Day of reckoning for the media handmaidens of war
In this installment of our special series, “9/11 at 20: A week of reflection,” we take a look at the mainstream media’s hive-like mentality in the wake of the attacks and how this made them willing tools for the Bush Administration and the military in the run-up to the Iraq War and beyond.
In December 2011, a decade after the 9/11 attacks, elite journalists David Ignatius and Diane Rehm had an extremely brief, on-air mea culpa moment. President Obama had just announced the official end of combat operations in Iraq (that wouldn’t last), and the two seemed to be acknowledging their own role in supporting the invasion nearly nine years before:
REHM: David, I’m going to ask you an unpleasant question. Do you think that journalists were complicit in promoting the idea that war in Iraq was inevitable?
IGNATIUS: Let me speak about my own work rather than talk about the profession as a whole. As I look back, there are no columns I’ve ever written that I’d more like to revise in light of what I know now than the ones I wrote then… And I think everybody in our profession looks back and I hope learned lessons from that, to ask more questions, just to insist on getting the evidence for things that are so consequential for the country.
REHM: I, for one, feel very disappointed in our profession that we did not ask the questions that should have been asked.
Believing it was the entire profession that got it wrong must be a comfort to them. In one way they’re right. After 9/11 much of the ecosystem we consider the mainstream news media was on the same sheet of music. They followed, in step, powerful interests in Washington. Editors and corporate sponsors didn’t want to look out of place — it was important for ratings, status, and access to be patriotic, team players. They moved the Overton window around, and built consensus. All of this trumped the skepticism that Rehm and Ignatius were now wishing they had more of when it counted.
But they were wrong that “no one questioned.” Many independent journalists did.
Now 20 years later, a different president has announced another end to combat operations — this time in Afghanistan. Again, the media hive scrambles to rewrite their role, deflect, or worse, continue to serve as handmaidens to the same powerful ringleaders who wanted to keep the U.S. military in Afghanistan indefinitely. This is a powerful reminder that the country could not have sustained a protracted war there for a generation without the complicity of the press after 9/11.
Mushroom clouds and candies in the streets
For many critics, the very low point of the media’s pusillanimity came with the firing of talk show host Phil Donahue just one month before the first bombing of Baghdad in March 2003.
The longtime talk icon has always insisted he was sacked because of his vocal opposition to the coming invasion (ironically his slot was temporarily filled by an extended “Countdown: Iraq” show hosted by Lester Holt). “They were terrified by the anti-war voice,” he told Democracy Now 10-years later. “We weren’t good for business.”
According to former Minnesota Governor and Navy Seal Jesse Ventura, his own show on MSNBC was also canceled after a three-month run in 2003 because the network found out he had been publicly opposed to invading Iraq. Ashleigh Banfield, then at NBC, was literally reporting on the 9/11 attacks in New York when one of the towers collapsed behind her. She says her clock started ticking after she gave a controversial speech at Kansas State University criticizing war coverage in 2003 and sending a memo to her colleagues urging them “not to wave the banner and cover warfare in a jingoistic way. It didn’t sit well with my employers at NBC…I think they overacted. I was banished.”
This was hardly an NBC problem. Corporate media conformity after 9/11 was so powerful that the Bush administration was not only able to push through some of the most constitutionally questionable federal law enforcement powers in modern times, but launch two wars within a year and half of each other.
After supporting the Afghanistan operation in 2001, the establishment of Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, and passively reporting the first signs of detainee torture by American forces, the media then gave the Bushies and their neoconservative surrogates a soapbox to promote the Iraq invasion in 2003. In the lead up to Iraq, according to one study, 75 percent of the guests and panels on the major networks were current or retired government officials toeing the administration line. “Major newspapers and magazines gave them prime space to make their case, including the possibility that 9/11 had been ‘sponsored, supported and perhaps even ordered by Saddam Hussein,’” said Bill Moyers in a 2007 documentary called “Selling the War.”
By September 2002 Bush’s national security adviser Condi Rice was warning that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” with little pushback. An effective Republican Wall of Sound (radio, blogs, press, and of course Fox News) created an echochamber in favor of the president’s plans, and pressured everyone else to conform.
Dissenters were dismissed as fringe and cringe. However, editors of The American Conservative — a heterodox magazine co-founded by Patrick Buchanan in part to oppose the invasion — drew special fire (full disclosure, I’ve been a TAC contributor since 2007). Aside from being “unpatriotic conservatives,” wrote David “Axis of Evil” Frum in the National Review on March 25, 2003, “they deny and excuse terror. They espouse a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism. They publicize wild conspiracy theories. And some of them explicitly yearn for the victory of their nation’s enemies.”
