In the thousands of articles and television reports in recent days surrounding the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq -- and the grim milestone of 4,000 U.S. troops dead there -- nearly every important aspect was probed, and fingers were pointed: at Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Bremer or Dick Cheney, at stubborn Republicans or weak-willed Democrats, and at many others. But conspicuously absent as a subject in the media analysis and reassessment were... the media.
It's as if the war had been planned, launched, and continued for more than half a decade with hardly any major media slips or tragic omissions. The media, with months to plan for the five-year commemoration, were ready to take stock of everything but themselves. By and large, when they did review their role, it was to showcase some of the undeniably terrific reporting, photography, and videography that have emerged from the war zone.
A frank assessment of the overall media performance, from the "run-up" to the "surge," was nearly non-existent. That's not only shameful and revealing -- it's a real missed opportunity, since there is so much to be learned from it by current and future generations of journalists.
Yes, the fateful media mistakes and misreporting of Iraqi WMD before the war has been covered in the past, although with few apologies. But how could this not be widely revisited at the five-year mark -- beyond PBS and NPR -- with 4,000 American dead and thousands wounded for life?
What about the removal of the vast majority of U.S. reporters from Iraq in the early days of the occupation, just when they were most needed to warn of the daily Coalition blunders and emerging insurgency? The media's role in falling victim to official propaganda in the
Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman cases? The delay in exposing the abuses at Abu Ghraib -- and attacks on civilians in Haditha and numerous other places?
The list goes on: Why did it take years to really focus on ill treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans back here at home? To expose the rising suicide rates among soldiers in Iraq and returning vets? To assess the full trillion-dollar financial costs of the war, now a hot topic but
underplayed for so long? And what did editors, reporters, and producers learn from all of these significant oversights?
Why didn't the media fight harder the Pentagon's ban on showing coffins returning from Iraq? Why, for the most part, did they refuse to show dead or injured American soldiers from the war zone, thus preventing the public from absorbing the true human costs of the conflict? On reflection, what were the strengths and weaknesses of the much-ballyhooed "embedded" journalists program? Any second thoughts?
What about the reluctance of editorial pages and pundits to propose, even tentatively, a real change in course in Iraq, as month after month and then year after year passed? Almost four years went by before a leading newspaper called for the beginning of even a very slow, phased withdrawal. What do they think of that delay now? Why do the many columnists who were so wrong about the war fail to come clean about their mistakes?
And just in recent months: Why are there so few reporters covering the war now? Are budgetary excuses and blaming readers for not being very interested anymore really valid? Or do readers take their cues from the (increasingly disinterested) media?
I was grateful for one thing, at least. Nearly five years ago, when I was virtually the first to refer to Iraq, in print, as a coming "quagmire" -- it's one chapter in my new book on Iraq and the media -- I was widely ridiculed for making this patently absurd Vietnam reference. In his fifth anniversary review on March 16, John F. Burns, the famous New York Times war correspondent, used the phrase "Iraq quagmire" in passing, as a fact, not in quotes or as a claim by others. A fact.
As I have often indicated, there has been an ample amount of truly heroic journalism from the war zone and tough-minded probing into the causes and conduct of the war here at home. But the media's current failure to examine some of the questions above only adds to the black mark they have received for past miscues and errors in judgment related to this catastrophic war.
Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq (Union Square Press, $11). It has been hailed by our own Arianna, Bill Moyers, Glenn Greenwald, and others, and features a preface by Bruce Springsteen and foreword by Joe Galloway. He is editor of Editor & Publisher. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org