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The Media's Waterloo

Iraq War coverage has destroyed the image of the press as the institution that brought you Watergate.
 
 
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For more than three decades, the U.S. news media has been living off -- or living down, depending on your perspective -- its Watergate-era reputation of helping to unseat a power-abusing president and exposing a raft of other political scandals.

But the U.S. media's debacle over Iraq -- failing to seriously question George W. Bush's case for invasion and often acting as pro-war cheerleaders as the casualty lists lengthened -- has dealt a death blow to that 30-year-old mythology. The bloody spectacle of Iraq has become the Waterloo of Washington's "Watergate press corps," its crushing defeat.

Even the nation's preeminent news outlets, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, were sucked into the fiasco, shattering the trust that many Americans had placed in their "free press" as a vital check and balance on executive power.

By contrast, many poorly funded websites did a much better job of standing up to the political pressures, showing skepticism and getting the story right.

The third anniversary of Bush's Iraq invasion stands as a marker, too, for the slide of the U.S. news media's big-name talking heads into the status of laughingstock, even if they're too vain to know that the derision's about them.

Imperial power

Over the past three years, as the Bush administration has unveiled the United States as an imperial power that plays by its own rules, it has dawned on more and more Americans that the old institutions -- the Congress, the courts and the press -- that were supposed to protect the republic had long since crumbled into decay.

Yet, because of the lingering Watergate myth, many Americans were most shocked to find that the scrappy, idealistic Washington press corps had evolved into a careerist, courtier news media. Even well-informed Americans were perplexed over how the press had become almost the opposite of its press clippings.

After all, in the 1970s, American reporters became heroes to many for exposing Richard Nixon's crimes and revealing other abuses, such as the Pentagon's Vietnam War lies and CIA spying on U.S. citizens. Conversely, the reporters were hated by Nixon's loyalists, who called them the "liberal media."

Though these extremes of Watergate images -- of heroes or villains -- never captured the precise picture, they did serve real political and professional needs. The news media relished its elevated heroic status, while the detractors built a cottage industry around the goal of neutralizing the "liberal media."

In truth, however, reporters always operated within tight parameters set by their publishers and news executives, most of whom could be counted as wealthy members of the establishment. Journalists rarely wandered too far afield out of fear of losing a job or a promotion.

But the Vietnam War and Nixon's Watergate excesses shattered the national political consensus, creating a brief period of competing power centers and relative openness. The divisions within the establishment, in effect, gave the reporters space to obtain information and publish stories that previously would have been kept secret.

By the 1980s, however, that moment had passed. A new framework was put in place to constrain press independence. (For details, see Robert Parry's " Secrecy & Privilege.")

Still, right-wing press "watchdogs" and an expanding conservative media hammered away at perceived "liberal bias," and mainstream reporters learned that the biggest threat to their careers was to be stuck with the "liberal" label.

Terror attacks

The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks made dissent and skepticism even riskier. Journalists, politicians and even citizens who questioned Bush and his emerging "preemptive war" policies were denounced as unpatriotic and unhinged.

As a result, the media's pro-Bush pandering reached new heights. For instance, on Dec. 23, 2001, NBC's Tim Russert joined New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and first lady Laura Bush in musing about whether divine intervention had put Bush in the White House to handle the Sept. 11 crisis.

Russert asked Mrs. Bush if "in an extraordinary way, this is why he was elected." Mrs. Bush objected to Russert's suggestion that "God picks the president, which he doesn't."

Giuliani thought otherwise. "I do think, Mrs. Bush, that there was some divine guidance in the president being elected. I do," the mayor said. McCarrick also saw some larger purpose, saying: "I think I don't thoroughly agree with the first lady. I think that the president, really, he was where he was when we needed him."

In this climate of fear and fawning, U.S. journalists knew intuitively that to question Bush's leadership could be fatal to one's career. News organizations and individual journalists concluded that their corporate and personal financial interests were best served by waving the red, white and blue, instead of raising red warning flags.

As the Iraq War hysteria built in 2002, the New York Times published false stories about Iraq's building a nuclear bomb. The Washington Post 's opinion pages virtually excluded skeptical commentary and its own editorials cited Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction as a fact, not a point in dispute.

The U.S. news media's "group think" reached its zenith on Feb. 6, 2003, the day after Secretary of State Colin Powell detailed the supposed U.S. evidence of Iraqi WMD before the United Nations Security Council.

The Washington Post 's editorial pages stood as a solid phalanx behind Powell's presentation. The newspaper's editorial board judged Powell's WMD case "irrefutable" and added: "It is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction."

That opinion was echoed across the Post's op-ed page.

"The evidence he (Powell) 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," wrote Post columnist Richard Cohen. "Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise."

Post columnist Jim Hoagland demanded the surrender of any Bush-doubting holdouts: "To continue to say that the Bush administration has not made its case, you must now believe that Colin Powell lied in the most serious statement he will ever make, or was taken in by manufactured evidence. I don't believe that. Today, neither should you."

Not that there were many skeptical voices in the U.S. media still needing silencing.

Invading Iraq

Competing with Fox News to "brand" its news product as super-patriotic, MSNBC fired host Phil Donahue because he allowed some war opponents on his show. Also, reflecting its new direction, MSNBC gave daylong coverage to a diner that renamed "French fries" as "Freedom fries."

After Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, U.S. news outlets dropped even the pretense of objectivity. TV anchors opined about what strategies "we" should follow in prosecuting the Iraq War.

