Contrary to Liberal Myth, Pre-War Media Were Fierce Critics, Not Bush Lapdogs
Appearing on the same program, ex-CNNer Bill Press went even further, alleging that the press “gave us this war.” He told Kurtz, “the media, in large part, gave us this war, because they went along and repeated everything that George Bush said without asking tough questions....If they had asked the questions and more — and American people knew what the truth was, as opposed to the propaganda we were getting from the White House, I think there would not have been the support for the war.”
That’s complete nonsense, as anyone who has actually looked at the coverage would know. In the months leading up to the start of the war in March 2003, much of the media — especially ABC — portrayed the Bush administration as aggressive, impulsive, pig-headed and even blood-thirsty, while routinely doubting the credibility of their public statements.
Certainly some liberals may think the media’s pre-war opposition was noble, while others may see it as the beginning of a pattern of negative second-guessing that has undermined support for the war. But there’s no doubt that the press was tilted against the war long before it began.
In the congressional debate over using force, for example, all three broadcast networks gave the losing anti-war side much more airtime. An MRC study in October 2002 found nearly three in five of soundbites from members of Congress (59%) opposed the use of force, or roughly double the percentage of Senators and Representatives who actually voted against using force (29%).
Despite the claim that the media never “asked tough questions,” an MRC study of all Iraq stories on ABC’s World News Tonight during September 2002 discovered that ABC reporters were nearly four times more likely to voice doubt about the truthfulness of statements by U.S. officials than Iraqi claims.
“Today, the administration made a brand new accusation,” ABC anchor Peter Jennings announced on the September 26, 2002 broadcast. Reporter Martha Radditz quickly scoffed: “A senior intelligence official tells ABC News there is no smoking gun. There’s not even a smoking unfired weapon linking al Qaeda to Iraq.”
“The war policy is a crock,” Newsweek international news editor Michael Hirsh announced at a Yale forum on November 6, 2002. “This is a hugely risky operation for potential gains that probably won’t justify the risk.”
Columnist Helen Thomas declared Bush’s policy “immoral,” and used her role at White House press conferences to bring her anti-war message to a wide audience. “You are leaving the impression that Iraqi lives, the human cost doesn’t mean anything,” Thomas scolded the President at his November 7, 2002 press conference.
“Ari, you said that the President deplored the taking of innocent lives,” Thomas argued at a January 6, 2003 press briefing. “Why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?”
In September 2002, then-MSNBC anchor Brian Williams suggested the U.S. was an arrogant power. “The situation hasn’t been this lopsided in terms of one breakout superpower on the planet in quite some time,” Williams told Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria, who agreed: “It hasn’t been like this since the Roman Empire two millennia ago.”
“I was going to say we’d have to go back to the days of the Empire, and that gives the U.S. obvious military swagger,” Williams continued, referring to his own country in the third-person: “Does it give them any kind of moral courage above anyone else and anyone’s world, and isn’t that world view part of what got the United States in trouble September 11th?”
Day-to-day news coverage usually didn’t contain such blatant editorial statements, but the record shows the media emphasized the problems a war might cause, highlighted the objections of war opponents, romanticized anti-war protests, and suggested the Bush administration was jeopardizing America’s long-term interests.
They were certainly not cheerleaders:
Peter Jennings: “Some people are asking today whether or not the White House is losing control of the debate about war with Iraq.”
Terry Moran: “Well, Peter, White House officials are concerned that events are moving too fast and not in their direction. In the past couple of weeks, you’ve had top Republican leaders defecting from the pro-war camp, key allies opposing any action against Saddam Hussein.” — ABC’s World News Tonight, August 20, 2002.
