In Wake of McClellan Charges: When Bill Moyers Revealed How the Press Bought the War

By Mitchell, Greg | Editor & Publisher, May 31, 2008 | Go to article overview

In Wake of McClellan Charges: When Bill Moyers Revealed How the Press Bought the War


Mitchell, Greg, Editor & Publisher


(Commentary) Debate continues today over charges by former White House spokesman Scott McClellan, in a new book and on TV, that his former boss "hoodwinked" the media, and the public, into going along with the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003.

Some reporters, such as NBC's David Gregory -- and anchors (past or present), such as Tom Brokaw and Charles Gibson -- are actively defending their performance.

So it's worth looking back at what I called, last year, the "most powerful indictment of the news media for falling down in its duties in the run-up to the war in Iraq." The program appeared on April 25, a 90-minute PBS broadcast called "Buying the War," which marked the return of "Bill Moyers Journal."

I included my review in my new book "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq." An excerpt is published below.

*While much of the evidence of the media's role as cheerleaders for the war presented here is not new, it is skillfully assembled, with many fresh quotes from interviews (with the likes of Tim Russert and Walter Pincus) along with numerous embarrassing examples of past statements by journalists and pundits that proved grossly misleading or wrong. Several prominent media figures, prodded by Moyers, admit the media failed miserably, though few take personal responsibility.

The war continues today, now in its fifth year, with the death toll for Americans and Iraqis rising again -- yet Moyers points out, "the press has yet to come to terms with its role in enabling the Bush Administration to go to war on false pretenses."

Among the few heroes of this devastating film are reporters with the Knight Ridder/McClatchy bureau in D.C. Tragically late, Walter Isaacson, who headed CNN, observes, "The people at Knight Ridder were calling the colonels and the lieutenants and the people in the CIA and finding out, you know, that the intelligence is not very good. We should've all been doing that."

At the close, Moyers mentions some of the chief proponents of the war who refused to speak to him for this program, including Thomas Friedman, Bill Kristol, Roger Ailes, Charles Krauthammer, Judith Miller, and William Safire.

But Dan Rather, the former CBS anchor, admits, "I don't think there is any excuse for, you know, my performance and the performance of the press in general in the roll up to the war...We didn't dig enough. And we shouldn't have been fooled in this way." Bob Simon, who had strong doubts about evidence for war, was asked by Moyers if he pushed any of the top brass at CBS to "dig deeper," and he replies, "No, in all honesty, with a thousand mea culpas. ... nope, I don't think we followed up on this."

Instead he covered the marketing of the war in a "softer" way, explaining to Moyers: "I think we all felt from the beginning that to deal with a subject as explosive as this, we should keep it, in a way, almost light - if that doesn't seem ridiculous."

Moyers replies: "Going to war, almost light."

Walter Isaacson is pushed hard by Moyers and finally admits, "We didn't question our sources enough. …

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