Many of America’s most prominent journalists want us to forget what they were saying and writing more than four years ago to boost the invasion of Iraq. Now, they tiptoe around their own roles in hyping the war and banishing dissent to the media margins.
The media watch group FAIR (where I’m an associate) has performed a public service in the latest edition of its magazine Extra. The organization’s activism director, Peter Hart, drew on FAIR’s extensive research to assemble a sample of notable quotations from media cheerleading for the Iraq invasion.
One of the earliest quotes to merit special attention came from ace New York Times reporter -- and chronic Pentagon promoter -- Michael Gordon. In a CNN appearance on March 25, 2003, just a few days into the invasion, Gordon gave his easy blessing to the invaders’ bombing of Iraqi TV.
Gordon cited “what I’ve seen of Iraqi television, with Saddam Hussein presenting propaganda to his people and showing off the Apache helicopter and claiming a farmer shot it down and trying to persuade his own public that he was really in charge, when we’re trying to send the exact opposite message” -- and so, the Times reporter went on, Iraqi TV was “an appropriate target.”
Let’s unpack Gordon’s rationale for a military attack on Iraqi broadcasters: They presented propaganda to viewers, aired triumphal images and touted the authority of the top man in the government, while an adversary was “trying to send the exact opposite message.” By those standards, Iraqis would have been justified in targeting any one of the American cable news networks, most especially Fox News Channel.
Hart -- who is author of the book The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly -- includes some quotes from Fox in his collection of war-crazed statements from media. For instance, soon after the invasion began, Fox News commentator Fred Barnes declared: “The American public knows how important this war is, and is not as casualty sensitive as the weenies in the American press are.” (Unsurpassed bravery is a common denominator of rabid hawks in stateside TV studios.) But many of Hart’s examples are from U.S. media outlets with reputations for judicious professional journalism.
On NBC News, Brian Williams was singing from the choir book provided by U.S. officials. “They are calling this the cleanest war in all of military history,” Williams said on April 2, 2003. “They stress they’re fighting a regime and not the people, using smart bombs, not dumb, older munitions. But there have been and will be accidents. ... And there’s a new weapon in this war: Arab media, especially Al Jazeera. It’s on all the time, and unlike American media, it hardly reflects the Pentagon line. Its critics say it accentuates civilian casualties and provokes outrage on the Arab street.”
The next day, on the same network, Williams’ colleague Katie Couric was more succinct in her fawning. Viewers of the Today program listened as she interviewed a U.S. military official and exclaimed: “Thank you for coming on the show. And I want to add, I think the Special Forces rock!”
A week later, on MSNBC, the hardballer Chris Matthews was swept up in beach-ball euphoria as America’s armed forces toppled the Saddam regime. “We’re all neo-cons now,” Matthews exulted.
At the start of May 2003, when President Bush zoomed onto an aircraft carrier and stood near a “Mission Accomplished” banner, Lou Dobbs was quick to tell CNN viewers: “He looked like an alternatively commander in chief, rock star, movie star and one of the guys.”
On the same day, journalist Matthews assumed the royal “we” -- and, in the opportunistic process, blew with the prevailing wind. “We’re proud of our president,” he said. “Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who’s president. Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple.” All too simple.
Perhaps no journalist was more shameless in echoing President Bush’s fatuous claims about the invasion than Christopher Hitchens.
“Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them: If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you,” Bush said on March 17, 2003.
The next day, Hitchens came out with an essay declaring that “the Defense Department has evolved highly selective and accurate munitions that can sharply reduce the need to take or receive casualties. The predictions of widespread mayhem turned out to be false last time -- when the weapons [in the Gulf War] were nothing like so accurate.” And, Hitchens proclaimed, “it can now be proposed as a practical matter that one is able to fight against a regime and not a people or a nation.”
More than four years -- and at least several hundred thousand Iraqi civilian deaths -- later, the most reliable epidemiology available confirms that those claims were more than misleading. They were fundamentally out of touch with human reality.
If you had engaged in such cheerleading for the launch of the Iraq war in early 2003, by now you might also be eager to change the subject and argue about God.