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Iraq, the Media, and the Art of the Apology

Eric Laursen
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004

The apology, coming from powerful institutions like the White House or a major metropolitan daily, is an art form. The art lies in crafting a mea culpa that confesses just enough to sound sincere, but without cutting so deeply as to call the institution’s motives into question. In the case of corporate news media, Rule No. 1 goes like this: Admit to being duped by your sources if you must, or even to editorial incompetence. But never admit to having made a willful, selective use of the evidence in front of you. In other words, that the institution itself must change. The editors of the New York Times made a dramatic apology on May 26. Their coverage of Washington’s claims before the invasion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, they confessed, “was not as rigorous as it should have been… We, along with the administration, were taken in.” Although buried modestly inside the A section, the lengthy editorial note attracted a great deal of notice. In fact, the Times apology became the centerpiece of a turnabout in corporate-media coverage of the Iraq debacle that was spurred by the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and the more recent Senate investigations into the run-up to the Iraq war. After years of gullibly, accepting the Clinton and then the Bush White Houses’ allegations and rationalizations for their Iraq policy, all the major print and broadcast outlets – all except the Murdoch empire, of course – have suddenly begun turning over a lot of previously undisturbed stones. In recent weeks, print, radio, and TV have been breathlessly following the Senate hearings and fighting for new revelations that the Bush administration’s WMD claims were unfounded. All well and good. But most of the evidence the majors have “unearthed” was known to readers of the foreign and alternative press long before the invasion. Complaints about the reliability of reports by Judith Miller, the Times’ chief drum-beater on WMDs, extend as far back as 1998, not just to 2001, which is the limit of the period covered by the editors’ apology. And the institutions themselves have failed to change: The corporate media’s critiques are resolutely backward looking, while their day-to-day coverage of Iraq, the occupation, and the resistance to American military rule continues to stick as closely as possible to the administration’s unspoken guidelines. Foremost is the media’s refusal to acknowledge the depth of Iraqi opposition to the US military and corporate presence. A March Gallup poll showed that “a solid majority support an immediate military pullout.” In the spring, the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies found that the proportion of Iraqis – including Kurds – who want the US out had ballooned from 17% to over 50% since last October. Sixty-eight percent said they support rebel religious leader Moqtada al-Sadr. Yet major-media reports continued to assert that most Iraqis want the US to stay for fear of greater chaos if the GIs depart. The Times’ Tom Friedman still wrote of a “silent majority” who reject violence. And a USA Today editorial in May still insisted that “the extent of [the attackers’] support among Iraqis angry about the US occupation [is] unknown.” Military sources Perhaps this has something to do with the profile of the media’s sources, which hasn’t changed much since February, when a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting showed that TV news is heavily dominated by government, military and ex-military sources. Looking at 319 on-camera appearances in nightly news stories about Iraq on ABC, NBC, and CBS, FAIR found that 244 were current or former government or military employees. Of the current government placeholders, 79% were Republicans. Only 10 sources talked about civilian casualties of the war, six of them on a single CBS Evening News segment and none on either NBC or ABC. And despite the media’s own digging into the discredited WMD allegations, top Bush officials remain their most sought-after guests for any broad-ranging assessment of the American adventure in Iraq. Here’s the interview lineup in the three top TV networks’ programs on the first anniversary of the invasion in March: ABC – Secretary of State Colin Powell; CBS – Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld; and NBC – National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Only NBC included a war critic, former presidential candidate Howard Dean. Just how shallow the corporate media’s capacity for self-criticism runs was proved earlier this year when the duPont Awards, the Pulitzers of the TV news biz, handed a statuette to ABC’s Ted Koppel for his stint as an “embedded reporter” during the Iraq invasion. Accepting the military’s terms and conditions to attach reporters as media mascots of the troops that stormed Baghdad and then let the city be looted was one of the most shameful examples of kowtowing that the American “free press” has ever submitted to. Yet the TV news executives who hand out the duPonts were perfectly happy to treat the embedding phenomenon as proper journalism and honor it as such with an award. Editorial writers across the country, meanwhile, still exhibit a strong bias against anything like an expedited American pullout from its Mideast quagmire. A survey of American newspapers by the trade publication Editor & Publisher in May found that “the vast majority of America’s largest newspapers favored this approach to Iraq: Stay the course.” That’s confirmed by the fact that continuing deaths of American soldiers in Iraq are no longer automatically front-page news in any major metropolitan dailies. And criticism of the atrocious record of corporate kleptocrat L. Paul Bremer – the man who couldn’t make the lights turn on – was muted when Bush’s proconsul in Iraq helicoptered out of the country in June. As for big-think assessments of the Iraq situation, the corporate media still largely supply us with the opinions of liberal hawks like Michael Ignatieff and George Packer (the New York Times’ and the New Yorker’s pet pundits, respectively). All of which suggests that not much has changed in America’s corporate newsrooms since the pre-invasion days – years – when the Times’ Judith Miller, most famously, was parroting spurious administration alarms about WMDs. For all we know, Miller’s spiritual successor may be at work even as you read this.