As likely Republican candidates for president continue to struggle with the legacy of the Iraq War, and specifically with the question of whether they would have authorized a similar invasion if they had been president at the time, it's important to remember the media's role in the foreign policy failure. At a time of heightened patriotic fervor, the national press played a crucial role in helping to sell President George W. Bush's war to the public in 2003.
There were some key, praiseworthy exceptions, but in general the Beltway press failed badly during the run-up to the war. It's a fact that shouldn't be forgotten as politicians today grapple with the past.
Below is an excerpt from my book, Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over For Bush. (Note: "MSM" is shorthand for mainstream media.)
Battered by accusations of a liberal bias and determined to prove their conservative critics wrong, the press during the run-up to the war -- timid, deferential, unsure, cautious, and often intentionally unthinking -- came as close as possible to abdicating its reason for existing in the first place, which is to accurately inform citizens, particularly during times of great national interest. Indeed, the MSM's failings were all the more important because of the unusually influential role they played in advance of the war-of-choice with Iraq.
"When America has been attacked -- at Pearl Harbor, or as on September 11 -- the government needed merely to tell the people that it was our duty to respond, and the people rightly conferred their authority," noted Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect magazine. "But a war of choice is a different matter entirely. In that circumstance, the people will ask why. The people will need to be convinced that their sons and daughters and husbands and wives should go halfway around the world to fight a nemesis that they didn't really know was a nemesis."
It's not fair to suggest the MSM alone convinced Americans to send some sons and daughter to fight. But the press went out of its way to tell a pleasing, administration-friendly tale about the pending war. In truth, Bush never could have ordered the invasion of Iraq -- never could have sold the idea at home -- if it weren't for the help he received from the MSM, and particularly the stamp of approval he received from so-called liberal media institutions such as the Washington Post, which in February of 2003 alone, editorialized in favor of war nine times. (Between September 2002 and February 2003, the paper editorialized twenty-six times in favor of the war.)
The Post had plenty of company from the liberal East Coast media cabal, with high-profile columnists and editors -- the newfound liberal hawks -- at the New Yorker, Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, the New Republic and elsewhere all signing on for a war of preemption. By the time the invasion began, the de facto position among the Beltway chattering class was clearly one that backed Bush and favored war.
Years later the New York Times Magazine wrote that most "journalists in Washington found it almost inconceivable, even during the period before a fiercely contested midterm election [in 2002], that the intelligence used to justify the war might simply be invented." Hollywood peace activists could conceive it, but serious Beltway journalists could not? That's hard to believe. More likely journalists could conceive it but, understanding the MSM unspoken guidelines -- both social and political -- were too timid to express it at the time of war.
To oppose the invasion vocally was to be outside the media mainstream and to invite scorn. Like some nervous Democratic members of Congress right before the war, MSM journalists and pundits seemed to scramble for political cover so as to not subject themselves to conservative catcalls.
One year later, a pro-war writer for Slate conceded he was "embarrassed" by his support for the ill-fated invasion but he insisted, "you've got to take risks." But supporting the war posed no professional risk. The only MSM risks taken at the time of the invasion were by pundits who staked out an unambiguous position in opposing the war. Bush's rationale for war -- Saddam Hussein, sitting on a swelling stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, posing a grave and imminent threat to America -- turned out to be untrue.
And for that, the press must shoulder some blame. Because the MSM not only failed to ask pressing questions, or raise serious doubts about the White House's controversial WMD assertion, but in some high-profile instances, such as with Judith Miller's reporting for the New York Times, the MSM were responsible for spreading the White House deceptions about Saddam's alleged stockpile; they were guilty of "incestuous amplification," as former Florida senator Senator Bob Graham called it. Being meek and timid and dictating administration spin amidst a wartime culture is one thing. But to be actively engaged in the spin, to give it a louder and more hysterical voice, is something else all together.
In fact, the compliant press repeated almost every administration claim about the threat posed to America by Saddam. The fact that virtually every one of those claims turned out to be false only added to the media's malpractice.
As Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler later wrote, the MSM's performance in 2002 and 2003 -- its inability and refusal to demand sharp answers to difficult questions about prewar intelligence -- likely represented their most crucial newsroom failing in nearly half a century. "How did a country on the leading edge of the information age get this so wrong and express so little skepticism and challenge?" asked Getler. "How did an entire system of government and a free press set out on a search for something and fail to notice, or even warn us in a timely or prominent way, that it wasn't or might not be there?"
The single-word answer is, timidity.
Looking back, bigfoot journalists conceded they failed to do their jobs during the run-up to war. ABC's Ted Koppel admitted, "If anything, what we've been criticized for, and probably more justifiably, is that we were too timid before the war." Dan Rather agreed: "We did not do our job of pressing and asking enough questions often enough."
2016 candidates will likely face questions about Iraq for weeks and months to come. As Paul Krugman notes this week, it wouldn't be a bad idea if the press answered more as well.