Page 2 of 3

The Great Media Breakdown

The press admits it fell for the administration's line on weapons of mass destruction. But the media's failure goes far beyond Iraq.

IT IS NOT TOO MUCH TO SAY that the press has let the public down on every one of the big life-and-death stories of our time. Begin with those unforgettable 35 days in Florida in 2000, when reporters let Republicans get away with their chosen story line: Bush was the presumptive victor and Gore was trying to deprive him of his due. NBC's Tim Russert again and again suggested that Gore be the statesmanlike gent and bow out. Never once did I see a network bigfoot suggest that Bush do the graceful thing and step aside. Bush was cast as president-in-waiting, Gore as the interfering usurper.

Then, from the moment George Bush walked into the White House, he was excused from serious scrutiny. It would have seemed invasive, ungenerous, downright mean to inquire too forcefully of a chief executive so, well, unchieflike. Anyway, this White House was known to slam the door on overly feisty reporters.

In a remarkable piece three months into Bush's term, John F. Harris of the Washington Post wrote that Bush "has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton. Take it from someone who made a living writing about those uproars.... Do you suppose there would have been an uproar under Clinton if Democrats had been rewarding donors with special closed-door briefings by Cabinet secretaries? GOP donors received just such a briefing with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson as thanks for their efforts. Far from an uproar, the story has had only a faint echo. Clinton's 'donor maintenance' coffees led to a year of congressional inquiries."

Bush received an even broader pass after September 11. At least until American bodies piled up in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib revelations cracked through, journalists clearly feared that seeming to cast discredit on the commander in chief would smack of insufficient patriotism. (The New York Times' chief Bush watcher, Elisabeth Bumiller, commented on a Bush press conference on the eve of the Iraq war: "I think we were very deferential because... nobody wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.") Obsequious stenography would protect the Washington press corps from cries of "liberal media." There was—and remains—considerable reluctance to invoke what a Times reporter I spoke to called "reportorial authority," which, as he put it, would require that "when the president says the sun rose in the west, we take it upon ourselves to say no."

And so, White House talking points crystallized in the news as established fact. NBC's Today show was just one of many to describe the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the federalization of airport security screeners as moves by "the Bush administration" that were part of its "campaign to keep America safe"—even though Bush had opposed both. TV news regularly described the war in Iraq as the centerpiece of the "war on terror."

The run-up to the war saw a chain-reacting scandal of gullibility. When the administration brandished Saddam's purchase of aluminum tubes as proof that he was developing nuclear weapons, journalists snapped to attention and buried the intelligence agencies' doubts. When Bush claimed that Saddam had shopped for uranium in Africa, journalists duly recorded his words even though the claim had already been dismissed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and it was obvious that the documents in question were forged. When Colin Powell flaunted a slide show at the United Nations with then CIA director George Tenet posing behind him as a prop, that was good enough to establish the "nearly encyclopedic" (the New York Times' front-page term) nature of the secretary of state's case.

After the invasion, some news organizations played impressive catch-up on the WMD issue and others (the failure to predict looting, the range of Iraqi opinion regarding the occupation). But on other fronts, news departments—often emblazoned with flags and gung-ho logos—strived to prove nothing except that they were on the team. Rather than seeking the Iraqi side of the battles, they played along with the Pentagon's "embedding" game and sanitized the war. News chiefs neglected pictures of civilian casualties that ran everywhere else in the world. They hyped the takedown of the Saddam statue. They bent the Jessica Lynch rescue into a distorted escape movie, as Pfc. Lynch herself later dared to point out. One has to wonder whether the Abu Ghraib revelations would have splashed their way onto the front pages had whistleblowers not supplied digital photos. Journalists on their own were simply not digging hard enough.

Page 2 of 3