Despite Iraq disaster, questioning authority still taboo
George W. Bush’s success in manipulating information would not have been possible without the collaboration and/or incompetence of the major U.S. news media. However, that cozy relationship began to shift in spring 2006 as the bloody war in Iraq dragged on and the U.S. public grew restless over the steady rise in the death toll. Even some of the Iraq War’s early cheerleaders, like Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, admitted to second thoughts.
“Those of us who once advocated this war are humbled,” Cohen wrote (4/4/06). “It’s not just that we grossly underestimated the enemy. We vastly overestimated the Bush administration.” Primarily, however, Cohen faulted Bush, citing “his embrace of incompetents, not to mention his own incompetence” and the lack of accountability.
“Rummy still runs the Pentagon. The only generals who have been penalized are those who spoke the truth,” Cohen wrote. “Victory in Iraq is now three years or so overdue and a bit over budget. Lives have been lost for no good reason–never mind the money–and now Bush suggests that his successor may still have to keep troops in Iraq.”
Yet, these tactical retreats by “humbled” pro-war columnists focused on U.S. ineptness in waging the war, not on the illegality, immorality and insanity of invading a major Arab country that wasn’t threatening the United States. By failing to expand the criticism of Bush beyond success or failure, the mainstream U.S. news media continued to embrace implicitly Bush’s assertion of a special American right to attack wherever and whenever the president says.
It was still out of bounds to discuss how the Iraq invasion violated the Nuremberg principle against aggressive war and the United Nations Charter, which bars attacking another country except in cases of self-defense or with the approval of the U.N. Security Council. To one extent or another, nearly all major U.S. news outlets had bought into the imperial neoconservative vision of an all-powerful United States that operates outside of international law.
That perspective could be found among the loudmouths at Fox News, but also in the more tempered columns by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Despite growing mainstream U.S. doubts about whether the Iraq War was “worth it,” there were almost no second thoughts about whether it was a war crime.
Big-name journalists bristled, too, when comedian Stephen Colbert held up a mirror to the media’s courtier culture. On April 29, 2006, at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner–a time for politicians, journalists and some invited celebrities to dress up in formal wear and rub shoulders–Colbert outraged the gathering with a withering satire of the press corps. As the keynote entertainer, Colbert performed in character as the self-absorbed right-wing acolyte of Bush that Colbert created for his Comedy Central program, the Colbert Report, pronounced with silent Ts.
Earlier in the evening, the assembled journalists had laughed and applauded at Bush’s own comedy routine, which featured a Bush double, Steve Bridges, who voiced Bush’s private contempt for the news media while the real Bush expressed his insincere respect. The scene had the look of eager employees laughing at the boss’ joke even when they were the butt of it.
Two years earlier, at a similar dinner, journalists had laughed and clapped when Bush put on a slide show of himself searching under Oval Office furniture for Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Rather than shock over Bush’s tasteless humor–amid the growing carnage in Iraq and the media’s own guilt in falling for the WMD deceptions–the press corps played both the part of good straight man and appreciative audience.
But the journalists got their backs up over Colbert. His monologue struck too close to home as he poked fun at the journalists for letting the country down by not asking tough questions before the Iraq War. Colbert explained to the journalists their proper role:
Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know–fiction.
Many Americans watching the performance at home got the joke, but the journalists in the room mostly acted as if someone had released a foul odor. The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank appeared on MSNBC on May 1 to sum up the consensus and pronounce Colbert’s spoof “not funny,” while praising Bush’s skit as a humorous hit.
Columnist Richard Cohen weighed in with a similar review on May 4. “Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude,” Cohen wrote. “Rudeness means taking advantage of the other person’s sense of decorum or tradition or civility that keeps that other person from striking back or, worse, rising in a huff and leaving. The other night, that person was George W. Bush.”
According to Cohen, Colbert was so boorish that he not only criticized Bush’s policies to his face, but the comedian mocked the Washington journalists who had invited Colbert to be the night’s lead entertainer.
“Colbert took a swipe at Bush’s Iraq policy, at domestic eavesdropping, and he took a shot at the news corps for purportedly being nothing more than stenographers recording what the Bush White House said,” Cohen wrote. “Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully.”
Even as the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq passed 2,400 and the toll of Iraqi dead–attributed directly and indirectly to the war–soared possibly into the hundreds of thousands, Cohen and other journalistic insiders were more concerned about Washington decorum. The American people may have once considered the national press corps their watchdogs on the federal government, but the modem U.S. news media mostly had turned into lap dogs wagging their tails, licking the faces of administration officials and hoping for some morsel of reward.
Around the country, however, a whiff of rebellion was in the air. On May 4, in Atlanta, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld spoke before a crowd of international affairs experts and appealed for civility and renewed faith in Bush’s honesty. But he was greeted with shouts from citizens outraged over government lies.
“You know, that charge [of lying] is frequently leveled against the President for one reason or another, and it’s so wrong and so unfair and so destructive of a free system, where people need to trust each other and government,” Rumsfeld said.
That position retained broad sympathy within the national press corps, which still held to the view that Bush didn’t willfully lie, only was misled by mistaken intelligence. But in Atlanta, Rumsfeld encountered sterner resistance than he had come to expect from the Washington media.
After Rumsfeld bemoaned the harm done by calling Bush a liar, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern rose to ask several pointed questions. “Why did you lie to get us into a war that was not necessary and that has caused these kinds of casualties? Why?” asked McGovern.
“Well, first of all, I haven’t lied. I did not lie then,” Rumsfeld said, before falling back on the argument that the problem was simply bad intelligence. “I’m not in the intelligence business. They gave the world their honest opinion. It appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there.”
Persisting in his questions, however, McGovern cited Rumsfeld’s earlier certainty about where Iraq’s WMD caches were hidden. McGovern also noted the administration’s discredited claims that Saddam Hussein’s government had ties to Al-Qaeda terrorists.
Rumsfeld responded first by falsely denying that he had said what McGovern said he said about the WMD caches. The Defense Secretary then pulled out an old canard that supposedly proved a Hussein/Al-Qaeda connection by noting that Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had spent time in Baghdad.
“Zarqawi was in Baghdad during the prewar period,” Rumsfeld said. “That is a fact.”
Some news coverage of the Atlanta confrontation, such as the clip on NBC‘s Nightly News, ended with that Rumsfeld statement, leaving his Zarqawi point unchallenged. However, CNN and other news outlets carried a fuller version, in which McGovern put Rumsfeld’s claim in context:
“Zarqawi? He was in the north of Iraq in a place where Saddam Hussein had no rule. That’s also….”
“He was also in Baghdad,” Rumsfeld interjected.
“Yes,” McGovern said, “when he needed to go to the hospital. Come on, these people aren’t idiots. They know the story.”
This article is excerpted from Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, by Robert Parry, Sam Parry and Nat Parry, the father-and-sons journalistic team behind ConsortiumNews.com, the independent investigative website. Robert Parry broke several of the most important stories of the Iran/Contra scandal while working for AP and Newsweek.