The Media Did Fail Us

Scott McClellan, President Bush’s former press secretary turned mini-nemesis, was back in the news, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, once again breaking omerta and urging the Bush White House to be more open about the Valerie Plame affair and other matters. "This is a very secretive White House," he lamented. "There’s some things that they would prefer not to be talked about." Nonetheless, he urged "openness and candor."

As if.

The most striking thing about the reception of Scott McClellan’s tell-some memoir of life with the Bushies, What Happened, was just how defensive several members of the mainstream media were about the assertion that the media were deficient in their coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. "Through it all, the media would serve as complicit enablers, McClellan wrote. "Their primary focus would be on covering the campaign to sell the war, rather than aggressively questioning the rationale for war or pursuing the truth behind it … the media would neglect their watchdog role, focusing less on truth and accuracy and more on whether the campaign was succeeding."

McClellan went on, describing how the media – one presumes he’s talking mainly about the official White House media, which he was in a good position to observe as assistant press secretary then – focused: "Was the president winning or losing the argument? How were Democrats responding? What were the electoral implications? What did the polls say? And the truth – about the actual nature of the threat posed by Saddam, the right way to confront it, and the possible risks of military conflict – would get largely left behind."

Nonsense, said several of the reporters who were fingered, though not by name. MSNBC reporter David Gregory, on Chris Matthews’ Hardball on May 28 practically blustered; at least that’s how it looked to me: "I think the right questions were asked. I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president. I think not only those of us in the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape in the media did that."

There’s a bit of truth in what Gregory said. A lot of questions were asked in White House briefings. But it sounds to me as if Gregory has been sucked into what might be called the Sam Donaldson fallacy.

Back during Watergate and also during the Carter and Reagan administrations, ABC’s Sam Donaldson was noted for shouting out blunt questions during news conferences and press briefings. Sometimes he got answers or gaffes that way, but more often he was stonewalled – which was revealing in its own way, but not necessarily all that illuminating when it came to bringing new information to light.

During almost three decades at a daily newspaper I have been part of more editorial board meetings with candidates and people trying to push issues than I can rightly remember. One of the things I’ve found is that the journalist’s wet dream regarding the "Perry Mason moment" – when you ask just the right question that breaks down the candidate or officeholder to the point that he finally admits, "Yes, yes, you found me out. I’m a miserable human being trying to lie to you. I know my policy plans and proposals are counterproductive, but I’ve been pushing them because I owe favors to campaign contributors. Put the metaphorical handcuffs on me" – doesn’t happen. You may get a teeny bit of info he hadn’t planned to drop, but by and large these people are pretty good at staying on message. They have their talking points, and they know the trick of simply repeating the talking points in response to any question, whether the question was about them or not. We rattled John McCain into losing his temper once, but even then it didn’t lead to us finding out anything we didn’t already know.

Fortunately, there are other ways of getting information that might challenge the storyline of whatever official you are dealing with. You can read a lot, seeking out articles written from a variety of ideological or simply fact-reporting perspectives. You can study history to learn about similar situations. You can interview independent experts – academics, retired military or diplomatic veterans, people with some degree of expertise in things you might not know much about, like weapons systems or intelligence-gathering capacities.

It’s not that asking challenging questions when you’re talking to policymakers or their shills is useless, but it’s only a tiny sliver of journalism done well, whether it’s journalism with attitude and clearly labeled opinion, which is what I’ve written most of my career, or straight reporting. If you’re doing it well – and all of us have times when we do better or worse – you go into an interview knowing as much or more about the topic at hand than the person you’re interviewing. Then you can sometimes catch contradictions or weakly supported statements right away. But sometimes you have to do more research after you interview but before you write (or do a standup before a camera) so as to catch contradictions or misstatements and point them out.

So I have little doubt that David Gregory and others asked some good questions during the run-up. But by and large they didn’t challenge the administration’s shifting rationales for war anywhere near as aggressively as they could have. I think Scott McClellan has the better of the argument when he writes:

"If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq. The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. …

"In this case the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served."

