Last Monday, Howard Kurtz, the CNN and Daily Beast media analyst who is as reliable a barometer of mainstream wisdom as anyone, called the journalism industry's handling of the Iraq war "the media's greatest failure in modern times."
Ten years after the first bombs fell on Baghdad, that gloomy assessment is a widely shared one. It pays, though, to remember just how wrong much of the mainstream media was about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction — and how hard it was to find voices of dissent in many major newspapers, magazines and television shows.
In 2007, Bill Moyers made a documentary called "Buying the War." It has become, as HuffPost's Michael Calderone notes, a prominent part of the Iraq media criticism canon. Watch the opening minutes of Moyers' documentary, and it is startling to see some of the faces of still-familiar journalists who are listening intently to President Bush at a press conference. There's David Gregory. There's John King. There's Bill Plante. There's Mike Allen. At one point, Bush says that the conference is "scripted," and the journalists laugh, in on the joke.
It was that clubbiness that would get those journalists into so much trouble. The coverage of Iraq came to epitomize the feedback loop of Beltway debate. Speaking to Moyers, the late Tim Russert lamented that the people who knew better about Iraq had never called him up, and that he had never had "access" to them.
By now, the episodes of bad reporting are familiar. There were the articles in liberal magazines like the New Yorker about the threat posed by Hussein; there were papers like the Washington Post, which ran hundreds of pro-administration articles over a period of months and which editorialized breathlessly about the war. (To read about Bob Woodward's conduct during this period is instructive.) There was the fire-breathing on cable news about the Iraqi menace. And there was, most famously, Judy Miller, whose faulty scoops were splashed on the front page of the New York Times over and over again.
Perhaps the most notorious example of the Washington-media nexus over Iraq came when Dick Cheney appeared on "Meet the Press" in September of 2002. He cited the lead story in that morning's Times as he talked to Tim Russert ("I want to attribute it to the Times," he memorably said). The story, by Miller and her colleague Michael Gordon, said that Hussein was busy using aluminum tubes to help build nuclear weapons. The Bush administration had leaked that story to Miller. The circle was complete.
The story itself cites American or administration "officials" dozens of times. It even contains the line that would be made famous by Condoleezza Rice: "The first sign of a 'smoking gun,' they argue, may be a mushroom cloud." In the middle of the article, Miller and Gordon lay out some of the objections to the intelligence. They then write, "Still, Mr. Hussein's dogged insistence on pursuing his nuclear ambitions, along with what defectors described in interviews as Iraq's push to improve and expand Baghdad's chemical and biological arsenals, have brought Iraq and the United States to the brink of war."
In the end, of course, none of it was true. Hussein wasn't building weapons of mass destruction. He hadn't been trying to build them for years. There was no connection between Iraq and 9/11. The sources were at best mistaken and at worst liars. Everyone knows this now. Many people knew it then; most famously, the Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) bureau in Washington produced a large volume of skeptical stories about the administration's case. Independent and alternative outlets also provided critical coverage.
Beyond its implications for reporting, Iraq is also important as a symbol of the often stifling parameters of political debate in elite American media. In that interview with Moyers, Russert says, "it's important to have an opposition party," as if the fact that many Democrats also supported the war sharply limited how many dissenting voices he could find on the subject.
Iraq came during a time when many in the media were not only credulously buying what the Bush administration was selling, but were actively suppressing dissenting voices and deriding opposition to the war. For instance, there was the infamous memo from MSNBC executives warning that host Phil Donahue presented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war" while the network's competitors were "waving the flag at every opportunity."
During a two-week period in early 2003, the evening newscasts on NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS were almost entirely dominated by pro-war guests, even as opposition to the war raged.
Ten years later, what has changed? The Internet itself has made journalists more immediately accountable than ever. There is also access to a more aggressive and diverse set of popular voices than ever. And Iraq itself has been enshrined as a combination of black mark and cautionary tale.
Yet, in many ways, things have remained the same. Even after all those demonstrators who said that there were no WMD's or that the war would be a disaster — and who couldn't get on the front pages of national newspapers, even as they marched in their millions — turned out to be right, anti-war voices are still hard to find on many networks or op-ed pages.
On Monday, The Atlantic's James Fallows wrote about 33 mainstream scholars who had publicly opposed the war. When's the last time you saw any of them on television? Jeffrey Goldberg and Thomas Friedman have free access to "Meet the Press." When has anyone from the McClatchy bureau been on? It would seem the media still has things to learn from its coverage of Iraq.