McClellan and His Media Collaborators

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 war propaganda.

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 News.

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 administration.

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 experts.

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.” With the “drumbeat” coming from the administration, “it was not our job to debate them,” said Gibson. 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 — 3 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 (cancelled 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 network blacklist.

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 of redemption.

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.

Jeff Cohen is founder of the media watch group FAIR, former TV pundit/producer, and author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media. Read other articles by Jeff, or visit Jeff's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas said on May 31st, 2008 at 7:07am #

    what’s omitted by most writers ab US’ invasions/aggressions?
    that it does not matter whether any prez, including bush, lied or told the truth about US’ invasions; US still had no moral nor legal right to punish milions of iraqi people for aleged crimes of individuals.
    corrollary to this being that one can only wage wars based on delusions, illusions, greed, lust for power, lies, half truths, supremacism, etc.
    another corrollary would be that even worst governance is better than no governance.
    iraq, afghanistan, and palestine are lands w.o. governance. why don’t UK and US disolve own respective governances and see what would happen!!??

  2. Martha said on June 2nd, 2008 at 11:03am #

    I am SICK of Jeff Cohen and his lackeys attacking Katie Couric. They didn’t do it in real time because none of them could get up that early. They saw a clip in Moore’s film and go to town on Katie today. She’s a MSM journalist and she wasn’t the worst. Ask Cohen if he would have liked to have seen, before the Iraq War started, a discussion of it featuring actual people? Not pundits, not experts. Well guess what, Stupid, Katie hosted that on the Today show.
    I’m so sick of the nastiness and the snark from these self-appointed “leaders.” They don’t know what they’re talking about and they never miss a chance to trash women. I don’t see Jeffy tackling Brian Williams or any of the MSNBC ‘stars’ at the channel he was working for at the time.
    I just see another easy and baseless slam at Couric. The link goes to Ava and C.I.’s “Katie was a cheerleader” and there last paragraph says it all:

    If women learned anything from the trashing of Katie Couric last week, it was that today, we’re all cheerleaders. In their eyes, we’re all cheerleaders. Our own work isn’t addressed and there’s no desire to familiarize themselves with it before weighing in. Call us when it’s our turn to stand trial at the war crimes tribunal.

  3. hp said on June 3rd, 2008 at 2:41pm #

    And don’t forget George W. Bush was a cheerleader, as well!

  4. Hatuxka said on June 4th, 2008 at 6:56am #

    On CNN, the anchor was trying to lead the discussion in the direction of the Gibson take, when one of the panel members, John Roberts formerly of CBS, now of CNN, admitted that yes, we clearly could have done a better job of asking questions during the lead up to the war, McClellan is right. That stopped that direction of the discussion and the host quickly moved to talking about McClellans motives and other less definite things.