David Gregory wasn’t the only journalist to respond defensively. Mike Allen, now’s chief political correspondent but a Washington Post staff writer during the prewar period, went straight to near-defamation: "Scott does adopt the vocabulary, rhetoric of the left-wing haters. Can you believe it in here where he says the White House press corps was too deferential to the administration … during the run-up to the war? Now I don’t think Scott felt that way when he was up at the podium like a punching bag, but that’s what he said."

The trouble with the comment is that during the run-up to the war McClellan wasn’t the one at the podium; Ari Fleischer was. Scott McClellan was sometimes a bit of a punching bag during his time as press secretary, but that was at a time when it was becoming obvious even to the mainstream media that the war wasn’t going well.

During the run-up, however, the mainstream media, especially the incestuous fraternity that covers the White House and the rest of Washington, was remarkably deferential to the administration. Hardly anyone questioned the likelihood that Saddam had illicit weapons, even though the IAEA reported that it had full access during the late 2002-early 2003 period when it returned and didn’t find anything. Since then Bush has been able repeatedly to get away with the outright lie that Saddam kicked the weapons inspectors out before the invasion, when in fact the administration informed the inspectors in no uncertain terms that it was time to leave before the "shock and awe" campaign (remember?) began. Nobody in the mainstream media, to my knowledge, explored the difference between a preemptive war and a preventive war, which is considered illegitimate in international law, and which the U.S. invasion actually was.

So why might the media have been so deferential? Part of the reason is the symbiotic relationship between the White House and the press corps, even as the relationship is testy and combative. During my sojourns in Washington I have had occasion to sit in on a number of White House press briefings, where I observed a fascinating phenomenon. After a briefing was finished, the worldly-wise reporters as often as not would walk out telling one another "that was total bullsh*t" and similar sentiments expressed in more colorful language. Yet the next morning the stories would resemble stenography more than analysis.

In part this is because in the media biz the White House is a plum assignment, often enough the pinnacle of a career. But the unwritten rule is that reporters who are too troublesome lose access to sources and private sessions and other perquisites. So reporters, even when they think they’re being snowed, even when they can’t stand the White House’s current occupant, all too often hold back at least a little. It’s a delicate calculation. The access can be valuable over the long run, so do you endanger it for the sake of a single story or series of stories?

There are other reasons the media might have been reluctant-to-deferential during the run-up to the war. At an institutional level, wars are good for the media. Ratings rise and more newspapers and magazines are sold, which makes for more advertising sales. Networks, news services, newspapers, and magazines achieve prestige, which translates into business advantages, whether in the ability to hire stars or win awards.

For individual reporters and writers as well, war and conflict are one of the most important ways they make their bones and get more prestigious (and lucrative) assignments. The assignments may sometimes turn a reporter into a relentless critic of war, as happened to Chris Hedges, the former New York Times correspondent. But for all too many reporters, as Hedges put it in the title of his book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Few might admit the dirty secret, but it’s all too true. Reporters do get killed and injured during wars, but for many it is an exhilarating adventure that involves considerably less danger than is faced by the actual soldiers.

Scott Ritter (notice that those who were right before the war are still marginalized while those who were dead-wrong seem to get ever more prestigious assignments) has also noted that during the run-up the networks and newspapers were discussing how reporters would be "embedded" in military units. The Pentagon wanted badly to control the coverage (though some embeds did do some decent independent reporting) and was negotiating hard. Might this have had something to do with the kind of pressure Katie Couric, Jessica Yellin (now with CNN but then with MSNBC), and a few others say they got from the executive suits?

Given all these perverse incentives, it is almost surprising that we got even mild questioning from the media during the prelude to the war. But there’s little question, as even notables such as Howard Kurtz and Wolf Blitzer have acknowledged, that the media failed the American people during the marketing campaign for the war.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).