George V. Reilly

The Media's Chance at Redemption

In The Media’s Chance at Redemption, Russ Baker ably takes the MSM to task:

When, oh when, will the U.S.“main­stream media” finally stop hemming and hawing, parsing and un­der­stat­ing? When will they simply go for the jugular to confirm what any thoughtful American has already learned from “less reputable” but in­creas­ing­ly relevant al­ter­na­tive in­for­ma­tion sources: that from the beginning of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, invading Iraq has always been as much an article of faith for the president as, well, promoting faith over reason?


The Times report was full of throat-clearing and arcane notations that, while the memo had previously been reported, it had never been as fully reported, or that a particular passage had thus far eluded widespread scrutiny. And, indeed, the article did contribute new insights. But a careful reading of the Times piece turns up numerous op­por­tu­ni­ties where reporters could have of­fered—and, more im­por­tant­ly, still can offer—more context and thereby lead readers to the dark heart of the matter. To wit, the Times could not quite summon the courage for a suf­fi­cient­ly bold lead. It began:

In the weeks before the United States-led invasion of Iraq, as the United States and Britain pressed for a second United Nations resolution condemning Iraq, President Bush’s public ultimatum to Saddam Hussein was blunt: Disarm or face war.

But behind closed doors, the president was certain that war was inevitable.

Even though the overall thrust of the article was that Bush and Blair were hell-bent on invading Iraq, with or without jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, there was that second sentence sum­ma­riz­ing, blandly, that “the president was certain that war was inevitable.” This is soft-pedaling in the extreme. Bush wasn’t certain war was in­evitable—he wanted to make it inevitable.

The article certainly makes that clear, describing all manner of shock­er­s—from Bush musing about painting a U.S. re­con­nais­sance plane in U.N. colors and de­lib­er­ate­ly drawing Iraqi fire as a casus belli, to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of bringing out an Iraqi defector who would assert that WMDs existed even while Bush tacitly admitted they likely did not.

This pussy­foot­ing, the burying of the lead, does a disservice to readers. News or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Times abetted the march to war through their un­ques­tion­ing acceptance of highly debatable ad­min­is­tra­tion assertions, and, in the specific case of the Times, its tolerance of the rampaging cowboy reportage of its cor­re­spon­dent Judith Miller.


Looking backward, virtually everyone now agrees that the media did not ask the right questions, or enough questions, as the war drums telegraphed impending conflict. Well, that was then. But now, major mysteries still beg for resolution: including, most fun­da­men­tal­ly, how George W. Bush convinced the bulk of his fellow Americans, including some of the brightest lights of our society, to support such an ill-conceived war.

Any journalist with a nose for news ought to be all fired up these days. It’s rare that we hacks are offered so many chances to show what we are made of—or to make up for errors of omission and commission that will otherwise haunt us in perpetuity.

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