Media Admits Failing Public on Iraq War Coverage

by Christopher Bollyn 

March 30, 2004

A year into what has become a very grim occupation, a chorus of senior journalists are now saying that the mainstream media “failed the American public” with its uncritical acceptance of the administration’s dubious claims about the need to invade Iraq.

“This has been the most shameful era of American media. The media has been sucker-punched completely by this administration,” Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times said recently about how the mainstream media had covered the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Sheer, a visiting professor at University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, made his comments on March 18 during a conference about the media’s role in the war in Iraq.

Berkeley’s school of journalism co-sponsored the three-day Media at War conference. The conference brought together dozens of international correspondents, journalists, editors, and directors of mainstream media outlets.  Key personalities in the run-up to the war, such as Hans Blix, the former chief U.N. weapons inspector, and Joseph C. Wilson, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, also participated in the conference.


Speaking for the military, Lt. Col. Richard Long, former Public Information Director for the U.S. Marine Corps, spoke about why the military had decided to embed journalists with military units in the field. “Frankly, our job is to win the war,” Long said. “Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.”

Long, as head of media relations for the Marine Corps, managed the media boot camp in Quantico, Virginia, where more than 700 journalists were prepared for their war assignments. “Overall,” Long said, “we were very happy with the outcome.”

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, said, “Embeddedness has a built-in swerve toward propaganda…because an embedded reporter is on a team.” Because his life depends on the soldiers with whom he is embedded, Gitlin said the journalist’s desire to write negative stories is “quite diminished.”

John Burns, the New York Times bureau chief, called in from Baghdad, where images and reports of the grim reality of the occupation are filtered before being published.  Burns said: “We failed the American public by being insufficiently critical about elements of the administration’s plan to go to war.”

Maher Abdallah Ahmad of the Arab television network Al Jazeera said, “The Americans still do not know what is happening in Iraq.  Does anyone here know how many Iraqis were killed in the war?” Ahmad asked. “You make all these efforts to establish a democracy, and you don’t give a damn how many people were killed?”

Federico Rampini, U.S. correspondent for Italy’s La Republica newspaper said he was amazed that American journalists have not investigated more deeply Vice President Dick Cheney’s role in the Halliburton scandal. In Italy, Rampini said, such a story “would have been on the front page for months.”

While the leading U.S. news organizations are now rushing to expose the Bush administration’s pre-war deceptions on the need to invade Iraq, Michael Massing, in his article “Now They Tell Us” in the New York Review of Books, wrote: “Where were you all before the war? Why didn’t we learn more about these deceptions and concealments in the months when the administration was pressing its case for regime change – when, in short, it might have made a difference?”

Massing points out that Judith Miller of the Times wrote several front-page articles before the war about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) based on faulty information provided by Iraqi defectors of dubious credibility. In an e-mail to Burns, Miller wrote that Ahmed Chalabi, the indicted bank embezzler and head of the exile Iraqi National Congress, “has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper.”

“Not until September 29, 2003,” Massing wrote, “did the New York Times get around to informing readers about the controversy over Chalabi and the defectors associated with him.” More than 6 months into the war and with no evidence of the alleged Iraqi WMD anywhere to be found, Douglas Jehl reported that most of the information provided by Chalabi and his defectors had been judged by the Defense Intelligence Agency as being “of little or no value.”

“The press was in a good position to educate the public on the administration’s justifications for war,” Massing wrote, “Yet for the most part, it never did so.  The performance of the Times was especially deficient,” Massing wrote. “Compared to other major papers, the Times placed more credence in defectors, expressed less confidence in inspectors, and paid less attention to dissenters.”

When Massing asked Miller why she had not included more comments in her stories from experts who contested the assertions made by Iraqi defectors and the White House, she said: “My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.”

“But even a cub reporter should know that if the government tells her the sky is blue, it’s her job to check whether it might not be red or gray or black,” Rich Mercier of the Free Lance–Star of Fredericksburg, Va. wrote on March 28. “And skepticism must be exercised most strongly when the matter at hand is whether the nation will go to war.

“By neglecting to fully employ their critical-thinking faculties, Miller and many of her colleagues in the elite print media not only failed their readers during the countdown to the Iraq invasion, they failed our democracy,” Mercier wrote, “And there’s no excusing that failure.”

As a leading opinion-setting newspaper, the Times set a pro-war tone on Iraq that many other papers followed. Massing concluded that the “pack mentality” is “one of the most entrenched and disturbing features of American journalism.”