Here is a list of sixteen of those nearly forgotten episodes, in roughly chronological order. And this doesn’t even include the fawning over Bush’s aircraft carrier landing and “Mission Accomplished” speech.
1) In late March 2003, the day before the US invasion, Bill O’Reilly said, “If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it’s clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation; I will not trust the Bush administration again, all right?”
2) After the fall of Baghdad in April, Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC, said, “I’m waiting to hear the words ‘I was wrong’ from some of the world’s most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood types.”
3) The same day, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews declared, “We’re all neocons now.”
4) Thomas Friedman, who had called this a “legitimate war of choice,” now wrote at The New York Times, “As far as I am concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war…. Mr. Bush doesn’t owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons.”
5) Phil Donahue suddenly lost his show at MSNBC, he later claimed, because he did not wave the flag enough. A leaked NBC memo confirmed Donahue’s suspicion, noting that the host “presents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war…. At the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
6) President Bush’s “comedy” routine during the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner on March 24, 2004—nearly one year into the war—included a bit about the still-missing WMD. While a slide show of the president searching the White House was projected on the wall behind him, he joked, “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere…. Nope, no weapons over there… Maybe under here?” Most of the crowd roared, and there was little criticism in the media in following days. David Corn, then Washington editor of The Nation, was one of the few attendees to criticize the routine. Corn wondered if they would have laughed if Ronald Reagan had, following the truck bombing of our Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241, said at a similar dinner, “Guess we forgot to put in a stoplight.”
7) When The New York Times carried its belated editors’ note on May 26, 2004, admitting some errors in its WMD coverage, it appeared on page A10 and Judith Miller’s name was nowhere to be found. The note is often described today as an “apology,” but it was no such thing. On the day it ran, Executive Editor Bill Keller (who once called himself a “liberal hawk” on Iraq) termed criticism of the Times’s coverage “overwrought” and said that the main reason it even published the note was because the controversy had become a “distraction."
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8) The first mainstream editor/columnist to call for a US pullout was the unlikely Allen H. Neuharth, founder of USA Today, who is certainly not known for expressing antiwar or liberal views. His May 2004 column drew wide reader protest but “the old fighting infantryman” (as the former soldier billed himself) stuck to his guns and penned a few more columns in that vein in the years that followed.
9) It’s often said that The Washington Post issued an apology for its coverage of the ramp-up to the war. But the criticism of its prewar coverage came not in an editors’ statement but in an article by the paper’s media critic, Howard Kurtz. Post editors offered several defenses for the coverage, and top editor Len Downie argued that it didn’t make much difference anyway, because tougher coverage would not have stopped the war.
10) Stephen Colbert’s riotous routine at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April 2006 is remembered for the in-his-face mockery of President Bush—but he also spanked the press, perhaps one reason his mainstream reviews were mixed at best. Addressing the correspondents directly, Colbert said, “Let’s review the rules. The president makes decisions; he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell-check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know—fiction.”
11) Fox News’s John Gibson ripped Neil Young after the rocker released his excellent protest album Living With War. Gibson demanded that Young go see the new United 93 movie and even offered to buy his ticket. Young, it was soon pointed out, had actually written one of the first 9/11 songs,”Let’s Roll,” about, you guessed it, Flight 93.
12) Surprise: David Brooks, Thomas Friedman and Oliver North all came out against the “surge” in 2007 after it was announced by President Bush. George Will wrote a column titled, “Surge, or Power Failure?” And, after the botched hanging of Saddam, Charles Krauthammer declared, “We should not be surging American troops in defense of such a government.”
13) On March 27, 2007, John McCain, referring to the supposed calm settling on Baghdad, said, “General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in an unarmed Humvee.” This turned out to be pure bunk, but McCain quickly visited Iraq to try to prove his overall point. There, the Arizona senator went from the ridiculous to the maligned, touring a Baghdad market and claiming all was safe—while troops surrounded him and helicopters twirled overhead. Representative Mike Pence (R-IN) likened the scene to “a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.”
14) When Valerie Plame Wilson finally testified before Congress in March 2007, much of the media coverage focused on her appearance. Mary Ann Akers wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled “Hearing Room Chic,” noting that Plame wore “a fetching jacket and pants” and should be played by Katie Holmes in the movie version of her story because they both favor Armani.
15) The New York Times, which had editorialized against the invasion, did not call for a change in course or the beginning of a withdrawal from Iraq until July 8, 2007.
16) On Meet the Press in July 2007, David Brooks declared that 10,000 Iraqis a month would perish if the United States pulled out. Bob Woodward, also on the show, challenged him on this, asking for his source. Brooks admitted, “I just picked that 10,000 out of the air.”