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Bush addressing the nation from the Oval Office on Mar 19, 2003, as the Iraq war began. (AP Photo)

A refresher on how the press failed the people

COMMENTARY | May 29, 2008

Here's a reading list to refresh your memory.

By Dan Froomkin

The blistering critique of an overly credulous press corps by former White House press secretary Scott McClellan in his new book has reignited a debate over the performance of mainstream journalists during the run-up to war in Iraq. But it’s really not a debate at all.

Here’s what McClellan wrote, in excerpts from his new book:

In the fall of 2002, Bush and his White house were engaging in a carefully-orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate sources of public approval to our advantage. We'd done much the same on other issues--tax cuts and education--to great success. But war with Iraq was different. Beyond the irreversible human costs and substantial financial price, the decision to go to war and the way we went about selling it would ultimately lead to increased polarization and intensified partisan warfare...

And through it all, the media would serve as complicit enablers. Their primary focus would be on covering the campaign to sell the war, rather than aggressively questioning the rationale for war or pursuing the truth behind it… the media would neglect their watchdog role, focusing less on truth and accuracy and more on whether the campaign was succeeding. Was the president winning or losing the argument? How were Democrats responding? What were the electoral implications? What did the polls say? And the truth--about the actual nature of the threat posed by Saddam, the right way to confront it, and the possible risks of military conflict--would get largely left behind…

If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq. The collapse of the administration's rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should have never come as such a surprise. The public should have been made much more aware, before the fact, of the uncertainties, doubts, and caveats that underlay the intelligence about the regime of Saddam hussein. The administration did little to convey those nuances to the people, the press should have picked up the slack but largely failed to do so because their focus was elsewhere--on covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.

In this case, the “liberal media” didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.

That’s actually only one part of McClellan’s media critique. There’s more in these excerpts:

The permanent campaign … ensnares the media, who become complicit enablers of its polarizing effects. They emphasize conflict, controversy and negativity, focusing not on the real-world impact of policies and their larger, underlying truths but on the horse race aspects of politics – who's winning, who's losing, and why…

The press amplifies the talking points of one or both parties in its coverage, thereby spreading distortions, half-truths, and occasionally outright lies in an effort to seize the limelight and have something or someone to pick on. And by overemphasizing conflict and controversy and by reducing complex and important issues to convenient, black-and-white story lines and seven-second sound bites the media exacerbate the problem, thereby making it incredibly hard even for well-intentioned leaders to clarify and correct the misunderstandings and oversimplifications that dominate the political conversation. Finally, it becomes much more difficult for the general public to decipher the more important truths amid all the conflict, controversy and negativity. For some partisans, that is fine because they believe they can maneuver better in such a highly politicized environment to accomplish their objectives. But the destructive potential of such excessively partisan warfare would later crystallize my thinking.

This second part of McClellan’s critique is at least somewhat controversial. The first part, by now, certainly shouldn’t be. A flurry of self-examinations by the media have all reached pretty much the same conclusion McClellan did.

Yet because many of the cable-TV pundits talking about McClellan’s book were themselves members of the White House press corps during the time in question, some of them have been responding with unseemly defensiveness.

Consider this exchange on MSNBC’s Hardball on Wednesday evening, when host Chris Matthews asked his colleague David Gregory, who previously covered the White House for NBC, and Mike Allen, a Politico reporter who previously covered the White House for The Washington Post, to respond to McClellan’s critique:

Gregory: I think he is wrong. 

He makes the same kind of argument a lot of people on the left have made.  I tried not to be defensive about it.  I thought a lot about this over a number of years.  And I disagree with that assessment. 

I think the questions were asked.  I think we pushed.  I think we prodded.  I think we challenged the president.  I think not only those of us the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape of the media did that.

If there wasn‘t a debate in this country, then maybe the American people should think about, why not?  Where was Congress?  Where was the House?  Where was the Senate?  Where was public opinion about the war?  What did the former president believe about the pre-war intelligence?  He agreed that—in fact, Bill Clinton agreed that Saddam had WMD. 

The right questions were asked.  I think there‘s a lot of critics—and I guess we can count Scott McClellan as one—who thinks that, if we did not debate the president, debate the policy in our role as journalists, if we did not stand up and say, this is bogus, and you‘re a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn‘t do our job.  And I respectfully disagree.  It‘s not our role.

Matthews:  OK.  Let me go to—let me go to Mike Allen.

Same question.  Is this a decent shot at the overall media, critics, commentators, straight journalists, reporters, whatever?  Was there enough turmoil, when there should have been some? 

Allen:  Of course. 

For someone who wanted to know full information, the information was there. 

This is a ludicrous charge. 

People who make it are not paying attention to what was being written, to what David Gregory was asking, to what David Gregory was putting on your air. 

And I think this reflects the sort of alternate reality that Scott portrays in this White House. 

Others ruefully acknowledged the obvious. Here’s Dana Milbank, who covered the White House for The Post alongside Allen, on the show Gregory now hosts for MSNBC:

[O]f course he‘s right.  We didn‘t do as much as we could have and the fact of the matter is we did raise these questions.  And I mean I guess what Scott‘s just saying in a backwards way there is they were just doing a particularly good job of keeping the facts out of the public domain. 

