Why the Media Failed Us in Iraq

News Abroad

Mr. Schell is Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. This piece is adapted from the preface to a collection of New York Review of Books articles on the media's coverage of the war in Iraq by Michael Massing. It will be published soon as a short book, NOW THEY TELL US (The New York Review of Books, 2004).

When, on May 26, 2004, the editors of the New York Times published a mea culpa for the paper's one-sided reporting on weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war, they admitted to"a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been." They also commented that they had since come to"wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining claims" made by the Bush Administration. But we are still left to wonder why the Times, like many other major media outlets in this country, was so lacking in skepticism toward administration rationales for war? How could such a poorly thought through policy, based on spurious exile intelligence sources, have been so blithely accepted, even embraced, by so many members of the media? In short, what happened to the press's vaunted role, so carefully spelled out by the Founding Fathers, as a skeptical"watchdog" over government?

There's nothing like seeing a well-oiled machine clank to a halt to help you spot problems. Now that the Bush administration is in full defensive mode and angry leakers in the Pentagon, the CIA, and elsewhere in the Washington bureaucracy are slipping documents, secrets, and charges to reporters, our press looks more recognizably journalistic. But that shouldn't stop us from asking how an"independent" press in a"free" country could have been so paralyzed for so long. It not only failed to seriously investigate administration rationales for war, but little took into account the myriad voices in the on-line, alternative, and world press that sought to do so. It was certainly no secret that a number of our Western allies (and other countries), administrators of various NGOs, and figures like Mohamed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Hans Blix, head of the UN's Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission, had quite different pre-war views of the"Iraqi threat."

Few in our media, it seemed, remembered I. F. Stone's hortatory admonition,"If you want to know about governments, all you have to know is two words: Governments lie." Dissenting voices in the mainstream were largely buried on back pages, ignored on op-ed pages, or confined to the margins of the media, and so denied the kinds of"respectability" that a major media outlet can confer.

As reporting on the lead-up to war, the war itself, and its aftermath vividly demonstrated, our country is now divided into a two-tiered media structure. The lower-tier -- niche publications, alternative media outlets, and Internet sites -- hosts the broadest spectrum of viewpoints. Until the war effort began to unravel in spring 2004, the upper-tier -- a relatively small number of major broadcast outlets, newspapers, and magazines -- had a far more limited bandwidth of critical views, regularly deferring to the Bush Administration's vision of the world. Contrarian views below rarely bled upwards.

As Michael Massing pointed out recently in the New York Review of Books, Bush administration insinuations that critics were unpatriotic -- White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer infamously warned reporters as war approached,"People had better watch what they say" -- had an undeniably chilling effect on the media. But other forms of pressure also effectively inhibited the press. The President held few press conferences and rarely submitted to truly open exchanges. Secretive and disciplined to begin with, the administration adeptly used the threat of denied access as a way to intimidate reporters who showed evidence of independence. For reporters, this meant no one-on-one interviews, special tips, or leaks, being passed over in press conference question-and-answer periods, and exclusion from select events as well as important trips.

After the war began, for instance, Jim Wilkinson, a 32 year-old Texan who ran Centcom's Coalition Media Center in Qatar, was, according to Massing, known to rebuke reporters whose copy was deemed insufficiently"supportive of the war," and"darkly warned one correspondent that he was on a 'list' along with two other reporters at his paper." In the play-along world of the Bush Administration, critical reporting was a quick ticket to exile.

A Media World of Faith-based Truth

The impulse to control the press hardly originated with George W. Bush, but his administration has been less inclined than any in memory to echo Thomas Jefferson's famous declaration that,"The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

The Bush Administration had little esteem for the watchdog role of the press, in part because its own quest for"truth" has been based on something other than empiricism. In fact, it enthroned a new criterion for veracity,"faith-based" truth, sometimes corroborated by"faith -based" intelligence. For officials of this administration (and not just the religious ones either), truth seemed to descend from on high, a kind of divine revelation begging no further earthly scrutiny. For our president this was evidently literally the case. The Israeli paper Ha'aretz reported him saying to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Prime Minister of the moment,"God told me to strike Al Qaeda and I struck, and then he instructed me to strike Saddam, which I did."

It is hardly surprising, then, that such a president would eschew newspapers in favor of reports from other more"objective sources," namely, his staff. He has spoken often of trusting"visceral reactions" and acting on"gut feelings." For him as for much of the rest of his administration, decision-making has tended to proceed not from evidence to conclusion, but from conclusion to evidence. Reading, facts, history, logic and the complex interaction between the electorate, the media, and the government have all been relegated to subsidiary roles in what might be called"fundamentalist" policy formation.

