The Media Today

Donald Rumsfeld’s press, then and now

July 2, 2021

On Tuesday, Donald Rumsfeld—who, as defense secretary under George W. Bush, was a driving force behind the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—died. Major outlets wheeled out pre-written obituaries. The AP’s, by Robert Burns, bordered on hagiography. Its headline initially declared Rumsfeld “a cunning leader undermined by Iraq war”; that language was later changed to “cunning leader who oversaw a ruinous Iraq war,” but the opening paragraph still says that “try as he might,” Rumsfeld “could not outmaneuver the ruinous politics of the Iraq war,” as if he had been forced to play chess against a supercomputer. The Iraqi death toll from the war is not noted; the American death toll is—but not before Rumsfeld’s charitable work on behalf of veterans, his “accomplished” college wrestling career, and colleagues’ recollections of his smarts and patriotism. The first words of the article’s URL are “Chicago Bears,” a reference to the football team Rumsfeld supported as a kid.

Because the AP is a wire service, the obituary was republished widely. Other prominent efforts were better, but did not adequately foreground the human cost of Rumsfeld’s military aggression: The New York Times addressed Iraq only after mentioning the records he broke as defense secretary (he was the youngest person in that post, under Gerald Ford, then the oldest, under Bush) and his reputation as a “combative infighter” who challenged “military orthodoxies.” The Washington Post described him as “controversial,” but elaborated only after highlighting his business success with “NutraSweet and high-definition television.” Many obituaries were more forthright: The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman wrote—under the headline “Killer of 400,000 People Dies Peacefully”—that “the only thing tragic about the death of Donald Rumsfeld is that it didn’t occur in an Iraqi prison.” Teen Vogue referred to Rumsfeld, in its headline, as an “accused war criminal”; The Nation dropped the “accused.” Scathing assessments weren’t limited to explicitly progressive publications: The Atlantic’s George Packer (who once supported the war) wrote that “Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defense in American history. Being newly dead shouldn’t spare him this distinction.”

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Recent coverage of Rumsfeld hasn’t been limited to obits; in the latest season of Slow Burn, Slate’s popular history podcast, Noreen Malone looked back at the road to the Iraq war, and dedicated two episodes to the role of the press, focusing first on the commentariat, then on news reporters. She chronicled how a pro-war consensus ossified even among progressive pundits—including Christopher Hitchens and denizens of the nascent blogosphere, like Matt Yglesias—while vocal opponents of the war were often dismissed as “unserious.” She then addressed the credulous journalism that bolstered the Bush administration’s lies about Iraq’s weapons programs; Judith Miller, a Times correspondent, has since been castigated for her cheerleading, but as Malone notes, the problem spread far beyond her work. The Times and the rest of the news media “managed to isolate Judy Miller as a scapegoat for all of the sins of all of the press,” James Risen, Miller’s former Times colleague, told Malone. “It’s been a very comforting narrative to say, ‘Well, as you know, Judy Miller did this.’ They all did it. And they all loved it.”

Rumsfeld is a relatively minor character in Slow Burn, but the series nonetheless reminds us that he was a primary architect of the war. He threw the reputational weight of his office behind unsubstantiated claims, effectively daring the news media to challenge them. (The AP’s obituary notes that, thanks to his frequent appearances at televised briefings, “Rumsfeld became something of a TV star, admired for his plain-spokenness.”) At least in the early days of the administration, sections of the press rewarded him with fawning coverage. A National Review cover referred to him as “the stud” and “America’s new pin-up”; People magazine named him one of the sexiest men alive; Vanity Fair foregrounded him in a Hollywood-esque cover shot. Rumsfeld’s long-term strategy for Iraq—or, rather, his lack of one—received altogether less scrutiny. After the invasion led to anarchy in Baghdad, he told reporters, “Stuff happens and it’s untidy and freedom’s untidy and free. People are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”

The tonal range of Rumsfeld’s obituaries reveals how coverage has, and hasn’t, changed since the early aughts. Many traditional news organizations still prioritize forced balance; many bad-take merchants have migrated from blogs to newsletters, where they remain without editors. But the media of today allows for more perspectives to be widely heard than was the case back then. When the US invaded Iraq, the Daily Beast didn’t exist; Teen Vogue did, but just barely, and was not then known for its biting online politics coverage. Early last year, as the Trump administration teetered on the brink of war with Iran, Ben Smith, who was then the editor of BuzzFeed, observed that the relative media consensus that the Bush administration was able to build pre-Iraq would not have been possible today—thanks to the advent of Twitter as a platform for public debate, as well as a stronger partisan left, and “a weakened mainstream media that couldn’t serve as much of a megaphone, even if it wanted to.” It’s also the case that the Trump era made us all more skeptical of official claims. So did seeing what the Iraq war wrought.

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As I wrote in 2018, following the death of George H.W. Bush, obituaries of political figures are often fawning—a function of the American mainstream media’s reverence for powerful people, and the cultural impulse not to speak ill of the dead. Getting Rumsfeld’s obituaries right doesn’t just matter for posterity, however; the consequences of the wars he shaped are news stories in the present tense. His death should remind us of their urgency, even as the national news cycle is preoccupied with crises at home. And it should remind us, too, of the media’s role in those stories, then and now.

Below, more on Donald Rumsfeld:

  • Snowflakes: In December 2019, Craig Whitlock, a reporter for the Post, published “The Afghanistan Papers,” an explosive investigation revealing a trail of lies about the  war, spanning the administrations of presidents Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Whitlock based his conclusions on records he obtained from a federal review of the war in Afghanistan, and also on hundreds of pages of memos, known as “snowflakes,” that Rumsfeld wrote as Bush’s defense secretary. (The Post’s obituary of Rumsfeld noted his prolific memo-writing but not Whitlock’s story.)
  • Rumsfeld and the press: In an obituary for The Nation, Phyllis Bennis recalled Rumsfeld’s treatment of the media. “Rumsfeld kept journalists on a tight leash and largely out of frontline areas,” she writes. “His briefings never earned the Vietnam War–era ‘Five O-Clock Follies’ sobriquet—not least because public support across the country remained high during the first months, even the first few years, of this first ‘forever war.’ But outside US borders, the rest of the world, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, was learning more and more about civilian casualties.”
  • Cancel culture: As time passed, and the quagmire in the Middle East deepened, the media’s appraisal of Rumsfeld grew increasingly negative. In 2011, the editorial board of the Times praised a court ruling allowing Americans who said they were tortured in Iraq to sue Rumsfeld; later, the paper called his memoir a “tedious, self-serving volume.” The final straw for Rumsfeld came on the tenth anniversary of 9/11—after Paul Krugman, a Times columnist, called the date an “occasion for shame.” Rumsfeld was so repulsed that he canceled his Times subscription in protest. Politico had more.
  • Extremely online: In 2010, ahead of the release of his memoir, Rumsfeld joined Twitter and Facebook. “This latest move for the aggressive septuagenarian isn’t just recreational,” Ackerman wrote at the time, for Wired. “Rumsfeld’s using online media to rehab his battered image.” In 2016, Rumsfeld worked with a team of developers to launch Churchill Solitaire, an app that digitized (as the name suggests) a version of solitaire devised by Winston Churchill. “I’ve done business, politics, and war,” Rumsfeld wrote on Medium. “Now I’m trying my hand at mobile gaming.”

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Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Donald Rumsfeld died on Tuesday.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.