May
30
2008

McClellan Confessions Spark Media Denial

Journalists get Iraq wrong all over again as they defend pre-war reporting

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's forthcoming book has caused a political firestorm by offering unusually blunt criticisms of the Bush White House. But McClellan has also aimed his fire at the news media, accusing mainstream reporters of being "deferential, complicit enablers" instead of challenging the White House's case for the Iraq War. The reaction from many in the elite media demonstrates that the White House is not the only institution that resents being held accountable.

During a joint appearance on NBC's Today show (5/28/08), network anchors Brian Williams, Charles Gibson and Katie Couric offered their assessments of the media's performance. While Couric conceded that the press could have done more in the face of various pressures, calling McClellan's critique "fairly accurate," NBC's Williams offered a somewhat incoherent defense of the media:

I've always put it this way. In Katrina, the evidence was right next to us. Sadly, we saw fellow Americans, in some cases, floating past face down. We knew what had just happened. We weren't allowed that kind of proximity with the weapons inspectors. I was in Kuwait for the buildup of the war. And yes, we heard from the Pentagon on my cell phone the minute they heard us report something that they didn't like. The tone of that time was quite extraordinary.

Given that the inspections process was well-documented by the United Nations--and well-covered by reporters who were interested in independent reporting (Extra!, 3-4/06)-- Williams' point is difficult to follow. It was no less obscure when ABC's Gibson made the same point on the CBS Early Show (5/28/08): "I think that the media did a pretty good job of focusing and asking the questions. We were not given access to get into the country... to go along with the inspectors."

This notion that there was no way of countering official claims is false. As FAIR pointed out shortly after Colin Powell's United Nations presentation ("A Failure of Skepticism in Powell Coverage," 2/10/03), there was plenty of information on the record that questioned Powell's claims. Associated Press reporter Charles Hanley, for example, reported two weeks prior to the Powell speech (1/18/03) that weapons inspectors were finding nothing incriminating at the sites identified by the U.S. and Britain: "In almost two months of surprise visits across Iraq, U.N. arms monitors have inspected 13 sites identified by U.S. and British intelligence agencies as major 'facilities of concern,' and reported no signs of revived weapons building."

ABC's Gibson also made a more direct defense of the media (NBC, 5/28/08):

I think the questions were asked.... You know, you go back to the Powell speech. There was a lot of skepticism raised about that. I can remember getting in trouble with administration officials because asking questions that they didn't feel comfortable with. I think the questions were asked. There was just a drumbeat of support from the administration, and it is not our job to debate them.

As FAIR pointed out at the time (Press Release, 2/10/03), the overall coverage of Powell was overwhelmingly credulous. And Gibson's objection to the idea that the media should "debate" the White House is a straw man; the real issue is how badly the media covered the very active debate that was going on before the war. A FAIR study of network news coverage of that period (1/30/03-2/12/03) found a remarkable tilt towards the White House's side:

More than two-thirds (267 out of 393) of the guests featured were from the United States. Of the U.S. guests, a striking 75 percent (199) were either current or former government or military officials. Only one of the official U.S. sources-- Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.)-- expressed skepticism or opposition to the war.

The study also found that "of all 393 sources, only three (less than 1 percent) were identified with organized protests or anti-war groups." And while some have suggested that the whole country was swept up in a post-9/11 fever for war, FAIR noted that a majority of the U.S. public favored more time for weapons inspections—a position advanced by few of the people quoted by the network newscasts.

On CNN (5/28/08), Wolf Blitzer also offered up a defense of his network's reporting:

I think we were pretty strong. But certainly, with hindsight, we could have done an even better job. There were a lot of things missing in our coverage that obviously, you know, ex post facto, after the fact. Certainly we raised the important questions. I can't tell you how many times we had Scott Ritter and Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei, from the International Atomic Energy Agency, on my shows, and a lot of the other shows on CNN, where they suggested, you know what, they don't see the evidence about the weapons of mass destruction. They're not convinced.

Given that Blix and ElBaradei were both overseeing the weapons inspections process, it's hard to give a news outlet too much credit for reporting their views. As for the prevalence of former inspector Scott Ritter, he was on CNN with Blitzer a handful of times in the weeks leading up to the war. But CNN's treatment of Ritter in those appearances hardly provides evidence to back up Blitzer's depiction of CNN as a strong, independent news source. As FAIR pointed out (Extra!, 3-4/06):

Appearing on CNN's Sunday Morning (9/8/02), CNN news executive Eason Jordan told Catherine Callaway: “Well, Scott Ritter's chameleon-like behavior has really bewildered a lot of people.... U.S. officials no longer give Scott Ritter much credibility.” When Paula Zahn interviewed Ritter (CNN American Morning, 9/13/02), she suggested he was in league with Saddam Hussein: "People out there are accusing you of drinking Saddam’s Kool-Aid."

