Getting Iraq Right

Iraq demands a change in direction, but it's hard for people to demand a change on policies that go unreported, writes Eric Alterman.

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Here we go again. It’s the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, though it may be an oncoming train. America is (once again) at a crossroads in the Iraq war. We stand in April 2008 with over 4,000 U.S. combat deaths, and many more Iraqi casualties behind us, at a cost of trillions of dollars. Ahead lay decisions, immediately in Congress and then at the polls in November, which could radically alter the strategy in Iraq.

We have been led down this disastrous path by the Bush administration, but almost as importantly, by its cheerleaders in the punditocracy. This is an administration, you will recall, that still refuses to admit any significant error in its actions there. The media has expressed much self-criticism and even more critical reporting, but it still allows many unexamined biases and phony assumptions about the war to stay alive. So to what extent can the media be trusted to help the public navigate the complex choices in Iraq in the months ahead? What fundamental facts about the occupation of Iraq are obscured by bad journalism, and currently left out of the debate?

Greg Mitchell, editor of the newspaper trade publication Editor & Publisher, has condensed years of pointing out Iraq war journalists’ flawed coverage into a new book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits—and the President—Failed on Iraq. He reviews the past five years of the war through the lens of media coverage, and describes in detail how much of the coverage was far too credulous and irresponsible.

“The top reporters at the top newspapers and TV networks have often taken what the Pentagon or the Secretary of State or the White House has to say, printed it, and then maybe looked into it,” Mitchell told an interviewer. “So I’m always looking for the words in the stories where it’d, say, the Pentagon ‘claimed,’ or the Pentagon ‘asserted,’ and ‘this could not be confirmed.’ Instead, they just report it as [if] it seems to be the case. That’s my biggest complaint with all the coverage.”

Sifting through the pre-invasion coverage, it’s a challenge to find many examples of reporters asking tough questions about President Bush’s claims about weapons of mass destruction, mushroom clouds, a quick military operation, and receptive Iraqi people. In fact some reporters—most famously Judith Miller at the New York Times—helped the administration disseminate these viewpoints without requiring much evidence.

Mitchell observes that at the beginning of the invasion, the press not only accepted the Bush administration’s view, but all too often, they promoted it. After the fall of Baghdad, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews declared, “We’re all neocons now.” The same day, Joe Scarborough, also on MSNBC, said, “I’m waiting to hear the words ‘I was wrong’ from some of the world’s most elite journalists, politicians, and Hollywood types.” CNN’s Walter Rodgers, in Iraq in the early moments of the war, told anchor Aaron Brown, “It’s great fun.”

Once it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and that the democratic transformation was not going according to plan, many outlets attempted to make amends for their shoddy coverage, albeit awfully gingerly. Mitchell notes that, “When the New York Times carried its now-famous editors’ note on May 26, 2004, admitting some errors in its WMD coverage, it appeared on page A10, and Judith Miller’s name was nowhere to be found.”

The note is often described today as an “apology,” but it was no such thing. On the day it ran, executive editor Bill Keller, not exactly chastened, called criticism of the Times’ coverage “overwrought.” and said that the main reason it even published the note was because the controversy had become a “distraction.” Mitchell notes that while many say the Washington Post issued an apology, the only criticism came from the paper’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, not the paper’s editorial board or top editors.

For all the media mea-culpas and hand-wringing, modest as it may have been, much of today’s reporting remains uncritical. In order to have a healthy, national dialogue on the war and its direction, we need to have all sides of the story. (Well, first we need to actually have a dialogue in place. As we noted last week, the amount of time being spent by the press on the Iraq war has decreased dramatically in recent months.) Yet several fundamental issues about Iraq still get obscured by the press today; here are some key points that the media doesn’t talk much about:

The original justifications for the war have changed significantly. Media coverage rarely reminds people that the Bush administration’s reasons for remaining at war are not the reasons they originally gave for going to war. The words “weapons of mass destruction” are rarely uttered, and when presented with the opportunity to highlight the changing rationale for war, the media usually punts.

On the recent five-year anniversary of the war, for example, the Pentagon issued a report admitting that there was no operational connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, a central part of President Bush’s case for war exactly five years before. Yet, as Media Matters noted, throughout all the war anniversary coverage, neither NBC nor ABC news even mentioned the study. Charles Gibson instead summed up the war thusly: “In five years, we have seen horror in a prison; a landmark election; the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein; and the so-called surge of forces to improve security.”

The war is very expensive. Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz calculates that the eventual total cost of the war will be about $3 trillion. This is crucial context not often provided by the media. The Washington Post hailed a plan by presidential candidate John McCain as “the most aggressive at identifying ways to reduce spending,” according to analysts who cited his plans to reduce government spending and earmarks, but did not note that he plans to continue the vastly more expensive occupation of Iraq.

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research also notes that the press doesn’t provide necessary context even when it does put an astronomical number on Iraq war. A 2007 New York Times editorial, for instance, said that President Bush was requesting $196 billion from Congress to spend in Iraq and Afghanistan, and left it at that. (Actually, the editorial said “million,” not “billion,” but it meant billion). But just as editorial writers mixed up million and billion, the average reader likely doesn’t have a grasp on how big these numbers are and how they affect their own taxes. Baker notes that the Times could have explained that the amount being requested was six percent of all projected federal spending in 2008, or $660 for every person in the country. That’s real money, and should be part of any discussion on whether the war remains worth fighting.

The Bush administration’s change in strategy—the troop surge—has failed to accomplish its goals. After beingrebuked by voters during the midterm elections in 2006, President Bush offered a surge in troops that he promised would stabilize the country and allow for political progress. The progress of the former goal is debatable, especially given recent outbursts of violence, and the latter clearly hasn’t happened. Only three of the 18 benchmarks laid out by President Bush at the beginning of the surge have been met.

Still, as we wrote in February, the press is once again allowing the Bush administration to shift goalposts in Iraq, treating the modest military progress made under the surge as total success. For example, CNN’s John King, in a recent Democratic presidential debate, implored the candidates to say the surge was a success: “I want you to look at Iraq now and listen to those who say the security situation is better. Ideal, no, but better.” The Washington Post also demanded acquiescence to the surge’s apparently obvious success, saying, “[t]he refusal of the candidates to acknowledge the indisputable military progress of the past year is troubling.”

These are but a few of the issues that remain under-covered and under-explored in what little discussion of Iraq as can be found in the mainstream media. And let’s not forget their failure to report Iraqi civilian casualties adequately, or the additional injuries and mental trauma suffered by U.S. troops outside of the 4,000 dead, or the strain on our armed forces, which are stretched to their breaking point. As the testimony of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker occurs next week, and as the presidential election play out, these are critical issues for Congress and voters to consider and in almost all cases, demand a change in direction.

But how can people demand a change in policies that go unreported? That’s the conundrum currently facing our democracy and our country. Our soldiers and the Iraqi people will continue to suffer needlessly until it is finally addressed.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, has just been released by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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Eric Alterman

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