President George W. Bush’s "War on Terror" publicly began on Sept. 11, 2001.
We think of wars beginning with a cataclysmic event—everything up to that moment could have gone either way until "the moment" occurs that makes a war inevitable. It is that clap of thunder, we believe, that coalesces events into something that we recognize as "war."
The designation that a series of events has become a "war" wonderfully concentrates public and official attention on a situation that had not previously commanded interest. For President Bush, the "War on Terror" encompassed more than the fight against Osama bin Laden and his minions and began well before 9/11. Bush declared war against disparate enemies; in his estimation the War on Terror was not only properly fought in Afghanistan once the Taliban refused to give up al Qaeda leaders, but included battles of all kinds — against the terrorism of Saddam Hussein, the "terrorist regime" of North Korea.
From the first declaration of the "War on Terror," American and British media reiterated President Bush’s avowed connection among the 9/11 terrorists, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Iraq and other "axis of evil" countries. Major media outlets efficiently disseminated every administration pronouncement, despite the fact that the most devastating terrorist attacks to date had not used WMD or fissile material, or even involved Iraqis. The front-page, top-of-the-news coverage helped validate the White House position.
In quick order, with everyone watching (but few paying attention), the 9/11-initiated war became a war to create the new moral order articulated by President Bush and his "Vulcans" (as author James Mann compellingly defined the administration’s foreign policy team of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz).
The War on Terror was more than a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The 9/11 cataclysm gave President Bush the opportunity to realize all the Vulcans’ unilateralist, interventionist foreign policy goals — by uniting them into one comprehensive, Ur policy.
The American public deserved — and deserves — to know more about the meaning and the effect of the president co-opting 9/11 and co-opting the patriotic, broad-based interest in responding to those terrorists through a War on Terror. The reason Americans haven’t understood the politically-motivated agenda has a lot to do with how they get their news. Public ignorance of what lies inside Bush’s Trojan Horse — his War on Terror — has a lot to do with how the U.S. media cover the presidency.
A study released last week by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), at the University of Maryland, evaluated American and British media coverage of events relating to weapons of mass destruction during three periods when WMD were big stories: May 2003, when combat operations in Iraq were officially said to have ended and the hunt for WMDs escalated; October 2002, when Congress approved military action to disarm Iraq and when revelations about the North Korean nuclear weapons program surfaced; and May 1998, when nuclear tensions escalated between India and Pakistan.
The Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction study — which I authored — was based on reporting by four U.S. newspapers (the Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post), two London papers (The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian), three newsweeklies (Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, The Economist) and the radio programs "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on National Public Radio.
The study documented that in May 1998, only a handful of stories in the U.S. and U.K. press made a clear linkage between WMD and terrorism by a either a rogue group or state. Most of the media made careful distinctions between acts of terrorism and the acquisition or use of WMD. But by October 2002, a year after 9/11, President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld’s constant linkages of terrorism and Iraq and WMD had engrained the three as a triple threat in the media. Both the U.S. and U.K. media in the study tended to repeat the Bush administration’s formulation of the "War on Terror" and its assertions that a core objective of the "War on Terror" is to prevent WMD from falling into the hands of terrorists. Where alternative perspectives were presented in the coverage, they tended to be buried.
Even before the war, in 2002, not all the media were blind to the salesmanship of the Bush White House. Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, for example, in a page-one story on Oct. 22, 2002, headlined "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable," wrote that the President’s claims that there was a "triple threat" were primarily "powerful arguments for the actions Bush sought."
But "news" rather than "analysis" dominated most of the coverage, and the conventions of breaking news stories tied journalists to leading with the most "important" information and the most "important" players — which meant reporting the President’s assertions as he stated them. The "inverted pyramid" style of news writing (ironically a style considered to be an impartial way of transmitting news because of its emphasis on "facts") meant that the breaking news stories led with the administration’s point of view.
By May 2003, the third period studied, many journalists, especially editorial and opinion writers, had become downright skeptical of the linkages Bush had drawn between other nations’ purported WMD and the concomitant threat to the United States. Yet even most of those reporters continued to accept the administration’s prioritization of international issues and events.
In other words, across all three time periods of the study, the level of recognition that both the Bush and Clinton administrations gave to WMD issues and events matched the level of recognition from the media. If the White House acted like a WMD story was important so too did the media— even if, on certain occasions, the journalists criticized the administration’s "spin." If the White House ignored a story (or an angle on a story), the media was likely too, as well.
It took until the summer and fall of 2003 before "President Bush finally got around to acknowledging that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," the New York Times editors wrote in their lead editorial of Sept. 19, 2003. Why did the Bush administration draw "a link between Mr. Hussein and 9/11" the editorial continued? Because, "recent polls suggest that the American public is not as enthusiastic about making sacrifices to help the Iraqis as about making sacrifices to protect the United States against terrorism. The temptation to hint at a connection with Sept. 11 that did not exist must have been tremendous."
Since last fall, many in the media have called upon the White House to accept blame for the failures in intelligence gathering and intelligence analysis. But the media themselves have been loathe to accept responsibility for not sufficiently challenging the administration and Pentagon on their "facts" or not offering more alternative voices. Michael Getler, the clear-sighted ombudsman for the Washington Post, has been one of the few journalists to criticize his paper’s coverage of the war. In a March 16, 2003 column, he noted that while the Post, through some labor-intensive "enterprising reporting," did bring certain important issues to the public’s attention, Post editors were guilty of "taking [their] eye off daily developments while working on those more enterprising efforts." He detailed "a pattern in the news pages of missing, underplaying or being late on various blips with respect to public voices of dissent or uncertainty." He then went on to detail specific "perplexing flaw[s]."
The Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction study documented that all of the media analyzed undercovered alternative voices and different policy options. And none of them was daily meticulous in asking the president to defend his use of 9/11 to fight battles extraneous to a war on al Qaeda terrorists.
"When the question is whether to go to war," Getler noted, "an administration can command attention any time it wants." Rigorous and daily accounting of issues and events is the only way we can have the democracy we claim to have, and need to be.
Susan Moeller is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland.