No sooner had Bush’s ex-press secretary (now author) Scott McClellan accused President Bush and his former collaborators of misleading our country into Iraq than the squeals of protest turned into a mighty roar. I’m not talking about the vitriol directed at him by former White House colleagues like Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer. I’m talking about McClellan’s other war collaborators: the movers and shakers in corporate media. The people McClellan refers to in his book as "deferential, complicit enablers" of Bush administration war propaganda.
One after another, news stars defended themselves with the tired old myth that no one doubted the Iraq WMD (weapons of mass destruction) claims at the time. The yarn about hindsight being 20/20 was served up more times than a Reverend Wright clip on Fox News.
Katie Couric, whose coverage on CBS of the Iraq troop surge has been almost fawning, was one of the few stars to be candid about preinvasion coverage, saying days ago, "I think it’s one of the most embarrassing chapters in American journalism." She spoke of "pressure" from corporate management, not just Team Bush, to "really squash any dissent." Then a co-host of NBC "Today," she says network brass criticized her for challenging the administration.
NBC execs apparently didn’t complain when – two weeks into the invasion – Couric thanked a Navy commander for coming on the show, adding, "And I just want you to know, I think Navy SEALs rock!"
This is a glorious moment for the American public. We can finally see those who abandoned reporting for cheerleading and flag-waving and cheap ratings having to squirm over their role in sending other parents’ kids into Iraq. I say "other parents’ kids" because I never met any bigwig among those I worked with in TV news who had kids in the armed forces.
Given how TV networks danced to the White House tune sung by the Roves and Fleischers and McClellans in the first years of W’s reign, it’s fitting that it took the words of a longtime Bush insider to force their self-examination over Iraq. Top media figures had shunned years of well-documented criticism of their Iraq failure as religiously as they shunned war critics in 2003.
Speaking of religious, it wasn’t until two days ago that retired NBC warhorse Tom Brokaw was able to admit on-air that Bush’s push toward invasion was "more theology than anything else." On day one of the war, it was anchor Brokaw who turned to an Admiral and declared, "One of the things that we don’t want to do is destroy the infrastructure of Iraq, because in a few days we’re going to own that country."
Asked this week about the charge that media transmitted war propaganda, Brokaw blamed the White House and its "unbelievable ability to control the flow of information at any time, but especially during the time that they’re preparing to go to war." This is an old canard: The worst censors prewar were not governments, but major outlets that chose to exclude and smear dissenting experts.
Wolf Blitzer, whose persona on CNN is that of a carnival barker, defended his network’s coverage: "I think we were pretty strong. But certainly, with hindsight, we could have done an even better job." Coverage might have been better if CNN news chief Eason Jordan hadn’t gotten a Pentagon "thumbs-up" on the retired generals they featured. Or if Jordan hadn’t gone on the air to dismiss a dissenting WMD expert: "Scott Ritter’s chameleon-like behavior has really bewildered a lot of people…. US officials no longer give Scott Ritter much credibility."
ABC anchor Charlie Gibson, the closest thing to a Fox News anchor at a big three network, took offense at McClellan: "I think the media did a pretty good job." He claimed "there was a lot of skepticism raised" about Colin Powell’s prewar UN speech. Media critic Glenn Greenwald called Gibson’s claim "one of the falsest statements ever uttered on TV" – and made his point using Gibson’s unskeptical Powell coverage at the time.
In February 2003, there was huge mainstream media skepticism about Powell’s UN speech … overseas. But US TV networks banished antiwar perspectives in the crucial two weeks surrounding that error-filled speech. FAIR studied all on-camera sources on the nightly ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS newscasts: Less than 1 percent – 3 out of 393 sources – were antiwar. Only 6 percent were skeptical sources. This at a time when 60 percent of Americans in polls wanted more time for diplomacy and inspections.
I worked 10-hour days inside MSNBC’s newsroom during this period as senior producer of Phil Donahue’s primetime show (canceled three weeks before the war while the network’s most-watched program). Trust me: too much skepticism over war claims was a punishable offense. I and all other Donahue producers were repeatedly ordered by top management to book panels that favored the pro-invasion side. I watched a fellow producer get chewed out for booking a 50-50 show.
At MSNBC, I heard Scott Ritter smeared – on-air and off – as a paid mouthpiece of Saddam Hussein. After we had war skeptic and former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark on the show, we learned he was on some sort of network blacklist.
When MSNBC terminated Donahue, it was expected we’d be replaced by a nightly show hosted by Jesse Ventura. But that show never really launched. Ventura says it was because he, like Donahue, opposed the Iraq invasion; he was paid millions for not appearing. Another MSNBC star, Ashleigh Banfield, was demoted and then lost her job after criticizing the first weeks of "very sanitized" war coverage. With every muzzling, self-censorship tended to proliferate.
I’m no defender of Scott McClellan. Some may say he has blood on his hands – and that he hasn’t earned any kind of redemption.
But, as someone who still burns with anger over what I witnessed inside TV news during that crucial historical moment, I’m trying my best to enjoy this falling out among thieves and liars.
JEFF COHEN IS THE FOUNDER OF FAIR, AND AUTHOR OF THE NEW BOOK, "CABLE NEWS CONFIDENTIAL: MY MISADVENTURES IN CORPORATE MEDIA.