The Sunday morning interview shows on March 14 all devoted significant time to the one-year anniversary of the start of the invasion of Iraq. But viewers of these programs would have had a hard time finding a debate about the controversial decision to go to war.
ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos featured an interview with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was also the sole guest on Fox News Sunday. CBS's Face the Nation featured Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, with pro-war New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman sitting in on the questioning. Only NBC's Meet the Press showcased competing perspectives, with separate interviews with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, a critic of the Bush administration's decision to go to war. While surely one of the most striking aspects looking back at the war was how many of the claims surrounding it were wrong, the networks mostly confined themselves to interviewing the same administration officials who were responsible for delivering the pre-war misinformation in the first place.
The interviews with administration figures did bring up the issues of the pre-war claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the occupation of Iraq and the global effect the war has had so far. But given the controversies over the administration's Iraq and counter-terrorism policies, the questioning could hardly be described as pointed--as when George Will asked Powell, "Looking at it from where you sit, is the PATRIOT Act important and should it be renewed?"
When Fox's Chris Wallace interviewed Powell, he made sure to exculpate him before even asking him a softball question: "Mr. Secretary, I know that you were reporting the best intelligence that you had from not only the U.S. intelligence community, but the whole world. But when David Kay came back that month or so ago and reported that they had found no stockpiles at all, on a personal level, how did you feel?"
Nevertheless, Powell found a way to take offense at Wallace's line of questioning: "The suggestion in your question is that somehow I knew that the information was wrong that we were presenting, or that the president knew it was wrong." To which Wallace replied: "No, no, I'm not suggesting that at all." In fact, he had explicitly rejected that as being a possibility.
Harder-hitting questioning was glimpsed on CBS when Rumsfeld was questioned about the administration's characterization of Iraq as an "immediate" or "imminent" threat. When Rumsfeld doubted that anyone in the administration ever made such claims, Friedman read some of Rumsfeld's own words back to him that contradicted his denials. Rumsfeld offered a wandering response that largely avoided the issue, and the interview moved on to other subjects.
A meaningful debate, including forceful critics of the Bush administration, would have been more valuable to viewers. Unfortunately, the Beltway-minded Sunday shows rarely bring on such critical perspectives (Extra!, 10/01). While network interviewers like to think of themselves as holding administration officials' feet to the fire, in practice the networks seem more interested in ensuring return visits from high-ranking guests than in asking tough questions.
Broadcast journalists rarely challenge officials when they give misleading or deceptive answers. For example, on ABC's This Week (9/28/03), Colin Powell claimed that the Clinton administration "conducted a four-day bombing campaign in late 1998 based on the intelligence that he had. That resulted in the weapons inspectors being thrown out." In reality, as all major news outlets reported at the time, U.N. inspections chief Richard Butler withdrew his inspectors from Iraq in December 1998, in anticipation of a U.S.-British bombing campaign (Extra! Update, 10/02). Neither George Stephanopoulos nor George Will, who jointly conducted ABC's interview, corrected Powell's false assertion.
The New York Times, which ran a story about Powell's comments to ABC (9/29/03), issued a correction days later (10/4/03)--an acknowledgment that journalists should not pass along official misinformation. No such acknowledgment was offered by ABC.
If anything, the anniversary interviews served as a reminder of just how little scrutiny the media gave to administration claims about Iraq before the invasion. Fox News Sunday continued the pattern the following Sunday with a discussion on Iraq and the ongoing "war on terror." The guests were pro-war Republican Sen. John McCain and pro-war Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman. That's what passes for "balance" at Fox--but most of its network rivals fared no better.