Just as the free exchange of information plays little role in the relationship between a fundamentalist believer and his or her God, so it has played a distinctly diminished role in our recent parallel world of divine political revelation. After all, if you already know the answer to a question, of what use is the media, except to broadcast that answer? The task at hand, then, is never to listen but to proselytize the political gospel among non-believers, thereby transforming a once interactive process between citizen and leader into evangelism.

Although in the Bush political universe, freedom has been endlessly extolled in principle, it has had little utility in practice. What possible role could a free press play when revelation trumps fact and conclusions are preordained? A probing press is logically viewed as a spoiler under such conditions, stepping between the administration and those whose only true salvation lies in becoming part of a nation of true believers. Since there was little need, and less respect, for an opposition (loyal or otherwise), the information feedback loops in which the press should have played a crucial role in any functioning democracy, ceased operating. The media synapses which normally transmit warnings from citizen to government froze shut.

Television networks continued to broadcast and papers continued to publish, but, dismissed and ignored, they became irrelevant, except possibly for their entertainment value. As the press has withered, the government, already existing in a self-referential and self-deceptive universe, was deprived of the ability to learn of danger from its own policies and thus make course corrections.

A Universe in Which News Won't Matter

Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor, bluntly declared to New Yorker writer Ken Auletta that members of the press"don't represent the public any more than other people do. I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function." Auletta concluded that, in the eyes of the Bush Administration, the press corps had become little more than another special-interest lobbying group. Indeed, the territory the traditional media once occupied has increasingly been deluged by administration lobbying, publicity, and advertising -- cleverly staged"photo ops," carefully produced propaganda rallies, preplanned"events," tidal waves of campaign ads, and the like. Afraid of losing further"influence," access, and the lucrative ad revenues that come from such political image-making, major media outlets have found it in their financial interest to quietly yield.

What does this downgrading of the media's role say about how our government views its citizens, the putative sovereigns of our country? It suggests that"we the people" are seen not as political constituencies conferring legitimacy on our rulers, but as consumers to be sold policy the way advertisers sell product. In the storm of selling, spin, bullying, and"discipline" that has been the Bush signature for years, traditional news outlets found themselves increasingly drowned out, ghettoized, and cowed. Attacked as"liberal" and"elitist," disesteemed as"trouble makers" and"bashers" (even when making all too little trouble), they were relegated to the sidelines, increasingly uncertain and timid about their shrinking place in the political process.

Add in a further dynamic (which intellectuals from Marxist-Leninist societies would instantly recognize): Groups denied legitimacy and disdained by the state tend to internalize their exclusion as a form of culpability, and often feel an abject, autonomic urge to seek reinstatement at almost any price. Little wonder, then, that"the traditional press" has had a difficult time mustering anything like a convincing counter-narrative as the administration herded a terrified and all-too-trusting nation to war.

Not only did a mutant form of skepticism-free news succeed -- at least for a time -- in leaving large segments of the populace uninformed, but it corrupted the ability of high officials to function. All too often they simply found themselves looking into a fun-house mirror of their own making and imagined that they were viewing reality. As even the conservative National Review noted, the Bush administration has"a dismaying capacity to believe its own public relations."

In this world of mutant"news," information loops have become one-way highways; and a national security advisor, cabinet secretary, or attorney general, a well-managed and programmed polemicist charged to"stay on message," the better to justify whatever the government has already done, or is about to do. Because these latter-day campaigns to"dominate the media environment," as the Pentagon likes to say, employ all the sophistication and technology developed by communications experts since Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, first wed an understanding of psychology to the marketing of merchandise, they are far more seductive than older-style news. Indeed, on Fox News, we can see the ultimate marriage of news and PR in a fountainhead of artful propaganda so well-packaged that most people can't tell it from the real thing.

For three-plus years we have been governed by people who don't view news, in the traditional sense, as playing any constructive role in our system of governance. At the moment, they are momentarily in retreat, driven back from the front lines of faith-based truth by their own faith-based blunders. But make no mistake, their frightening experiment will continue if Americans allow it. Complete success would mean not just that the press had surrendered its essential watchdog role, but -- a far darker thought -- that, even were it to refuse to do so, it might be shunted off to a place where it would not matter.

As the war in Iraq descended into a desert quagmire, the press belatedly appeared to awaken and adopt a more skeptical stance toward an already crumbling set of Bush administration policies. But if a bloody, expensive, catastrophic episode like the war in Iraq is necessary to remind us of the important role that the press plays in our democracy, something is gravely amiss in the way our political system has come to function.

