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Think Again: Why Didn’t the Iraq War Kill “The Liberal Media”?

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan

SOURCE: AP/Ron Edmonds

In this December 13, 2005, file photo, then-White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan under President George W. Bush adresses questions about the Iraq war from members of the media.

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We’re three weeks into our “Lessons Learned from the Iraq War”—more accurately titled, “Lessons Unlearned.” One of the most glaring of these is the notion of a “liberal media” during the war. Given President George W. Bush’s deceptive case for invading Iraq, a “lapdog media” is more accurate.

Alas, I have a horse in this fight. Ten years ago I published my fourth book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, just a few weeks before the United States invaded Iraq. Although I finished the book months before its February 2003 publication date, I was able to include material about the run-up to the war. But had I published the book after the attack was launched, a chapter on media and the Iraq war would have solidified my argument.

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, a conservative libertarian, has successfully studied how prewar hawks attempt to elude moral, intellectual, and political responsibility for their bad judgments of 10 years ago. In one of his columns, Friedersdorf examined a column by law professor Glenn Reynolds on Instapundit.com, in which he mocked a blog post by yours truly written in early 2003 for msnbc.com. In the blog post I criticized The New York Times for an “over-hyped story” on “the top-right column of page one” in which it gave credence to the Bush administration’s “phony prediction that the war Bush has decided to launch, without provocation or legal justification, will cost only $60 billion or less in constant dollars than the 1991 Gulf War.” Reynolds thought my notion hilarious. He quipped: “ALTERMAN CLAIMS that the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has taken over The New York Times. I tried to reach Ann Coulter for comment, but all I got was a recording of what seemed to be her voice, saying ‘Buwhahaha!’”

How many times did we hear different iterations of this? From The New York Times, The Washington Post, the networks—and all of them were supposedly liberal, anti-Bush, and anti-war. If they were in favor of invading Iraq—or even published information that might help the Bush administration make its case—you were a complete nutcase to question it, right?

Um, wrong.

Whether one looks at the editorial or the news pages, one finds a decided slant in favor of the war across all the mainstream media—and much of the blogosphere, as Friedersdorf points out. The Washington Post, for example, ran 27 separate editorials in favor of the war. It published op-ed after op-ed by the likes of George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Cohen, and dozens of others making the case for war, while only publishing a few from skeptics. Simultaneously, the paper buried the skeptical—and correct—reports from national security journalist Walter Pincus. His arguments punched holes in many specious arguments about alleged weapons of mass destruction and phony meetings with Saddam Hussein, but The Post denied them the attention amid the relentlessly pro-war media narrative. The Post’s editors admitted in retrospect that they hyped the administration’s case over and over again.

How about The New York Times? Yes, its editorial page was appropriately cautious, but many of its pundits and news stories were not. Remember William Safire insisting that Hussein’s representatives had met with Al Qaeda in Prague to help plan the 9/11 attack?  Remember Bill Keller’s famous “I Can’t Believe I’m a Hawk” column? Remember the deeply flawed reporting of Judith Miller, who served as a megaphone for administration war hawks and regularly aired her opinions on the front page of The Times? Her misleading stories regarding Iraqi weaponry were so compelling that even Vice President Dick Cheney found them useful when seeking to scare the nation into war. And then there was The Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman and his incredible boast on “The Charlie Rose Show”: “well, suck on this. OK? That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.”

I could go on. The New Yorker? It was not only pro-war in its editorials but also in its main reporting from its stars, Jeffery Goldberg and later George Packer. The New Republic was pro-war on virtually every page of the magazine. Time? Newsweek? The Los Angeles Times? The Wall Street Journal? All followed a similar pattern and this included not only agitating for war but also mocking those who dared to differ. In retrospect, the only major mainstream news service that can hold up its head and claim that it told the whole story is Knight-Ridder—a news organization located mostly outside the Beltway. McClatchy took over the newspaper company in 2006, but budget cuts have since significantly weakened the organization.

One can argue about the individual defenses. One can make the case—as did many Democratic politicians in retrospect—that Americans have a right to believe their president when he insists on the need to meet what he insists is an imminent threat.

But the job of journalists is to verify these arguments, not simply to parrot the propaganda from a conservative Republican president and his staff. Journalists even went further than just echoing the arguments, and even ignored traditional journalistic practices in order to dismiss or even mock the counter-evidence provided by numerous expert sources. Given all this, it becomes obvious that if there was any bias at all, then it was hardly a liberal one.

The Iraq war killed hundreds of thousands of people and any number of naïve dreams from its boosters and cheerleaders. One notion that should have died forever is that of a “liberal media.”

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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