Iraq war 10th anniversary: A dark mark for news media
It’s the 10th anniversary of the day the United States took its eye off the ball, allowing the architect of the 9/11 attacks to live in relative peace and obscurity for eight more years.
It is the 10th anniversary of the moment an administration misled (or lied, as many believe) its way into a war that would cost nearly 4,500 American and countless Iraqi lives, abetted by a media that, with few exceptions, was cowed into submission by the intensely jingoistic atmosphere that prevailed in the months after Osama bin Laden attacked us.
The rationale for war, that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, turned out to be a fiction with biblical consequences.
How should we even think about that today?
I worry less about intelligence failures than I do about media failures. And what I am mulling over today is how our government has used its immense bully pulpit to steamroll the watchdogs.
Ten years ago, to question the legitimacy of the war was to risk being denounced as a coward or a traitor. It was a confusing and emotional time for Americans. I remember assigning a story about how older baby boomers, who had cut their political teeth protesting the Vietnam War and mistrusting the government, suddenly felt a bloom of patriotism, and were moved to display American flags.
But there was a darker side to all that country love.
And that was the credulous way the media establishment allowed the Bush administration to gin up the case for Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
Many were gulled by access to administration insiders, or susceptible to the drumbeat of the government’s coordinated rhetoric. It wasn’t until later that we learned how cynical the coordination was, when we saw YouTube compilations of administration officials like Condoleezza Rice warning over and over that “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
It was hard to resist the persuasion of someone as trustworthy as Gen. Colin Powell, the secretary of State, who put his credibility on the line to support the war. Many war doubters were converted when Powell showed the United Nations Security Council “proof” that Saddam Hussein was deeply engaged in a nuclear program. Powell played tapes, showed photos and vowed, “Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.”
How humiliating for Powell — and America — to later learn he’d been duped by his own government.
There were a few shining examples of mainstream media organizations that bucked the tide on the administration’s claims. But one really stood out, and on this anniversary, should be remembered and congratulated.
That was Knight-Ridder, whose Washington bureau led a very lonely fight as it disputed claims that Iraq was stockpiling WMD.
Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau chief at the time was John Walcott, who now works for Bloomberg News. He worked on the stories with Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and Joe Galloway to produce a body of work that was at odds with the rest of what mainstream media was reporting.
Two main ideas drove Knight-Ridder’s coverage, said Walcott: “Most of the administration’s case for that war made absolutely no sense, specifically the notion that Saddam Hussein was allied with Osama bin Laden. That one from the get-go rang all the bells — a secular Arab dictator allied with a radical Islamist whose goal was to overthrow secular dictators and reestablish his Caliphate? The more we examined it, the more it stank.
“The second thing was rather than relying entirely on people of high rank with household names as sources, we had sources who were not political appointees. One of the things that has gone very wrong in Washington journalism is ‘source addiction,’ ‘access addiction,’ and the idea that in order to maintain access to people in the White House or vice president’s office or high up in a department, you have to dance to their tune. That’s not what journalism is about.”
Knight-Ridder was undaunted by the now infamous case for war being pushed in the New York Times by reporters like Judith Miller, and the stories being peddled by Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who told stories about WMD and dreamed of becoming Iraq’s president. “We had better sources than she did and we knew who her sources were. They were political appointees who were making a political case.” As for Chalabi, said Walcott, “I first met him in '95 or '96. I wouldn’t get dressed in the morning based on what he told me the weather was, let alone go to war.”
There are good lessons here for reporters. Anyone who has covered a big story knows how easy it is to fall into pack behavior. You always worry that you don’t have what the other guy has. It takes a strong constitution to ignore the pull of the crowd.
“Keep your own counsel,” Wolcott advised. “Don’t be intimidated by what you read elsewhere. Don’t be intimidated by people with fancy titles. The value of a source is often inversely proportional to their rank. Too many journalists, including some very famous ones, have surrendered their independence in order to become part of the ruling class. Journalism is, as the motto goes, speaking truth to power, not wielding it.”
— Robin Abcarian
@robinabcarian and firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: An assault vehicle takes up position in March 2003. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times