This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Schell's analysis of the Bush administration's fundamental antipathy to truth, democracy and the freedom of the press is essentially sound, but is neither necessary nor sufficient as an explanation for the mainstream media's failure to question the obvious deceits on Iraq when they were being made in late 2002 and early 2003. And where exactly did the "Founding Fathers carefully spell out" the role of the press "as a skeptical watchdog over government" ? In one of the Federalist papers, maybe ? This seems like an example of the sloppy treatment of history by journalists that HNN pretends to be combating but actually perpetuates, although the usual caveat about abridged excerpts and questionable headlines must again be noted.

The more interesting question, it seems to me, is how a generation of reporters and pundits raised on Watergate, Vietnam, and Iran-Contra could drop the ball so often and so flagrantly on an even greater, more unAmerican, and more damaging abuse of governmental power early in our new century. Human knowledge and technological capabilities have grown tremendously over the past hundred plus years, but are we really any wiser as people than were our predecessors in the "yellow journalism" days of the 1890s ?

One can heap a great deal of blame for a great many of our country's ills on the incompetent and corrupt administration of G.W. Bush, and I have been among those doing so on previous pages at this website. But, to blame Dubya, Dick, and Rummy & crew for the attention-deficit disorders of 21st century "wired" but apathetic American couch potatoes, and the depraved infotainment industry which panders to them amounts, in my judgment, to an 180 degree misalignment of cause and effect.

Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

The war as interpreted by the Stalinists at the Nation and at Berkeley. You can hardly miss the enthusiasm for a U.S. defeat that motivates this man.

Is there an opposition to the war that is not grounded in this madness? I'd like to hear a sensible, decent critique of the war.

This site does not offer much hope that it exists.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/25/2004

Charles --
First off, I'm an Africanist, so let's settle down with your less than impressive citation of a book from 1989 -- huzzah, but that does not change the fact that you brought up, yes, "the Africa/AIDS thing" which is irrelevent to the conversation here. It might be an important issue, but right now it is a non-sequiter. So please, go bring your ax and grind it elsewhere. Second, bring your wretchedly bad science elsewhere. Third, bring your Mbeki-esque delinking of Hiv and AIDs elsewhere. Fourth, bring your nonsense elsewhere.

Charles Lee Geshekter - 7/22/2004

The "Africa/AIDS thing"? What does that mean? I am simply saying that what's called an AIDS "case" in Africa is defined decisively differently in Africa than in the USA. That the clinical symptoms that define an AIDS case in Africa are dry cough, persistent fever, loose stools for 14 days, and 10% body weight in two months, all the same, dreary, familiar, common symptoms of poverty. The notion that condoms, toxic drugs, incessantly preaching sexual behavior modification, or PC crapola about "empowering women" has done nothing to touch what is essentially a western renaming of old illnesses.

If you need more let me know. Go read BBC medical journalist Joan Shenton's *Positively False* (St. Martins, 1989) for starters.

Finally, make absolutely certain to delink HIV antibody tests from the clinical symptoms that define an AIDS case in Africa.

The media have been as naive, narrow minded, and uncritical in reporting on the whipped hysteria on AIDS in Africa as they have been in reporting on US policy in Iraq. Are you really surprised by that?

John H. Lederer - 7/22/2004

"As Michael Massing pointed out recently in the New York Review of Books, Bush administration insinuations that critics were unpatriotic -- White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer infamously warned reporters as war approached, "People had better watch what they say" -- had an undeniably chilling effect on the media."

Once I had read this "quote" in the article repeated out of context (Rep. Cooksey's inflammatory remarks about security checks for those with "diapers on their heads" ), and with words slightly changed, I pretty much knew all I needed to know about this author. At best sloppy and misled, at worst misleading.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/21/2004

Um, where did the Africa/AIDS thing come in? And would you care to make a specific argument, since I've no idea where you are going with this.

Charles Lee Geshekter - 7/21/2004

Sorry to say this, mates, but the same critcisms of the media can be levelled against the gullible, naive, and simple-minded reporting about the whole so-called "AIDS epidemic" in Africa.

Flawed definitions, massive medical contradictions, errant predictions, and ludicrous (racist) constructions about impoverished living conditions in Africa, have gone unnoticed and ignored by the media.

As with US policy in Iraq, we must dig more deeply, apply common sense, think harder, and seek better more plausible explanations for what is making Africans ill.

Andrew Hughes - 7/21/2004

Schell is certainly correct that there are forces at play other than simple capitalist competition for ratings.