“The President disclosed that he has been reading Supreme Command, a new book by Eliot A. Cohen, a neoconservative hardliner on Iraq....In his reading choice, Bush seems to be following the advice of Bill Kristol, the arch-neoconservative who has been using his Weekly Standard magazine to chide Bush for being too soft on Saddam Hussein....Kristol, suspected of playing puppeteer to a number of hawkish officials in the Bush Pentagon and National Security Council, appears to have added the marionette-in-chief to his act.” — Washington Post White House reporter Dana Milbank in his “White House Notebook” column, August 20, 2002.
“It’s no secret, now, that a great many American allies are very opposed to attacking Iraq unless the President makes a better case for it....With this many allies arrayed against an American invasion of Iraq, the question becomes, what would it mean for the United States to go it alone?” — ABC’s Peter Jennings, World News Tonight, August 21, 2002.
“Even the optimists say if it were to go on for months, if Saddam Hussein eludes capture, then the cost to the American economy is likely to be heavy.” — ABC’s John Cochran, World News Tonight, August 22, 2002.
“There are legal scholars who....say it would be unprecedented, a violation of the United Nations charter, and a reversal of nearly 200 years of U.S. policy to act only in response to an attack or the immediate threat of one.” — ABC’s John Yang, World News Tonight, August 29, 2002.
“This business of attacking Iraq has been promoted so vigorously by some members of his administration, and running into such opposition, the President is now obliged to work harder at convincing people that what he wants is the right thing.” — Jennings on World News Tonight, September 4, 2002.
“On Capitol Hill today, historians delivered a petition to Congress saying Congress must vote on whether or not to declare war against Iraq, not just authorize military action. The petition, signed by more than 1200 historians, says by not acting Congress has left the President solely in control of war powers to the detriment of democracy and in clear violation of the Constitution.” — ABC’s Peter Jennings on World News Tonight, Sept. 17, 2002.
“Voices of opposition. Not so much against getting rid of Saddam Hussein but how, when and at what cost....Military retirees remember getting bogged down in Vietnam and losing support at home. Many here are leery of a rerun....Unilateral action also troubles those we talked to in Denver. Few want to go it alone....In all three cities, there is a feeling the administration is moving too fast.... Contrary to what the President says, when it comes to war, America does not speak with one voice.” — ABC’s Bill Redeker on World News Tonight, Oct. 14, 2002. The story on public opinion in San Diego, Denver and Charleston only quoted people reluctant or opposed to using military force.
“Across the Arab world, few would miss Saddam Hussein, but even fewer believe a U.S.-led war is the way to remove him. Even America’s closest allies are reluctant....Many here see the U.S., not Iraq, as the greater threat to peace.” — ABC’s Jim Sciutto on World News Tonight, November 20, 2002.
“Don’t you have to have irrefutable evidence, what people in the country are calling a photo, a smoking gun of some kind before you can go to war against Saddam Hussein and expect international cooperation?” — Tom Brokaw’s question to Secretary of State Colin Powell on the NBC Nightly News, January 9, 2003.
“A growing number of people are speaking out against a war with Iraq: students, grandparents, businessmen, politicians, teachers, actors and activists, standing shoulder to shoulder in protest.” — MSNBC’s Jeannie Ohm in a 3pm ET live report from a January 18, 2003 anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C.
“Braving frigid temperatures, they traveled across the country — black and white, Democrat and Republican, young and old....The protesters say there is no evidence justifying a war with Iraq and say the government needs to hear their views.” — ABC’s Lisa Sylvester on World News Tonight/Saturday, January 18, 2003.
“Young, old, veterans and veteran activists — united in the effort to stop the war before it starts.” — CBS’s Joie Chen on the January 19, 2003 Sunday Morning.
“The UN weapons inspectors go back to Baghdad this weekend. They have not been happy with Iraqi cooperation so far. We’ll see if the Iraqis do any better – and if that means anything to the Bush administration.” — ABC’s Peter Jennings, World News Tonight, February 7, 2003.
“Can you imagine a point at which you would say, ‘They [the Iraqis] are cooperating enough that I’m going to step out of my role and say, personally, this war is not justified’?” — ABC’s Diane Sawyer to UN Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix on Good Morning America, February 10, 2003.
