Media Culpa

Blaming the press for Iraq


When former diplomat George Kennan turned on his television and saw a group of Marines, weighed down by 50-pound packs, trudging through heavy sand, he knew it wouldn't turn out well. Scribbling in his diary, Kennan wondered if President Bush was sending the American military into yet another foreign entanglement without a clear purpose, in a country that wasn't a threat to his own. Despite the difficulties inherent in such a mission, the broader public perceived it to be a humanitarian—if not imperial—necessity. "It is clear that with a very large part of the American public," he wrote, "but particularly with that part of the public that speak or writes on public affairs, and—not least—with the political establishment, there is general support for this venture."

The forthcoming war was likely to be messy, Kennan sighed, for the people in need of liberation "are wholly unable to govern themselves" and Western-style democracy could not flourish where "the very prerequisites for a democratic political system do not exist among the people in question." But none of this was being debated and, to his mind, there hadn't been "proper public discussion, not even a Congressional discussion, of this undertaking." To do so now, after boots were on the ground, "would be received as something tending to demoralize the forces now in action…"

But what concerned Kennan most was, he wrote, the errant behavior of "the American media [and], above all, television," who had softened-up viewers for what would surely be a "dreadful error of American policy." It seemed that future would be guided not by careful analysis, but would "be controlled by popular emotional impulses, and particularly ones provoked by the commercial television industry…"

Kennan, who died in 2005, confided this to his dairy on Dec. 9, 1992, the day President George H.W. Bush deployed the first squad of Marines into war-torn Somalia. And while his broader complaints about on the war's rushed and poorly thought through beginnings resonate today, Kennan's real bête noire was the television media, with its capacity to overrule good sense by playing to the jingoists and flag-wavers, the big-hearted humanitarians and the liberal hawks.

During the Iraq war, media critics across the ideological spectrum resuscitated Kennan's critique, often to great effect. It has migrated, without much notice, from the right, where bloggers and talk radio hosts routinely accused Bolshie media types of suppressing positive news, to the left, where the fourth-estaters stand accused of not only of shaking the pom-poms of war, but bearing ultimate responsibility for 3,000 dead soldiers. And amongst journalists a consensus is slowly emerging, and it tends to support the anti-war criticisms: we failed the American news consumer in the run-up to war.

It is a position that contains many small kernels of truth, as demonstrated by the ombudsmen of the New York Times and Washington Post, both of whom apologized for insufficiently critical prewar coverage. But it didn't take long for the charges of insufficient journalistic curiosity and overreliance on official sources to morph into, in the phrase of a recent book on the media and Iraq, a massive "press failure."

"There was no meaningful debate on the main news shows of CBS, ABC, NBC or PBS [about the war]," complained journalist Robert Jensen. Editor and Publisher decried not only Judith Miller's misleading WMD coverage, but "the media's role as cheerleaders for the war." Buoyed by the media's own willingness to self-flagellate, the "cheerleader" meme has metastasized into an even more serious charge—that the media itself is responsible for the war.

Take Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, himself the son of an NBC news correspondent, who recently declared that "the real responsibility for the Iraq war lay not with Bush but with the Lettermans, the Wolf Blitzers, the CNNs, The New York Timeses of the world." Filmmaker Michael Moore, appearing on Blitzer's CNN show, echoed Taibbi, angrily telling his interlocutor that "We wouldn't be in this war if you had done your job." The Internet reaction to Moore's performance was rapturous; his appearance quickly became the most viewed video on YouTube. And a few days later, in an interview with ABC, Moore repeated the charge, accusing the network of complicity in the deaths of American soldiers. "Those 3,500 soldiers that are dead today," Moore said , "may not have had to die had our news media done its job." Senator Bernie Sanders thinks that the news media "are as responsible as President Bush for the disaster that now befalls us," and recommended the reintroduction of the Fairness Doctrine to ensure "balanced" coverage in the future.

All of this is leading us from necessary criticism—like the Times and Post important mea culpas—down the garden path of a more activist—and potentially more regulated—media. In the August issue of the American Journalism Review, Rachel Smolkin wonders if the news media, chastened by its supposedly pro-war coverage, could take a few pages from the Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," which does "a better job of cutting through the fog" of the professional spinmeisters than its serious media counterparts. Smolkin, AJR's managing editor, laments "the media's preoccupation with balance, the fixation with fairness," and wonders if "our slavish devotion to journalism fundamentals-particularly our obsession with 'objectivity' so restricted news organizations that a comedian can tell the public what's going on more effectively than a reporter?" Smolkon quotes San Francisco State University journalism professor Venise Wagner acknowledging that while the show isn't balanced, Stewart's sarcasm and frequently arched eyebrow "allows them more balance in showing what is really going on." In other words, journalists might consider redefining what it is to be "balanced."

But Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. warns that while it is necessary for journalists to be introspective and self-critical—and the Post's initial Jessica Lynch coverage is a classic example of bad journalism in wartime—many critics desire not a more balanced perspective, but one that is simply agenda-driven from the other side. "People who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical of the media's coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war," Downie told Post media columnist Howie Kurtz. "They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media's coverage had been different, there wouldn't have been a war." Often times, the model for more balanced news is not PBS, but, as Rachel Smolkin suggests in AJR, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann.

The "we should have done more to head off this war" arguments assumes too much, exaggerates the media's power to influence, removes the onus from politicians and infantilizes news consumers. As Chris Cuomo told Michael Moore, many in the media did ask tough questions of the administration, but the public wasn't paying much attention. (And if the media is simply overriding pacifist instincts, it is remarkably—and consistently—successful, with polling data showing majorities initially supporting military intervention in Grenada, Somalia, the first and second Gulf Wars, Kosovo, Vietnam, Korea and Iraq.)

There has been much chatter amongst liberal bloggers warning against the emergence of a right-wing "stabbed in the back" theory, similar to arguments made after Vietnam that, while the war was won on the battlefield, it was lost on the home front. Such a discussion is, of course, premature; this war is not yet through. For those interested in debunking nonsense theories that deflect criticism from rightful targets might direct their attention to the claim that the American people were, in fact, stabbed in the heart—by perfidious journalists.

Michael Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.

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