Blitzer was similarly unimpressed when interviewing anti-war activist Dr. Helen Caldicott (11/2/02). When she blamed a dramatic rise in birth defects in southern Iraq on the U.S. use of depleted uranium in the Gulf War, Blitzer defended the Pentagon. He did the same when Caldicott brought up the effect of sanctions on Iraq, saying that "the Iraqi regime itself is to blame for all of these problems." Blitzer goes on to argue that Caldicott's questioning of U.S. policy is tantamount to "defending the Iraqi regime."

Blitzer wasn't the only journalist with a self-serving recollection of his own work. MSNBC host Chris Matthews seemed to congratulate his own program's record (5/28/08):

For months and years now, Hardball told the two-part story of how the Iraq war was sold under the false pretense that Saddam Hussein posed a nuclear threat to the United States, and the people in the Bush administration sought to destroy those who unmasked the plotting.

While Matthews might wish to recall his performance that way, the actual record isn't so flattering. On April 9, 2003, Matthews gushed over the news that a Saddam Hussein statue fell in Baghdad:

--"Why don't the damn Democrats give the president his day? He won today. He did well today."

--"What's he [DNC Chair Howard Dean] going to talk about a year from now, the fact that the war went too well and it's over? I mean, don't these things sort of lose their--Isn't there a fresh date on some of these debate points?"

--"We're all neo-cons now."

And when Bush delivered his "Mission Accomplished" speech (5/1/03), Matthews gushed:

We're proud of our president. 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. We're not like the Brits.

It should be noted that some reporters echoed McClellan's charge. CNN's Jessica Yellin, who previously worked at ABC and MSNBC, had this exchange with CNN host Anderson Cooper (5/28/08):

I think the press corps dropped the ball at the beginning. When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings.

And my own experience at the White House was that, the higher the president's approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives -- and I was not at this network at the time -- but the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president....

They wouldn't say it in that way, but they would edit my pieces. They would push me in different directions. They would turn down stories that were more critical and try to put on pieces that were more positive.

But many journalists seemed to express bewilderment, if not contempt, at McClellan's switch from water-carrier to whistleblower. Current CNN reporter Ed Henry (5/28/08) asked:

So, you do have to wonder... just who is the real Scott McClellan, the one who was constantly pushing back on the media back then, and doing a lot of the White House talking points, or the one who now thinks that those talking points were not true?

Boy, that's a puzzler: Was McClellan expressing his real views when he was paid to represent the Bush administration, or when he wrote a book under his own name? Posing the question at all seems to suggest an unfamiliarity with what press secretaries do, which is repeat their bosses' talking points, true or not. Reporters are supposed to treat such talking points with skepticism, as one would any official government source. The fact that some reporters seem confused by this is a significant concern—-evidence that this White House, or any other, will have little trouble misleading the corporate press.

Above all, exercising a vigilant form of skepticism in the run-up to the Iraq War should have been the obvious position for the media to take—whatever one made of the supposed intelligence on Iraq's weapons. As FAIR pointed out on February 10, 2003:

Journalists should always be wary of implying unquestioning faith in official assertions; recent history is full of official claims based on satellite and other intelligence data that later turned out to be false or dubious.

The day before Powell's presentation, FAIR noted that "the media's intensive coverage of the U.N. inspections has repeatedly glided from reporting the allegation that Iraq is hiding banned weapons materials to repeating it as a statement of fact." The Media Advisory ("Iraq's Hidden Weapons: From Allegation to Fact," 2/4/03) went on:

Through constant repetition of phrases like "the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," the media convey to the public the impression that the alleged banned weapons on which the Bush administration rests its case for war are known to exist and that the question is simply whether inspectors are skillful enough to find them. In fact, whether or not Iraq possesses banned weapons is very much an open question, one which no publicly available evidence can answer one way or the other.

As former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw put it on May 29, "All wars are based on propaganda." If every journalist took that lesson to heart, reporting on the drive to war would have looked very different.