But while these few independent forums on the left and the right struggled for attention, liberal moderates dominated the networks, top newspapers, and magazines, and were absolutely critical in swaying elite opinion in favor of Bush’s second war. That included voices like Fareed Zakaria, New Yorker editor David Remnick, and the New York Times’ Bill Keller, who penned a column entitled “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk-Club.” Michael Kelly wrote an essay for the Washington Post supporting the impending invasion as a liberation of the Iraqi people from under the “boot” of Saddam Hussein. Tragically, he was the first American journalist killed in Iraq two months later at the age of 46.
After Baghdad was taken and Saddam tossed out, Washington decided to stay. Condi’s “mushroom cloud” had turned out to be a collapsed souffle, so the military moved on to giving out sweets to grateful, liberated Iraqis. The shift from WMD to democratization was easy for the now sheepish but still unrepentant media. Boosters like Tom Friedman at the New York Times started pushing the notion that Afghnistan wasn’t enough — that we had “smash” the “terrorism bubble” in the Islamic world, and that it was imperative that we “put Iraq onto a progressive path.”
“The failure of the Bush team to produce any weapons of mass destruction (W.M.D.’s) in Iraq is becoming a big, big story,” he wrote in June 2003. “But is it the real story we should be concerned with? No. It was the wrong issue before the war, and it’s the wrong issue now.”
To embed or not to embed?
WMDs now forgotten, hundreds of reporters from major newspapers and networks started “embedding” with the military to cover the war. The military had learned its lesson in Vietnam. Instead of having reporters and photogs running around independently getting their own stories and broadcasting unfiltered images back home, the military would guarantee direct access to the military and safe passage in the war zone. In return, the message would be carefully managed. It was the mastermind of commanders like David Petraeus, who played the press like a fiddle.
“The overall effect (was) to prevent reporting that shows war from the perspective of anyone but the American military,” pointed out media critic Matt Taibbi, who was an embed himself.
“What definitely happened to me is that I became too close to the soldiers with whom I was embedded. I got along very well with a unit of men and women who mostly came from Oklahoma, and I found it hard to look at the war through any eyes but theirs,” he told Responsible Statecraft in an interview. “Looking back, this probably prevented me from being more critical.”
This was happening on a widespread basis to the point that the media gobbled up confections like the Jessica Lynch story (until she herself set the record straight) in 2003, or the lies first told about the friendly fire killing of Army Ranger Pat Tillman in 2004. While there was certainly tremendous reporting done within (and outside) the embed program, the American media soon became dependent on Pentagon briefings (particularly after embedding in Iraq winded down), and were slow to react to news and events that didn’t put the military in the best light (like torture and civilian deaths).
In 2014, ex-soldier Chelsea Manning published an op-ed in the New York Times, which among other insights confirmed what many sensed already, that the Pentagon hand selected embeds with an elaborate rating system “used to screen out those judged likely to produce critical coverage.”
Those who broke the military’s elaborate stated rules were blacklisted, Manning said, like Michael Hastings, whose unvarnished reporting eventually got Gen. Stanley McChrystal fired in 2010. The way the mainstream circled the wagons around the disgraced general was epic. “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way Gen. McChrystal has,” charged CBS reporter and embed Lara Logan, who had taken to delivering the military’s own talking points all over major media by 2009, and was personally affronted by Hasting’s lack of respect.
“It didn’t seem to make a difference that I hadn’t violated any agreement with McChrystal,” Hastings later wrote in his 2012 book, The Operators. “The unwritten rule I’d broken was a simple one: You really weren’t supposed to write honestly about people in power.”
The networks were even more obsequious, and easily manipulated into having retired generals cooperating with the Pentagon on each night as “experts.” Known as the “message force multipliers,” these generals brought the war into Americans’ homes each night, but unlike the Walter Cronkites of a previous generation they had a hidden agenda — and still do.
Unfortunately, while there’s plenty of evidence that the major media was snookered, fell down on the job, and in some cases learned from their mistakes (the New York Times and Washington Post have delivered some of the best investigative journalism on both Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade), the easy genuflection to power continues to this day.
“I think that problem has gotten worse, as the new trend is to simply hire talking heads from the Pentagon or the CIA or NSA or DIA directly and make them paid news readers/contributors like John Brennan and James Clapper,” notes Taibbi. “The lines between military and intelligence propaganda and news have blurred to the point where it’s not really possible to distinguish one from another.” Multiple stories on these pages point out the undisclosed ties between the defense industry, major media influencers, and government.
This doesn’t bode well for the run up to the next war. One can only hope that enough of us are around every anniversary to remind the world how easy the slippery slope to complicity can be.