Devastating Probe of Media in Iraq War

Category: Americas, World Affairs Topics: Journalists, William Safire Views: 2970

NEW YORK (Commentary) The most powerful indictment of the news media for falling down in its duties in the run-up to the war in Iraq will appear on Wednesday, April 25, 2007, a 90-minute PBS broadcast called "Buying the War," which marks the return of "Bill Moyers Journal." E&P was sent a preview DVD and a draft transcript for the program this week.

While much of the evidence of the media's role as cheerleaders for the war presented here is not new, it is skillfully assembled, with many fresh quotes from interviews (with the likes of Tim Russert and Walter Pincus) along with numerous embarrassing examples of past statements by journalists and pundits that proved grossly misleading or wrong. Several prominent media figures, prodded by Moyers, admit the media failed miserably, though few take personal responsibility. 

The war continues today, now in its fifth year, with the death toll for Americans and Iraqis rising again -- yet Moyers points out, "the press has yet to come to terms with its role in enabling the Bush Administration to go to war on false pretenses."

Among the few heroes of this devastating film are reporters with the Knight Ridder/McClatchy bureau in D.C. Tragically late, Walter Isaacson, who headed CNN, observes, "The people at Knight Ridder were calling the colonels and the lieutenants and the people in the CIA and finding out, you know, that the intelligence is not very good. We should've all been doing that."

At the close, Moyers mentions some of the chief proponents of the war who refused to speak to him for this program, including Thomas Friedman, Bill Kristol, Roger Ailes, Charles Krauthammer, Judith Miller, and William Safire.

But Dan Rather, the former CBS anchor, admits, "I don't think there is any excuse for, you know, my performance and the performance of the press in general in the roll up to the war...We didn't dig enough. And we shouldn't have been fooled in this way." Bob Simon, who had strong doubts about evidence for war, was asked by Moyers if he pushed any of the top brass at CBS to "dig deeper," and he replies, "No, in all honesty, with a thousand mea culpas....nope, I don't think we followed up on this." 

Instead he covered the marketing of the war in a "softer" way, explaining to Moyers: "I think we all felt from the beginning that to deal with a subject as explosive as this, we should keep it, in a way, almost light - if that doesn't seem ridiculous."

Moyers replies: "Going to war, almost light."

Walter Isaacson is pushed hard by Moyers and finally admits, "We didn't question our sources enough." But why? Isaacson notes there was "almost a patriotism police" after 9/11 and when the network showed civilian casualties it would get phone calls from advertisers and the administration and "big people in corporations were calling up and saying, 'You're being anti-American here.'" 

Moyers then mentions that Isaacson had sent a memo to staff, leaked to the Washington Post, in which he declared, "It seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan" and ordered them to balance any such images with reminders of 9/11. Moyers also asserts that editors at the Panama City (Fla.) News-Herald received an order from above, "Do not use photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties. Our sister paper has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening emails."

Walter Pincus of the Washington Post explains that even at his paper reporters "do worry about sort of getting out ahead of something." But Moyers gives credit to Charles J. Hanley of The Associated Press for trying, in vain, to draw more attention to United Nations inspectors failing to find WMD in early 2003. 

The disgraceful press reaction to Colin Powell's presentation at the United Nations seems like something out of Monty Python, with one key British report cited by Powell being nothing more than a student's thesis, downloaded from the Web -- with the student later threatening to charge U.S. officials with "plagiarism."

Phil Donahue recalls that he was told he could not feature war dissenters alone on his MSNBC talk show and always had to have "two conservatives for every liberal." Moyers resurrects a leaked NBC memo about Donahue's firing that claimed he "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."

Moyers also throws some stats around: In the year before the invasion William Safire (who predicted a "quick war" with Iraqis cheering their liberators) wrote "a total of 27 opinion pieces fanning the sparks of war." The Washington Post carried at least 140 front-page stories in that same period making the administration's case for attack. In the six months leading to the invasion the Post would "editorialize in favor of the war at least 27 times." 

Of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC and CBS nightly news in the six months before the war, almost all could be traced back to sources solely in the White House, Pentagon or State Dept., Moyers tells Russert, who offers no coherent reply. 

The program closes on a sad note, with Moyers pointing out that "so many of the advocates and apologists for the war are still flourishing in the media." He then runs a pre-war clip of President Bush declaring, "We cannot wait for the final proof: the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." Then he explains: "The man who came up with it was Michael Gerson, President Bush's top speechwriter.

"He has left the White House and has been hired by the Washington Post as a columnist."

Greg Mitchell is Editor of "". He is author of seven books on politics and history, including two for Random House, "The Campaign of the Century" and "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady." He can be reached at [email protected]

  Category: Americas, World Affairs
  Topics: Journalists, William Safire
Views: 2970

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Older Comments:
M. Sullivan,

I've heard that BC is very nice. I spent an afternoon in Vancouver once, and really liked it there. I totally understand your move and am in now way critical of it. But I can't let these fascists have their dark victory. I will stay and defend our freedoms and remain a critical voice of the current administration. If we don't speak out openly against the war, or in defense of Palestine and Lebanon, what will happen? More oppression and more death, to be sure.


This is the result of us and them mentality. People sticking together becasue of their race/religious. The media has capitlaised on that since the same media is owned by the very industrialists who decide who can and who can not be a leader in the US govt. The people are sleep and fed enough tv dopomine garbage to numb their senses and feel the phoney glory of belonging to the same race/religion. Patriotism gone mad. Whereas the only Truth is that we are all ONE. There is no us/them but only us and that culminates in the ONE soul that God created and from that each of us spawned. If we do not see ourself in another person then we have fallen short of The Creator's reason for this Creation. How long must we remain asleep?

Peter, that's why I moved with my family this year to British Columbia, Canada. I feel this administration of apes will rule this country for a while along with their right wing Evangelist loons and their creepy Zionist supporters. What makes it all worse is that the good in the US are a very few. Most Americans are plain stupid and frankly prefer to stay in a state of blissful ignorance. I say dump the US and join us in BC.

This is the spirit of real America,which I love. we want to see 'the power of its example, and not the example of its power'. How middle class America is fooled by a bunch of Neo-cons? gandhi

I would like to say, as an American, I feel you are all very right in your perceptions and criticisms of the average US citizen both in regards to the Iraq war and their relationship to the media. People here assume that because we have freedom of the press, this somehow insulates us from propaganda or enures accuracy in reporting. Few realize that "the news" has become just another business that, like any business, is interested in making money-and this is done not by accuracy or fairness, but by catering to whatever sort of reporting will get ratings and hence, sponsorship dollars. I think that Fox News underscores this point very well. People are told what they want to hear and cheer the damn war like a football game, never mind that 600,000 people are dead (20% of whom are children) and 2 million displaced, facts that most Americans would be horrified to hear or know (that is, if they bothered to listen and believed the facts as opposed to political rhetoric).

What is really ironic is that while we are supposedly 'defending our freedoms' (whatever that means) people who attempt to exercise them-like freedom of speech-are attacked and called unpatriotic.


The media only does what it does best - dictate to empty minds. The greater the level of ignorance, the more effective the government's disinformation campaign. Americans see things only as black or white. They go to church on Sunday, handing over their social security cheques and emptying their wallets to sobbing and wailing Evangelists, who claim a direct connection to God and miracle cures, never mind the money goes to buy glorious mansions, feeds their cocaine habits, buys them diamond studded gold jewelry and pays for prostitutes, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Ted Haggard to name a few. The rest of the week is spent chasing their own tails in an unending effort to pay off their massive debts. Finally come Friday they collapse in some bar to try and forget reality as it steadily eats at them like cancer. Saturday is spent recovering from the previous night's alcohol binge, and Sunday, its back to the church again. Physically and mentally they are numb and drained. Is it any wonder the US media backed by Israel, fills this empty vessel that could have been called a 'mind', with any thing they desire, lies, distortions, hate, prejudice, fear and even more ignorance?

I do truly believe that the core of the problem lies in the complete and total ignorance of the average American about just any thing under the sun that is worth knowing. Blank and vapid is the terribly sad state of the American mind- a fact upon which the US government, Israel and the US media gleefully capitalize and perpetuate with the rubbish news they disseminate. To illustrate how negligible the American mind has become just view this short documentary:

As much as I appreciate Moyer's candid treatment of the news, the facts remain that the whole world already knows the following:

1. Bush, Blair and John Howard lied to their people to encourage public support for an unjustified war or aggression against Iraq, which was really all about securing Israel, grabbing Muslim land and their oil.
2. There were no WMDS in Iraq.
3. The only massacre of Kurds or Iranians by Saddam involved Saddm's use of US supplied WMDs.
4. There was no Al-Quieda link with Saddam or Iraq.
5. There were no WMDs purchased from Niger.
6. There wasn't even any entity called Al-Quieda before 9-11. It was made up by the US to justify their oil and land grab.
7. The Bush, Cheny, Powell, Rice, Wolfowitz, Pearl and Rumsfield cabal got away with mass murder of Muslims in Afghnaistan and Iraq and are busy slaughtering Muslims in Africa.

So we know all that. About time Muslims boycotted any company with any links to Israel, the US or the UK. Time for Muslims to become independent - for once.

I like Moyers, but having seen PBS's penchant to portray only the Judeo-Christian side in the recent series, and Muslims as troublemaking recalcitrants or at best as peons, I don't think I can stomach more PBS garbage - least from an "Independent" channel. What rot. Maybe Moyers can work for a real independent media outlet unhampered by Jewish and Right-Wing Christian Neocon nutters - how about Al-Jazeera?

It has taken 5 years for some Americans to realise what the rest of the world knew from the start, that Iraq war was a war of choice based on lies and fabrications. If the most "free" people in the world can be so easily misled, what hope is there for the rest of us!!