Bush at Whitehall actually called on the Arab countries to muzzle their media. I have written several posts on this at http://tinyurl.com/3v6cc

Ken Melvin - 7/20/2004

After positing the question "Why The Media Failed Us in Iraq?", Schell continues on with a discussion of the politics of the Bush Administration. Getting back to the failure of the media: Before the Iraq War; these same players of the media failed us on Whitewater and the 2000 election, just to mention a couple examples. Though it might help to fix the date of the beginning; the major underlying question is "Why is the media failing so badly?". Was it market forces that that prompted the NYT to give Judith Miller so much rein? Was it management philosophy that caused the WP to let Susan Schmidt so serve the right wing agenda? Should such as the WSJ be required to list their political affiliation beneath their masthead? Did Rupert Murdoch's entry lead to this morass? How did Walter Cronkite become Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and worse, the talking heads on cable? How did David Broder become W's opening act?

Some even saw it coming. Bill Moyers says he saw it coming in the 70s and that "it" was the commercializing of the news. Let's bring what Moyers has to say, what Cronkite has to say to the evening news, to the op-ed page. Lots. Let's start holding the feet of the TV anchors, the NYT, the WP, and the WSJ to the fire. Let's require the TV anchors, the NYT, the WP, the WSJ, et al present their audiences with what the reviewers from Columbia, Berkeley, etc. have to say about their "product". Afterall: The CBS Evening News is a production of Viacom. The NBC Nightly News is a production of General Electric. Fox News is a production of Rupert Murdoch. ABC News is a production of Disney. The NYT is a production of its ownership. So the WSJ. Und so weite.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/20/2004

On the "decent critique of the war" angle, I am sure this is a loaded question, because no person who pays any attention can say that those critiques are not out there. The Cato Institute? What about the heretofore hawkish New Republic's recent issue asking "Were We Wrong?" But my suspicion is that someone who has commented twice, on two separate articles here on HNN this week, and has called both "Stalinist," does not have much of a sense of what is reasonble, forget decent.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/19/2004

Mr. Thomas,

Your reading of this article as "enthusiastic" about the US failure is, I believe, wrong. It is, however, critical of the administration's approach to the media, which has unnecessarily distorted and divided the discourse.

If you want a radically non-leftist critique of the war, government policy, etc., you might try our Libertarian colleagues over at Liberty and Power: http://hnn.us/blogs/4.html

Just... don't tell them I sent you, OK?

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/19/2004

Stalinists at the Nation and at Berkeley? Please. This is the sort of nonsensical criticism that is not criticism at all, but rather just the braying of a jackass uninterested in engaging in ideas that challenge his own. there is such a huge range of ideologies on the left and write that the sort of dullards who try to pull out the old canards -- "Stalinist" "Communist!" "Fascist!" "Nazi!" -- really are not worth engaging. Say the author is wrong, and here is why. But to call someone a Stalinist? Come on.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 7/19/2004

Your ignorant attack on the author contains no facts, no counter of his evidence, no data that would contradict what has been said, and no thoughtful disagreement.

You ask for "a sensible, decent critique of the war" and here it is in a nutshell:

The American people supported Bush's war primarily for 2 reasons:
a) because they were assured by their president that Iraq had stockpiles of WMD that could be used at any time and if we wait, the evidence would come "in the form of a mushroom cloud" (his words)
b) because our real enemy, those who were responsible for 9/11, were so closely allied with Iraq, that they were the next logical target after Afghanistan to confront them

Both of those claims, made time and time again by the administration with absolute conviction, were wrong. The dangerous stockpiled armed and ready for use seems not to have existed at all, and the connection between Iraq and bin Laden seems to have been relatively minor, certainly compared to Iraq's neighbors. Thus far, there has been no accountibility for these errors, no terminations, no apologies.

In 1991, George H.W. Bush defended his position NOT to invade Iraq on several grounds, from the loss of American allies, to the loss of credibility in the world, to the aftermath of a dictator-less Iraq, which could descend into Civil War or collapse, or worse, be replaced with a government that is even more dangerous. Mush of what Bush predicted would happen has happened.

Resources have been diverted from al-Qaeada to Iraq and our ability to respond to other threats (read Iran) have been significantly diminished.

Finally, this war was fought when other alternatives were open and viable, including a stronger inspections process, a reformed sanctions program that eliminated corruption and loopholes, and a UN resolution (which in my opinion would have been forthcoming had Bush waited for the inspections to get underway and discover violations).

You may dismiss my entire argument, as you have the authors, by calling me whatever you like. Or, you may disagree with them like an intelligent person and allow me the opportunity to elaborate on those points that you take issue with. It is entirely up to you how you respond.