Iraq: Media Spin
The Bill Moyers Journal premiered on PBS on Wednesday April 25, 2006, with the show "Buying the War", also available online in its entirety. Moyer's makes his thesis clear in one of the first shots. As Bush enters the briefing room for a press conference the White House press corps is standing. The press corps then sits down and as they're filmed from one side it looks like their taking one long, collective, sweeping bow. "Buying the War" then shows parts of scripted press conference, where everyone knows who will be called on, what they'll ask, and what Bush's answer will be, but they all play along with the charade.
Documentaries and books have already thoroughly analyzed the Bush Administration's sale of the Iraq war to U.S. citizens. "Buying the War" focused on the media's sometimes eager complicity in this goal. For many reasons, reporters from outlets like the New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, as well as major TV networks, supported the Bush Administration's march to war.
A Frontline show earlier this the year also focused on the role of the media in a four part series. That show portrayed a media diminished from its post-Watergate heyday to its present *beleaguered* state. The Moyer's show, in my opinion, provided a slightly more optimistic view (with a less ominous soundtrack). Moyer's focus was the ennoble, under appreciated role of reporting accurate news during the tense pre-Iraq atmosphere. At the time, there was intense pressure to dutifully report the Bush administrations' claims, and beneath the sheen of patriotism in the ranks of media, sycophancy and spin ruled the day. "Buying the War" featured a few reporters in the lead-up to the Iraq war who tenaciously (and correctly) reported evidence that contradicted the Bush administration's themes for invading attack.
Needless to say, the reporters who didn't find Bush's evidence compelling weren't the loud majority. Among others, Moyers interviewed Charles Hanley, and Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel from Knight Ridder (now McClatchy). Before the invasion the two Knight Ridder reporters churned out dozens of skeptical reports, based on research and information from sources within and beyond the upper echelons of the administration.
As Landay relayed in "Buying the War", the defectors who were providing "evidence" against Saddam weren't making sense. They gave questionable and conflicting accounts. Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a Kurd, divulged Saddam's weapons caches to the CIA. Why would a sworn enemy of Hussein, a Kurd, Landay asked, "be allowed into to Sadam's top military facilities"? He continued;
"and....the idea that Saddam Hussein would put a biological weapons facility under his residence. I mean, would you put a biological weapons lab under your living room? I don't think so."
The reporters who got the facts relied on concerned Administration officials, unclassified documents, and scientists. Bob Simon of CBS News, talked to scientists who provided details about the aluminum tubes.
BILL MOYERS: "When you said a moment ago when we started talking to people who knew about aluminum tubes. What people-who were you talking to?"
BOB SIMON: "We were talking to people - to scientists - to scientists and to researchers and to people who had been investigating Iraq from the start."
BILL MOYERS: "Would these people have been available to any reporter who called or were they exclusive sources for 60 minutes?"
BOB SIMON: "No, I think that many of them would have been available to any reporter who called."
BILL MOYERS: And you just picked up the phone?
BOB SIMON: Just picked up the phone.
BILL MOYERS: Talked to them?
BOB SIMON: Talked to them and then went down with the cameras.
As it turned out, Saddam Hussein didn't possess nuclear weapons or biological weapons, had not acquired uranium ore from Africa, and was not sponsoring Al-Qaida in Iraq.
Iraq and the Facts, Tardy but Hardy
Those who supported the administration's push for war, and who also appeared on Moyer's show (many didn't), admitted they were mistaken. Some were contrite and almost all were apologists. They said they were under the gun from their corporations, and that large media had its insatiable political "needs". The reporters and anchors said they feared for their careers. Their patriotism was heightened after 9-11 they said. Some squirmed visibly under Moyer's pointed questions and elder gaze -- or was it a glare? Others seemed to light up under the challenge...books to sell maybe.
Many of those reporters fervently sold Bush's appeals to halt Al-Qaida in Iraq are now at plum reporting positions where they continue to hold forth as experts in their fields, despite the inaccuracy of their predictions of democracy, easy victory and flower leis.
The McClatchy's reporters note in via Q&A sometime after the show that their employers supported them. Other reporters who publicly expressed doubt were relegated to the back pages, or taken off the air (Phil Donahue). What are reporters supposed to do it their employer edits their stories, forbids them to report ideas ideologically out of sync with business or the administration, or fires them? How would they explain that to their mortgage lender and children? The illiberal face of liberalism lurks about, and no doubt reporters face tough decisions.
Bill Moyers noted in a speech to the "National Conference on Media Reform", some time after he left NOW....
"One reason Iâ€™m in hot water is because my colleagues and I at NOW didnâ€™t play by the conventional rules of beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news...
Faced with relentless spin, it's easy to see how counterspin might be the only answer. But in this example the facts prevailed because of the scientists, reporters, and administrative officials. The facts were resilient.
Bill Moyers new show is regularly scheduled Fridays on PBS.