Buying the War
Buying the War (PBS Bill Moyers Journal, April 25, 2007)
This is the story of how the press bought the
story that the Bush administration was selling.
This special Bill Moyers Journal is a devastating critique of how and why the major American media and pundits were complicit in the George W. Bush administration’s no-hold-barred blitz to sell an Iraqi war to the American public. That the White House engages in audacious spin is nothing new. On Watergate, The Washington Post’s investigative reporting by the Woodward/Bernstein team was, for months, ignored by the major media and was vehemently refuted by the White House. Earlier, the Johnson White House’s ‘spin’ on Vietnam bamboozled much of the media for several years.
As one interviewee stated, “Each administration markets its programs. This administration took it to greater heights.” Mr. Moyers, in a staccato series of interviews and news clips, seeks to determine why the major media so frequently accepted administration statements at face value rather than subjecting them to investigative reporting scrutiny.
In recording this constant failure of professional, independent reporting, Mr. Moyers utilizes a Greek chorus of the Knight Ridder reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, whose investigative reporting on pre-Iraq-invasion-events deserve a Pulitzer Prize. 60 Minutes’ Bob Simon, a seasoned CBS reporter who aired some TV segments that questioned the cacophony of White House statements on WMDs and Saddam links with 9/11 and Al Qaeda, also provides a credible commentary on these pre-invasion events. Otherwise, this program is a stinging indictment of the Fourth Estate’s failure to conduct itself professionally.
Dan Rather, the former anchor of CBS Evening News, spoke more frankly than many other interviewees (Judith Miller, William Safire, and Tom Friedman of The New York Times were among those journalists who declined an invitation to appear on Mr. Moyer’s program):
- After 9/11 I, and almost all Americans, were willing to “line up with the president” in the war against terror;
- Questioning the president on Iraq would be interpreted as an “anti-American” bias, and “every journalist knew it;”
- When Bush made his case on Iraq to Congress, “Who am I to say this is all a Machiavellian scheme?”
- There was “fear” if “you didn’t go along to get along.” Many “networks are huge international conglomerates…with key needs in Washington….If you stick your neck out, will anyone back you up?”
- “I don’t know if there is an excuse for the role of the press leading up to the Iraq invasion.”
Still, it severely disappointing, given the Knight Ridder Woodward-Bernstein-style investigative scrutiny of the Bush administration’s Iraq pronouncements, that the rest of the mainstream media did not question the administration’s unequivocal declarations. In retrospect, Bob Woodward’s Bush at War (2002), which was laudatory of Bush’s “war on terror” initiatives, is a blotch on Woodward’s investigative credentials.
On Iraq, the White House and DOD were ‘on message’ from the outset. Their mantra was:
- Iraq was part of the “war on terror;”
- Saddam was a direct threat to the American people; and
- Saddam was linked to Al Qaeda and to 9/11
Vice President Richard Cheney played a pivotal role in quarterbacking this information blitz. [See Frontline’s The Dark Secret (2006) for detailed information on Cheney’s public and behind-the-scenes roles]. Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and National Secretary Council Advisor Condi Rice appeared on Sunday talk shows to market their message. Early on neocon favorite Ahmed Chalabi (an Iraqi exile who had long enjoyed CIA and other U. S. government financing) was a regular media source. Chalabi also provided a bevy of Iraqi defectors who told incredible tales of Saddam’s WMD and other nefarious activities on TV and in exclusive interviews with the New York Times, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere.
Pro-Bush pundits such as Bill Kristol and William Safire were regular ‘talking heads.’ Moreover, ready access was given to journalists who accepted these scoops unquestioningly. On rare occasion, Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose personal credibility exceeded that of his colleagues, was pushed to the podium. His tour de force was his ‘smoking gun’ UN presentation on February 5, 2003. CBS, NBC, and ABC evening news accepted Powell’s statements as totally credible. The next morning the New York Times and The Washington Post gave Powell similar accolades. Today Powell describes this speech the greatest personal embarrassment in his entire career.
The mainstream media seldom challenged this Bush administration ‘war with Iraq’ marketing juggernaut. Almost all of the 414 Iraq stories on CBS, NBC, and ABC news could be traced back to Bush administration sources. About 140 The Washington Post front-page, Iraq-related stories quoted administration officials. Contrary interpretations seldom received prominent placement “because they weren’t definitive.”
Long after the purported Iraq-Al Qaeda meeting in Prague was disproved, the Bush administration continued to state it as fact. This was seldom challenged by the media. Years later polls indicate that a majority of Americans still believe that this ‘connection’ existed.
Pulitzer-Prize-winning Charles Hanley, then writing for AP, states that his editors would remove his “no evidence of WMD” statements, because this wasn’t a “fact.” Phil Donahue, then hosting Donahue on MSNBC, described the difficulties in inviting critics of the Iraqi war campaign on his show. He says that he was “instructed” that he couldn’t have a person skeptical of the Iraqi war build up without including two conservatives as a “balance.” On September 27, 2002 Senator Ted Kennedy, in a Senate speech, declared that there was no persuasive evidence that Iraq had nuclear weapons and that a U. S. invasion without UN and other major support would swell Al Qaeda. This merited a single sentence in The Washington Post.
In hindsight, it is clear that the Bush administration repeatedly lied about its ‘evidence’ regarding Saddam Hussein and the on-the-ground situation in Iraq. Mr. Moyers pressed to understand how the mainstream media had so consistently ignored indications of this during the nearly two years before the Iraqi invasion. This is some of what he heard from his interviewees:
- “Any misstep and the ‘patriotic police’ will get you;”
- “Every one knew you didn’t get too critical of the administration.” You would hear from the administration and advertisers that you were being “unpatriotic.”
- “Washington could ignore Knight Ridder because it was ‘under the radar’;"
- “The general belief was that Saddam had WMDs;”
- “It was unfashionable and risky to oppose the build up to war;”
- “It was much cheaper to hire pundits and thumb suckers than to have news bureaus on the ground;” and
- Relying on “experts” is “journalism on the cheap.”
Almost none of the newsmen interviewed by Mr. Moyers apologized for their shoddy journalism that contributed to the Iraq invasion and its aftermath. These same individuals are today reporting the news to the American public. The Buying the War video and related documentation can be accessed at www.pbs.org.