By Jeff Cohen
May 30th, 2008
No sooner had Bush's ex-press secretary (now author)
Scott McClellan accused President Bush and his former
collaborators of misleading our country into Iraq than
the squeals of protest turned into a mighty roar.
I'm not talking about the vitriol directed at him by
former White House colleagues like Karl Rove and Ari
Fleischer. I'm talking about McClellan's other war
collaborators: the movers and shakers in corporate
media. The people McClellan refers to in his book as
"deferential, complicit enablers" of Bush administration
One after another, news stars defended themselves with
the tired old myth that no one doubted the Iraq WMD
claims at the time. The yarn about hindsight being 20/20
was served up more times than a Rev. Wright clip on Fox
Katie Couric, whose coverage on CBS of the Iraq troop
surge has been almost fawning, was one of the few stars
to be candid about pre-invasion coverage, saying days
ago, "I think it's one of the most embarrassing chapters
in American journalism." She spoke of "pressure" from
corporate management, not just Team Bush, to "really
squash any dissent." Then a co-host of NBC Today, she
says network brass criticized her for challenging the
NBC execs apparently didn't complain when - two weeks
into the invasion - Couric thanked a Navy commander for
coming on the show, adding, "And I just want you to
know, I think Navy SEALs rock!"
This is a glorious moment for the American public. We
can finally see those who abandoned reporting for
cheerleading and flag-waving and cheap ratings having to
squirm over their role in sending other parents' kids
into Iraq. I say "other parents' kids" because I never
met any bigwig among those I worked with in TV news who
had kids in the armed forces.
Given how TV networks danced to the White House tune
sung by the Roves and Fleischers and McClellans in the
first years of W's reign, it's fitting that it took the
words of a longtime Bush insider to force their self-
examination over Iraq. Top media figures had shunned
years of well-documented criticism of their Iraq failure
as religiously as they shunned war critics in 2003.
Speaking of religious, it wasn't until two days ago that
retired NBC warhorse Tom Brokaw was able to admit on-air
that Bush's push toward invasion was "more theology than
anything else." On day one of the war, it was anchor
Brokaw who turned to an Admiral and declared, "One of
the things that we don't want to do is destroy the
infrastructure of Iraq, because in a few days we're
going to own that country."
Asked this week about the charge that media transmitted
war propaganda, Brokaw blamed the White House and its
"unbelievable ability to control the flow of information
at any time, but especially during the time that they're
preparing to go to war." This is an old canard: The
worst censors pre-war were not governments, but major
outlets that chose to exclude and smear dissenting
Wolf Blitzer, whose persona on CNN is that of a carnival
barker, defended his network's coverage: "I think we
were pretty strong. But certainly, with hindsight, we
could have done an even better job."
Coverage might have been better if CNN news chief Eason
Jordan hadn't gotten a Pentagon "thumbs-up" on the
retired generals they featured. Or if Jordan hadn't gone
on the air to dismiss a dissenting WMD expert: "Scott
Ritter's chameleon-like behavior has really bewildered a
lot of people. . . . U.S. officials no longer give Scott
Ritter much credibility."
ABC anchor Charlie Gibson, the closest thing to a Fox
News anchor at a big three network, took offense at
McClellan: "I think the media did a pretty good job." He
claimed "there was a lot of skepticism raised" about
Colin Powell's pre-war U.N. speech. Media critic Glenn
Greenwald called Gibson's claim "one of the falsest
statements ever uttered on TV" - and made his point
using Gibson's unskeptical Powell coverage at the time.
In February 2003, there was huge mainstream media
skepticism about Powell's U.N. speech . . . overseas.
But U.S. TV networks banished antiwar perspectives in
the crucial two weeks surrounding that error-filled
speech. FAIR studied all on-camera sources on the
nightly ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS newscasts: Less than 1
percent - three out of 393 sources - were antiwar. Only
6 percent were skeptical sources. This at a time when 60
percent of Americans in polls wanted more time for
diplomacy and inspections.
I worked 10-hour days inside MSNBC's newsroom during
this period as senior producer of Phil Donahue's
primetime show (canceled three weeks before the war
while the network's most-watched program). Trust me: Too
much skepticism over war claims was a punishable
offense. I and all other Donahue producers were
repeatedly ordered by top management to book panels that
favored the pro-invasion side. I watched a fellow
producer get chewed out for booking a 50-50 show.
At MSNBC, I heard Scott Ritter smeared - on-air and off
- as a paid mouthpiece of Saddam Hussein. After we had
war skeptic and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey
Clark on the show, we learned he was on some sort of
When MSNBC terminated Donahue, it was expected that we'd
be replaced by a nightly show hosted by Jesse Ventura.
But that show never really launched. Ventura says it was
because he, like Donahue, opposed the Iraq invasion; he
was paid millions for not appearing. Another MSNBC star,
Ashleigh Banfield, was demoted and then lost her job
after criticizing the first weeks of "very sanitized"
war coverage. With every muzzling, self-censorship
tended to proliferate.
I'm no defender of Scott McClellan. Some may say he has
blood on his hands - and that he hasn't earned any kind
But as someone who still burns with anger over what I
witnessed inside TV news during that crucial historical
moment, I'm trying my best to enjoy this falling out
among thieves and liars.