In the thousands of articles and television reports marking the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, nearly every important aspect of the war was probed. Fingers were pointed at the usual suspects—Rumsfeld, Bremer, and Cheney; stubborn Republicans and weak-willed Democrats, among many others—but conspicuously absent from the media coverage was any soul-searching on behalf of the press, as if there had been no major media slips or tragic omissions over the past five years. With months to plan for the commemoration, the media were ready to take stock of everything—but themselves.
By and large, when the press did revisit their Iraq coverage, they showcased some of the undeniably terrific reporting, photography, and videography that have emerged from the war zone. But a frank assessment of the overall media performance, from the “run-up” to the “surge,” was virtually nonexistent. That’s not only shameful and revealing, it’s also a real missed opportunity, since there is so much to be learned from the media’s Iraq coverage—the good, the bad, and the ugly—by future generations of journalists, not to mention the current one.
Yes, the fateful media mistakes and misreporting of Iraqi WMD before the war have been widely covered in the past, but how could this not be widely revisited at the fifth-year mark, with 4,000 American soldiers dead and thousands wounded for life? What about the media’s role in falling victim to official propaganda in the Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman cases? The delay in exposing the abuses at Abu Ghraib and attacks on civilians in Haditha and numerous other places?
The list goes on: Why did it take years to really focus on ill treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans back here at home? To expose the rising suicide rate among soldiers and vets? To assess the full financial costs of the war? Why did the media go along with the Pentagon’s ban on showing coffins returning from Iraq, and the restrictions on running pictures of dead or injured American soldiers—thus preventing the public from absorbing the true costs of the war? On reflection, what were the strengths and weaknesses of the much-ballyhooed “embedded” journalists plan?
What about the reluctance of editorial pages and pundits to propose, even tentatively, a real change in course in Iraq, as month after month, and then year after year, passed? Almost four years went by before a major newspaper called for the beginning of even a very slow, phased withdrawal. What do they think of that delay—now?
And in recent months, why are there so few reporters covering the war now? Are budgetary excuses—and blaming readers for not being much interested anymore—really valid? Do readers take their cues from the (increasingly disinterested) media?
There has been a tremendous amount of truly heroic journalism from the war zone and tough-minded reporting into the war causes and conduct here at home, and that certainly deserves to be celebrated. But the media’s current failure to reexamine themselves only adds to the black mark journalists have received for past oversights and errors in their chronicling of this war.