And among some of those acknowledgements come new revelations about the pressure journalists were operating under – pressure not so much from the White House as from their corporate masters. As Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald notes, “Jessica Yellin -- currently a CNN correspondent who covered the White House for ABC News and MSNBC in 2002 and 2003 -- was on with Anderson Cooper last night discussing Scott McClellan's book, and made one of the most significant admissions heard on television in quite some time."

Yellin: I think the press corps dropped the ball at the beginning. When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings.

And my own experience at the White House was that, the higher the president's approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives -- and I was not at this network at the time -- but the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president.

I think, over time --

Cooper: You had pressure from news executives to put on positive stories about the president?

Yellin: Not in that exact -- they wouldn't say it in that way, but they would edit my pieces. They would push me in different directions. They would turn down stories that were more critical and try to put on pieces that were more positive, yes. That was my experience.

CBS News anchor Katie Couric also agreed with McClellan, in a joint appearance on NBC with all three nightly news network anchors Wednesday morning. And she spoke of an environment similar to the one Yellin described.

Couric: "... I'll start by saying I think he's fairly accurate. Matt, I know when we were covering it--and granted, the spirit of 9/11, people were unified and upset and angry and frustrated. But I do think we were remiss in not asking some of the right questions. There was a lot pressure from the Bush White House. I remember doing an interview and the press secretary called our executive producer and said, `We didn't like the tone of that interview.' And we said, `Well, tough. We had to ask some of these questions.' They said, `Well, if you keep it up, we're going to block access to you during the war.' I mean, those kind of strong-arm tactics were really...

Today Show Host Matt Lauer: But we didn't--but we kept it--we didn't...

Couric: We did.

Lauer: We didn't give into it.

Couric: No, we didn't give into it but I think there was insidious pressure that I do think actually affected some of the coverage from some of the media outlets.

But then ABC anchor Charles Gibson disagreed:

Gibson: I think the questions were asked. I respectfully disagree with the gentle lady from the Columbia Broadcasting System. I think the questions were asked. There was a very strong--you know, you go back to the Powell speech. There was a lot of skepticism raised about that. I can remember getting in trouble with administration officials because asking questions that they didn't feel comfortable with. I think the questions were asked. There was just a drumbeat of support from the administration, and it is not our job to debate them.

Although there has been a notable absence of a serious, independent probe into how the press failed in its pre-war reporting, there have been several comprehensive analyses conducted within the industry, and they have all come to very similar conclusions: We messed up badly.

A Reading List

In May 2004, the editors of the New York Times acknowledged:

[W]e have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.

In August 2004, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz examined his own paper’s coverage, and concluded:

An examination of the paper's coverage, and interviews with more than a dozen of the editors and reporters involved, shows that The Post published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page. Some reporters who were lobbying for greater prominence for stories that questioned the administration's evidence complained to senior editors who, in the view of those reporters, were unenthusiastic about such pieces. The result was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times.

Michael Massing ruthlessly dissected the press’s failures in February 2004 in the New York Review of Books:

Beginning in the summer of 2002, the "intelligence community" was rent by bitter disputes over how Bush officials were using the data on Iraq. Many journalists knew about this, yet few chose to write about it….

The nearer the war drew, and the more determined the administration seemed to wage it, the less editors were willing to ask tough questions. The occasional critical stories that did appear were… tucked well out of sight.

In his book, “Now They Tell Us,” Massing writes that journalists were far too reliant on sources sympathetic to the administration and that those with dissenting views were shut out. As a result, coverage was highly deferential to the White House. At his publisher explains, Massing’s “detailed analysis demonstrates, pre-war journalism was also deeply flawed, as too many reporters failed to independently evaluate administration claims about Saddam's weapons programs or the inspection process.”

Greg Mitchell’s new book is a collection of essays he wrote for Editor and Publisher during and after the run-up to war. Its title is: “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits--and the President--Failed on Iraq.”

PBS’s Bill Moyers devoted an entire show in April 2007, entitled Buying the War to answering these questions:

How did the mainstream press get it so wrong? How did the evidence disputing the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the link between Saddam Hussein to 9-11 continue to go largely unreported? What the conservative media did was easy to fathom; they had been cheerleaders for the White House from the beginning and were simply continuing to rally the public behind the President — no questions asked. How mainstream journalists suspended skepticism and scrutiny remains an issue of significance that the media has not satisfactorily explored. How the administration marketed the war to the American people has been well covered, but critical questions remain: How and why did the press buy it, and what does it say about the role of journalists in helping the public sort out fact from propaganda?

The heroes of Moyers’s story are John Walcott, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder newspapers, which was acquired by The McClatchy Company in 2006. Their relentlessly skeptical reporting was nearly unique in Washington – and almost entirely ignored.

In July 2006, Gilbert Cranberg suggested on NiemanWatchdog.org that the Knight-Ridder team be granted a special Pulitzer for its work.

I was 1 of millions marching against this war
Posted by Davol
06/04/2008, 04:17 PM

Tens of millions of people took tot he streets while the American media was cheerleeding this war and no they did not report the real number of people protesting, but here's a secret, they never do. Always multiply the number of protesters in news stories by at least 10 to get an accurate number. The media pundits can disagree about media complicity all they want. Most of us get to compare television propaganda to the frankley more truthful Internet. They might even actually think they are right and possibly not just flat out BS'ing, but still I predict a lot of people will just not be buying any new HD TV's next year. Good riddence State TV.

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