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Are Journalists Any Less Gullible Today than They Were 10 Years Ago?

Are Journalists Any Less Gullible Today than They Were 10 Years Ago?

Instead of being a government watchdog and fact checking all the assertions politicians feed them, journalists have become prone to the lapdog tendencies of repeating what those in power say without questioning whether it’s true.

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It’s a tribute to the good sense of the broader American public that on the 10th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq, a majority of Americans are aware that the entire enterprise was a bad idea, according to a poll by the Gallup Organization.  As Eric Boehlert noted on the Media Matters for America blog, “To date, that conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 8,000 U.S. service members and contractors and more than 130,000 Iraqi citizens, and is projected to cost the U.S. Treasury more than two trillion dollars.”

The Gallup’s write-up points out that, “Majorities or near-majorities have viewed the conflict as a mistake continuously since August 2005, the current 53 percent is down from the high point of 63 percent in April 2008.” Despite this widely held view, the folks who battled to defend their misguided judgments 10 years ago—largely but not exclusively neoconservatives—are continuing their bloated claims about the purposes and benefits of the war. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, took to Twitter to proclaim that, “10 yrs ago began the long, difficult work of liberating 25 mil Iraqis. All who played a role in history deserve our respect & appreciation.” And yet a majority of Americans are able to see the truth through this ongoing propaganda offensive.

It is no easy task to focus on just one deception when examining the Bush administration’s success of selling the war to the public. There were so many lies—some deliberate and some believed to be true by the tellers who were possibly under the influence of self-hypnosis. But I am most fascinated by the case for Iraq’s alleged cache of “weapons of mass destruction,” or WMDs, and the belief that Baghdad possessed not only the willingness but also the capacity to use these weapons against the United States.

These quotes from a range of high-level Bush administration officials offer a glimpse into how the administration “proved” to Americans that Iraq posed a threat to our national security:

  • Vice President Dick Cheney: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” Speech to VFW National Convention, August 26, 2002.
  • Secretary Rumsfeld: “We know they have weapons of mass destruction. … There isn’t any debate about it.” September 2002.
  • Gen. Tommy Franks, then-head of the Central Command: “There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction.” Press conference, March 22, 2003.
  • Secretary of State Colin Powell: “I’m absolutely sure that there are weapons of mass destruction there and the evidence will be forthcoming. We’re just getting it just now.” Remarks to reporters, May 4, 2003.

As I noted in The Book on Bush, statements such as these enabled neoconservative pundits such as Robert Kagan and William Kristol to claim that, “No one disputes the nature of the threat,” and that, “Nor is there any doubt that, after September 11, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction pose a kind of danger to us that we hadn’t grasped before.” Back then, this was the “price of admission” to be taken seriously in the debate regarding the decision to attack Iraq.

We now know that these claims were all false. We also know that members of the Bush administration knew they were lying at the time. In early October 2003, for instance, David Kay, the Bush administration’s chief investigator, formally told Congress that after searching for nearly six months and spending more than $300 million, U.S. forces and CIA experts had found no chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, and had discovered that the nation’s nuclear program was in only “the very most rudimentary” state.

Undoubtedly, the administration’s most effective communicator on the issue was then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was widely thought to be the most cautious—and hence the most trustworthy—member of the administration’s foreign policy team. In actuality, Secretary Powell personally doubted the case he was making to the media about the dangers Iraq presented to the United States and the world. At a meeting in New York just before he was to present the case for war to the United Nations, Secretary Powell expressed hesitation about the war to U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, according to a transcript of the conversation published in The Guardian. Secretary Powell allegedly told the British foreign secretary that he feared that the evidence might “explode in their faces” once the facts were known. U.S. News & World Report published a more lurid story recalling the interaction, in which the U.S. secretary of state threw the documents and called them “bullshit.”

In fact, two years earlier in February 2001 at a meeting with Egypt’s foreign minister in Cairo, Secretary Powell defended the U.N. sanctions program already in place against Iraq. He noted the success of U.S. containment of Hussein and regarding the sanctions, he explained that, “Frankly, they have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.”

Of course, Secretary Powell was right the first time. But many members of the news media proved eager accomplices in this misinformation campaign, just as they had during the Gulf of Tonkin episode that began America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam. During this incident, newspapers and newsweeklies published lurid accounts of a battle that never took place based on fabricated stories passed along to them by the Johnson administration—a depressing phenomenon that I describe in great detail in my book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Presidential Deception And Its Consequences. The media again fell victim to presidential deception as the Bush administration pushed for the invasion of Iraq.

Gilbert Cranberg, former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, examined the media reaction to Powell’s U.N. presentation in great detail. Cranberg observed that the secretary’s speech “cited almost no verifiable sources, and was filled with unattributed assertions, vague references, and the like.” Despite this, virtually everyone in the mainstream media swallowed it hook, line, and proverbial sinker.

Surveying the print and broadcast coverage of the speech, Cranberg found descriptions of Powell’s presentation that claimed it was “a massive array of evidence,” “a detailed and persuasive case,” “a powerful case,” “a sober, factual case,” “an overwhelming case,” “a compelling case,” “the strong, credible and persuasive case,” and “a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information.” Furthermore, the media concluded that “the core of his argument was unassailable,” that it was “a smoking fusillade … a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable,” “an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence,” and that “only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction.” Further attacking those who did not support the war, the media argued that “the skeptics asked for proof; they now have it,” claiming the presentation was “a much more detailed and convincing argument than any that has previously been told,” “an ironclad case … incontrovertible evidence,” “succinct and damning evidence … the case is closed”—and the list continues.

I was reminded of the panic over Iraq’s imaginary WMD cache recently not only because this month marks the 10th anniversary of the invasion, but also because the Pew Research Center released its annual “State of the News Media” report this week. According to a section titled “Lessons Learned About the Media from the 2012 Election,” the authors observe that:

Journalists are a shrinking source in shaping the candidate narratives, while campaigns and partisans have assumed a much larger role in defining the press discourse. Reporters (and talk show personalities) account for about half as many of the assertions about the candidates’ character and biography as they did 12 years ago—27 percent versus 50 percent in 2000. At the same time, campaigns, their surrogates and allies now account for nearly half of these themes, 48 percent, up from 37 percent in 2000. That shift, giving partisans a bigger role in shaping the media narrative, has been gradual and may reflect in part the shrinking reportorial resources in newsrooms.

In other words, the reporting profession is actually moving away from the ideal that their job is not to simply repeat what their sources say—nor to give them unmediated access to their audiences—but instead to submit the claims to tough-minded scrutiny. When combined with the flight from reality that characterizes the modern conservative movement and drives both the words and actions of Republican candidates, we now have a formula for more disinformation in the future, and sadly, more catastrophes akin to the Iraq invasion.

No one can predict where and when these potential calamities will occur. But when a democracy is constantly fed misinformation, and those charged with correcting it pass it along unedited and unchecked, bad things happen. Iraq may be the worst of these—let us hope—but it certainly won’t be the last.

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.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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