the kicker

Pre-Iraq War Coverage: "Pretty Good Job" or "Embarrassing?"

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Scott McClellan’s memoir, of all things, (and specifically, McClellan’s assertions that the press didn’t do its job in the...
May 29, 2008

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Scott McClellan’s memoir, of all things, (and specifically, McClellan’s assertions that the press didn’t do its job in the run-up to the Iraq war) is forcing some reporters to get reflective (and, in some cases, either confessional or defensive).

There was last night’s Jessica Yellin-Anderson Cooper exchange on CNN in which Yellin (formerly of ABC News, now of CNN) told Cooper that she felt in the lead-up to war corporate pressure to “put on positive stories about the president” and that her bosses would “edit” her work accordingly (easily missed because they both rushed back to discussion of inter-Bush-administration deceits and betrayals — the stuff that will sell this book).

Also yesterday, on CBS’ Early Show, three network anchors weighed in.

CBS Early Show‘s Harry Smith: “[McClellan] talks about the failure of mainstream media to hold the Bush administration’s feet to the fire in the run-up to the war. Is that an allegation that feels to you like it has merit?”

ABC News’ Charles Gibson: “When I write my book I will take exception to that. No, I think the media did a pretty good job of focusing and asking the questions. We were not given access to get into the country, to go along… with the inspectors but the questions were asked. The qustions were asked. It was just a drumbeat from the government and I think it’s convenient now to blame the media. But I don’t.”

CBS News’ Katie Couric: “I think it is a very legitimate allegation. I think it’s one of the most embarrassing chapters in American journalism. I think there was a sense of pressure from the corporations who own where we work and from the government itself to really squash any kind of dissent or any kind of questioning of it. I think it was extremely subtle but very very effective. I think Scott McClellan has a really good point.”

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Smith: “Brian, we have ten seconds.”

NBC News’ Brian Williams: “I think people have to remember the post-9/11 era and how that felt and what the president felt he was empowered to do and that Colin Powell speech at the U.N.”

Smith: “And what the mood of the country was.”

Couric: “Absolutely. But our responsibility is sometimes to go against the mood of the country and ask the hard questions.”

And Brian WIlliams interviewed Tom Brokaw on this topic on last night’s NBC Nightly News.

Williams: “Are you confident in taking the coverage in toto that the right questions were asked, the right tone was employed and should it be viewed in the context of that time?”

Brokaw: “It needs to be viewed in the context of that time. When the president says we’re going to war, there’s the danger of the mushroom cloud, we know there had been experiments of Iraqi nuclear programs in the past, honorable people believed he had weapons of mass destruction. But there is always a drumbeat that happens at that time. You can raise your hand and put on people like Brent Scowcroft which we did, very credible man, who said this is the wrong decision. But there are other parts of America who also have a responsibility. How many senators voted against the war? I think 23 is all, altogether.

There was this feeling this [Saddam Hussein] is a bad man, he had weapons of mass destruction, we couldn’t make the connection that he was sponsoring terrorists or harboring them, we raised that question day after day. This president was determined to go to war. And it was more theology than it was anything else and that’s pretty hard to deal with.

Look, I think all of us would like to go back and ask questions with the benefit of hindsight and what we know now, but a lot of what was going on then was unknowable…So there was a fog of war, Brian, and there’s also the fog of covering the war….”

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.