Image Judith Miller NY Times

14 Years Later: How the Media Sold the War in Iraq

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On the 14th anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom it’s worth looking back at the conditions that made the war possible, namely the media’s enthusiastic selling of it.

In hindsight, the Bush administration and the media’s insistence that Iraq definitely had weapons of mass destruction would be laughable if the consequences were not so dire. As U.S. foreign posturing becomes increasingly antagonistic, it’s important to revisit how the last foreign policy blunder was made possible by the mainstream media.

Military Cemetery, Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery – San Diego, California

You may have heard someone complain they wish they could get away with doing their job as inaccurately as the weather man, particularly on a rainy day when the weather forecast called for clear skies. Rarely does the failure to accurately predict the weather cause much more than a mild inconvenience to most people’s lives. You may not bring an umbrella when it rains or you may have to suffer through your uncle making a hack joke about global warming when it snows in April, but that’s usually the extent of the damage.

However, when journalists and pundits get it wrong there can be disastrous consequences.

In a recent article published by Current Affairs magazine, Michael Tracey focuses on a few key examples of journalists who incorrectly declared that Hillary Clinton would easily win the 2016 Presidential Election. Tracey asks how many times journalists can be totally wrong and still keep their jobs. Unsurprisingly, the answer he discovers is “As many as they like”.

September 8, 2002, front page of New York Times, featuring a story co-writen by Judith Miller, “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest For A-Bomb Parts.”

In 2015, Politico magazine ran a story on Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter who notoriously got it totally wrong on Iraq from 2002-2003. Judith Miller’s reporting played a crucial role in selling the Iraq War to the public. On September 7, 2002, Miller and colleague Michael Gordon reported that “Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.” Miller and Gordon’s source? Unnamed Bush administration officials. Shortly after this article was published, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld used it to promote their position.

The Politico story opens by saying, “It’s okay that the New York Times reporter got Iraq wrong—the trouble with her new memoir is she still won’t admit she actually did.”

Hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lost lives later, Politico absolved Miller of reporting which contributed to those totals but takes exception to her not admitting she was wrong. Miller left the Times to work for Fox News and currently serves as an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, further evidence of Tracey’s conclusion that journalists face little to no consequences for being wrong.

New York Times reporters were not the only ones helping the Bush administration gain support for the War in Iraq. Columnist Thomas Friedman was also selling it from his weekly op-ed. On January 5, 2003, Friedman writes “So, I have no problem with a war for oil — provided that it is to fuel the first progressive Arab regime, and not just our S.U.V.’s, and provided we behave in a way that makes clear to the world we are protecting everyone’s access to oil at reasonable prices — not simply our right to binge on it.” On January 22, 2003 he argued for a pre-emptive war saying, “This is something liberals should care about — because liberating the captive peoples of the Mideast is a virtue in itself and because in today’s globalized world, if you don’t visit a bad neighborhood, it will visit you.”

It was not just the New York Times helping sell the war.  The other major American newspaper, the Washington Post, published a piece by its editorial board titled “Irrefutable” on February 6, 2003. The title referred to the notion that “After Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” [emphasis, mine].

Colin Powell addressing the United Nations, holding a model vial of anthrax.

In early 2003, despite his show’s high ratings, Phil Donahue was fired from MSNBC for his anti-war position. A leaked memo later revealed that NBC executives considered him a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” Reportedly, alleged progressive, Chris Matthews, was one of the main forces that pushed to have Donahue fired.

Of course, Fox News was the lead cheerleader in the media supporting the invasion of Iraq.

On an episode of Hannity & Colmes in February 2003, Hannity said, “We’re going to go in and we’re going to liberate this country in a few weeks and it’s going to be over very quickly. No, it’s going to be over very quickly. And what I’m going to tell you here is, you’re going to find, I predict, mass graves. We’re going to open up those … those gulags and those prisons and you’re going to hear stories of rape and torture and misery, and then we’re going to find all of the weapons of mass destruction that all of you guys on the left say don’t exist … you’re going to have egg on your face.”

As the press bemoans Donald Trump’s so-called war on the media, it’s little surprise that many people outside the East Coast elite at least somewhat agree with Trump when he calls CNN or the New York Times fake news.

Michael Tracey sums up his article by echoing this sentiment, “It thus should not be mysterious why Americans are increasingly disdainful of the media class; they see them failing over and over again, but no punishments meted out. They know intrinsically that the pundits are shielded from anything that they’d recognize as professional accountability. And for what? The pundits provide no useful service; they opine from the comfort of their Washington domiciles. Maybe it’s the pundits’ jobs that should be outsourced, rather than the jobs of the “economically anxious” who they so delightedly mock.”

Only two months into the Trump administration, and there are already reports of near conflict and potential war. In the case of Iran, it is once again a possibility that the U.S. may commit an act of war over, of all things, unsubstantiated claims about weapons of mass destruction. If Trump’s approval numbers do not improve, he may decide that a new war could help consolidate support on the right. There is now evidence at this time suggesting he would do that, but if he does, Democrats would have little power to stop him. Popular support for a new war is likely to be very low but the media could affect that support greatly if they fall in or are influenced by the beat of the war drums.

Dan Webb, Political Correspondent for Lima Charlie News.

Dan Webb is a former U.S. Air Force Airborne Systems Engineer on the RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft. He completed three deployments to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom totaling over 1200 combat flight hours. He currently works as a software engineer for an Omaha based marketing agency. Previously he worked for the Office of Military and Veteran Services at the University of Nebraska Omaha where, as a student, he received his B.S. in Political Science with a minor in Economics. Dan’s interests include domestic economic policy, veteran’s issues, and national security. Follow Dan on Twitter @DanWebbLC  & listen to Dan every week on the Horse Race political podcast.

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