“There are many here today who speak with a sense of urgency and frustration....So many voices, filling the streets, struggling to be heard.” — ABC’s John McKenzie on World News Tonight/Saturday, February 15, 2003.
“Ladies in stiletto heels and fur-fringed jackets, fathers pushing strollers trailing McDonald’s balloons, drably dressed union members, students in face paint and carnival clothes – all turned out to make some noise. Yet despite the gay atmosphere beneath a brilliant blue sky, the message was stark, even dark. ‘The United States is a barbarian country,’ shouted some. ‘Bush, let’s murder,’ shouted others. One group chanted, ‘Bush, Blair, Sharon, Putin, Chirac: Justice in Palestine, don’t touch Iraq.’” — Introduction of Craig Smith’s Feb. 16, 2003 New York Times story headlined, “Throwing a Party With a Purpose.”
“The size of the demonstrators, at least here, at least in Europe, seems to underscore, Chris, that there are now perhaps two world superpowers. There’s the United States and then there are those millions of people who took to the streets opposing U.S. policy.” — MSNBC’s David Shuster to Hardball host Chris Matthews, February 17, 2003.
“Secretary Rumsfeld...has dismissively referred to France and Germany as ‘Old Europe,’ and today, Secretary Powell, who warned France not to be ‘afraid’ of its responsibilities. Is that the rhetoric of a great power, and is that really the most effective way of building alliances?” “Is it possible that the attitude which emanates not from the press, but from the administration, of ‘you’re with us or you’re against us,’ kind of dismissive superiority to some of the oldest American allies, is contributing to the problems in forging a common front against Iraq?” — ABC White House correspondent Terry Moran’s questions to Ari Fleischer at the February 19, 2003 White House briefing shown live on the cable networks.
“[President Bush] is bringing along a world coalition that he calls a ‘coalition of the willing,’ when it’s really a coalition of the bullied and the bribed.” — Newsweek Contributing Editor Eleanor Clift on the McLaughlin Group, February 22, 2003.
“People in other parts of the world want to know why our weapons of mass destruction are good and everybody else’s is bad....We have to confront the hypocrisy....Let us be honest. We’ve got the biggest thing that goes boom in the history of the universe and we appear to be rather lofty and pious in our demands that nobody else have one!” — MSNBC’s Phil Donahue on his Donahue program, February 24, 2003.
“Iraq is clearly starting to destroy some of its weapons, perhaps not as quickly as the administration would like. Clearly, it can’t all be done in one instant, in some Big Bang theory. So doesn’t this speak to the President’s well-known impatience, that his patience is running out, he’s not willing to give this process more time?” — Los Angeles Times White House reporter Ed Chen to Ari Fleischer at a March 3 White House briefing.
“In the past several weeks, your policy on Iraq has generated opposition from the governments of France, Russia, China, Germany, Turkey, the Arab League, and many other countries; opened a rift at NATO and at the UN; and drawn millions of ordinary citizens around the world into the streets in anti-war protests. May I ask what went wrong that so many governments and peoples around the world now not only disagree with you very strongly, but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power?” — ABC White House correspondent Terry Moran to President Bush at a prime-time press conference, March 6.
“So many people don’t understand why you shouldn’t let the inspections continue if they are accomplishing anything....Most people think they’re doing a reasonably effective job at the moment.” — ABC’s Peter Jennings questioning Secretary of State Colin Powell on the March 7 World News Tonight.
Before the war began, liberals outside the media wanted their fellow-travelers inside the media to abandon any pretense of objectivity and use the airwaves to campaign against the war. Now, liberals are perpetuating the fantasy that the media were docile lapdogs of the Bush administration, hoping to spur them to tilt their coverage even further.
But the record shows the media have never been champions of Bush’s Iraq policies — neither before the war began, nor during the long battle against insurgents.