Colin Powell’s latest book, clumsily titled, It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership, confesses to “one of my momentous failures.” The failure: his Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the United Nations urging war against Iraq. That speech, he belatedly admits, was heavily larded with falsehoods.
Public opinion was divided about the advisability of war against Iraq before Powell spoke. Opinion veered sharply in favor of war after his speech. In a real sense, Powell talked the country into the Iraq war.
If Powell misled the American people into war, as he assuredly did, so then did the press. Here are a few representative samples of editorial comment on Powell’s infamous speech: “Powell’s evidence…was overwhelming…” “an ironclad case…incontrovertible evidence,” succinct and damning evidence…the case is closed” “Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein,” “masterful.” “if there was any doubt that Hussein…needs to be…stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest.”
The press did more than simply report and amplify Powell’s address. It authenticated it. In a way, the press did as much or more to get the country into an unnecessary war than did Powell.
The press as an institution has yet to confess its guilt for the Iraq War. Here and there a few mea culpas have been heard, but no major journalism organization has called the press to account for its conduct.
It is not too late. The release of Powell’s book, with its confession of error, ought to prompt the press to follow suit. Every paper that editorialized favorably on Powell’s speech ought to reprint the editorial with apologies for the publication’s gullibility and lapse of judgment. Editorial page editors also should frame the editorial and hang it prominently in their departments to remind staffers of how mistaken they can be.
The press’s failure was as massive as it was costly. The press cannot fully make amends, but it can at least make the effort, as Colin Powell has done, to acknowledge culpability.