"One of the things that we don't want to do is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in a few days we're going to own that country," NBC's Tom Brokaw explained as he sat among a panel of retired generals on the opening night of "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

Electronically waving the flag, Fox and MSNBC superimposed Old Glory on scenes from Iraq. The networks also broadcast Madison Avenue-style montages of heroic American soldiers at war, amid thankful Iraqis and stirring background music.

Fox described the Iraqi militia fighters as "Saddam's goons" and adopted Bush's preferred phrasing for "suicide bombings" as "homicide bombings." While denouncing Iraqi TV for showing pictures of U.S. POWs, Fox and other U.S. news outlets showed footage of Iraqi POWs being paraded before U.S. cameras.

CNN wasn't far behind in the superpatriotism sweepstakes, adopting the U.S. code name "Operation Iraqi Freedom" for its coverage, even as televised scenes showed captured Iraqis handcuffed and kneeling before U.S. soldiers.

Post-conquest rhetoric

After U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad three weeks into the conflict, pro-war pundits grew even more intolerant of dissent.

Fox News anchor Brit Hume chastised journalists who had doubted the ease with which the Iraq war would be won. "They didn't get it just a little wrong," Hume said. "They got it completely wrong."

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas demanded that the words of the doubters be archived so they would be permanently discredited. "When these false prophets again appear, they can be reminded of the error of their previous ways and at least be offered an opportunity to recant and repent," Thomas wrote.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer declared that "the only people who think this wasn't a victory are Upper Westside liberals and a few people here in Washington."

MSNBC's Joe Scarborough singled out former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who had doubted the existence of Iraqi WMD, as the "chief stooge for Saddam Hussein" and demanded that Ritter and other skeptics apologize.

"I'm waiting to hear the words 'I was wrong' from some of the world's most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood types," Scarborough said. "Maybe disgraced commentators and politicians alike, like Daschle, Jimmy Carter, Dennis Kucinich and all those others, will step forward tonight and show the content of their character by simply admitting what we know already: that their wartime predictions were arrogant, they were misguided and they were dead wrong."

"We're all neocons now," chimed in MSNBC's Chris Matthews.

"The Tommy Franks-Don Rumsfeld battle plan, war plan, worked brilliantly, a three-week war with mercifully few American deaths or Iraqi civilian deaths," said Fox News commentator Morton Kondracke. "All the naysayers have been humiliated so far. … The final word on this is hooray."

CNN's Lou Dobbs said, "Some journalists, in my judgment, just can't stand success, especially a few liberal columnists and newspapers and a few Arab reporters."

A couple of weeks after Baghdad's fall, the George W. Bush cult literally took flight when Bush donned pilot gear and landed on a U.S. aircraft carrier off the California coast. On May 1, 2003, he appeared under a "Mission Accomplished" banner and declared the end of major combat.

Much of the U.S. news media rhetorically swooned at Bush's feet.

"We're proud of our president," Chris Matthews said. "Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical. … Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president."

"Picture perfect," said PBS's Gwen Ifill. "Part Spider-Man, part Tom Cruise, part Ronald Reagan. The president seized the moment on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific."

"If image is everything, how can the Democratic presidential hopefuls compete with a president fresh from a war victory," said CNN's Judy Woodruff.

(For a contrary view at the time, see Consortiumnews.com's " America's Matrix." Some pundit quotes above were compiled by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Also, see Norman Solomon's " War-Loving Pundits," March 16, 2006)

Insurgent war

Only after the promised discovery of WMD caches didn't occur -- and a bloody insurgency did -- did the U.S. news media temper its enthusiasm.

The New York Times and the Washington Post recanted some of their false reporting and the major newspapers finally began writing more skeptical articles, including revelations about torture policies and warrantless wiretapping of Americans.

Yet, even as the death toll of American soldiers exceeds 2,300 and the number of Iraqi dead soars into the tens of thousands, it can't be said that the career calculations made by most journalists three years ago -- to hop on the Bush bandwagon -- didn't work out well for most of the leading pro-war pundits.

Indeed, except for New York Times correspondent Judith Miller (who resigned amid a controversy over her coziness with administration sources) and Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly (who died in a vehicle accident in Iraq), the roster of leading American pundits remains almost unchanged.

Their new "take" on the war is that Bush and his high command deserve credit for orchestrating a brilliant military campaign on behalf of a noble cause but that mistakes were made in not having better WMD intelligence, in not committing more troops and in not implementing a better occupation plan.

As recently as last year, many of the top pundits hailed Bush as " visionary" for supposedly infusing the Middle East with democracy.

Bush got credit for the Iraqi voter turnout, even though it was driven by the Shiite grab for political dominance; for the anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, over which he had almost no influence; and for some regional elections, like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that were shams.

It was not until Islamic militants in Hamas won electoral control of the Palestinian Authority that the U.S. press corps noticed the flaws in Bush's "democracy" justification for the Iraq war, which had surfaced after the WMD stockpiles didn't.

But the bottom line for high-paid Washington journalists is that pandering to Bush still makes great career sense.

Not only is it easier to take the propaganda handouts from the Bush administration -- than to go digging out stories that rely on some terrified whistleblowers -- but there is almost no downside to the propaganda stories even when they turn out to be wrong. You can just say you were writing the same thing everyone else was.

For American democracy, the only lasting answer to this media crisis will be to build independent press outlets staffed by honest journalists who put truth ahead of career advancement.

But without doubt, one of the uncounted casualties of the Iraq war is the death of the Watergate myth, the notion that Washington journalists are heroes fighting for the public's right to know and protecting the U.S. Constitution.