How the Iraq war was sold

If you missed the excellent special episode of Bill Moyer’s journal Buying the War: How did the mainstream press get it so wrong? that was broadcast on PBS on Wednesday, April 25, 2007, you can see the 90-minute program online.

I would strongly urge that you watch the program. Those of us who followed the run-up to the war closely will not find any startling new revelations in the program but by assembling the information into one narrative, Moyers shows dramatically how the administration and Congress and the media colluded in misleading the country into the disastrous Iraq war. (See Justin Raimondo’s review of the program which adds useful information.)

I have written extensively about how the media works before, about the benefits of unbalanced media coverage, the consequences of having media monopolies, how the media censors itself, the incestuous media, business, and political worlds, how the media propaganda model works (here, here, here, and here), the the class nature of journalists, and how to avoid being suckered by the media.

Watching the Moyers program and seeing how newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post and the main television network news and talk shows not only uncritically reported White House propaganda but acted as cheerleaders for the war, vindicated my long-time strategy of not reading or watching these sources but instead looking for more better news sources and analysis.

Like many other people, I knew that the war was immoral and illegal and that the case being made was a sham and said so at that time. This was not because I was smarter or had better sources than other people but simply because I am always skeptical about obviously self-serving statements by politicians and pundits. If you are willing to look, you can find valuable news and analysis. But if you sit back and take only what is given to you, you will be misled.

For example, just a couple of days after Colin Powell’s infamous UN speech in February 2003, it was clear from reading the international media that almost his entire presentation was a fraud. But you would never have guessed it if you had only read the swooning coverage in the mainstream US media.

There were some exceptions to the rule as Moyers points out. Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) news service reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel took the trouble to actually investigate claims and statements made by government officials (imagine that!) and found that they seemed to be living in a different world from the rest of their media colleagues. But since their news service is not a ‘glamour’ operation and owned no newspapers in the New York and Washingon markets, the skeptical reports they filed were drowned out by the noise machines.

Media stars like Tim Russert and reporters like Judith Miller and Michael Gordon are revealed for what they are, mere stenographers and conduits for administration propaganda. Dan Rather of CBS and Walter Isaacson of CNN offer mea culpas now for how they were swept by and made fearful by the patriotic fervor at the time, but their statements seem self-serving and pathetic. Bob Simon of CBS at least asked the right questions and had a good sense of what the truth was even if he did not push hard enough to get the story out.

As Norman Solomon says, the real test for journalists is how they respond during times of peak emotion, not when they have time to look back, and by that standard Rather and Russert and Isaacson failed miserably. As Rudyard Kipling said in his poem If:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
. . .
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

But very few of them met Kipling’s standard. Nearly all of them lost their heads in the pro-war hysteria.

All the gung-ho pro-war pundits like Thomas Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, William Safire, Roger Ailes, and Judith Miller weaseled out of appearing on Moyers’ show, not willing to stand by their words or defend them. All of them are still around, unfazed by being spectacularly wrong. And others who misled the US into war (like William Kristol, Peter Beinart, and Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson) even get rewarded by being given even more prominent platforms than before.

See this excellent Tom Tomorrow cartoon called Great Moments in Punditry capturing the statements of these pundits in 2003. What is amazing is that they are still around, still spouting warmongering nonsense.

Now that the war has gone seriously wrong, some people are trying to edge back in to respectability by becoming critics. I am always suspicious of such people like Zbigniew Bzerzinski and Madeline Albright. These people like to shine their anti-war badges on the backs of an unpopular war so that they will be taken seriously when they advocate in favor of the next war. After all, Bzerzinski was the shameful architect of Afghanistan’s current troubles and Albright was the one who casually dismissed the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as ‘worth it’ to pursue US policy goals. These people have no principles, they are just opportunists, waiting for their next chance in the seats of power. And they will use the phony antiwar credentials they have created during this unpopular war to make themselves more credible when they agitate for a future war.

Similarly former CIA head George Tenet is now whining about how badly he has been treated by his former friends, trying to act like he was a poor, misunderstood voice of reason who has been treated dishonorably by others and Colin Powell is, as usual, is trying to persuade us that he is an honorable man by rewriting history. One should treat all these people with caution

One adage that I keep in mind when following the news is not to just pay attention to what people are making a fuss about but to look at the things about which they silently agree. Very often, the big, noisy controversies are like a magician’s patter, designed to distract your attention form where the action really is. For example, the recent big drama about the president vetoing the bill that Congress sent him putting timetables on troop redeployment masks the facts that Congress is not objecting to money going for the construction of many large permanent military bases within Iraq. This suggests to me that there is a silent bipartisan agreement to station a large number of US troops in Iraq indefinitely. If the Democrats were really serious about withdrawal, why would they continue funding to build those bases? Such an action would not even leave them open to the phony charge of ‘not supporting the troops.’ Their silence on this speaks volumes.

This is why I encourage people to read and support sites like They have been taking a principled stand on war from early on, and provide links to a wide variety of news reports and commentary. Even when I disagree with them on specific issues (and there are many), I respect them for not being the kinds of shameless opportunists that infest the mainstream TV and newspapers.

POST SCRIPT: How and why god caused global warming

When a science teacher in Seattle wanted to show her class the film An Inconvenient Truth, an outraged parent named (ironically enough) Frosty Hardison managed to get it stopped, unless an anti-global warming film was also shown ‘for balance.’

The Daily Show’s Jason Jones interviewed Frosty and the interview is hilarious and has to be seen to be believed. It turns out that he believes the rapture will occur in the next five to seven years and that the current warming trend is due to god’s wrath for our abominable behavior.

What is really strange about these rapturites is that if one of these days a major city were to be suddenly demolished for whatever reason with massive casualties ensuing, the rest of us would see the event as a major tragedy, whatever the cause. But the rapturites will wait hopefully, wondering if this is a sign of Jesus’s return.


  1. Erin says

    That video is a thing of bizarre beauty. Thanks for adding a little surreality to my morning!

  2. peter mccall says

    There are beliefs about the media widely held by most citizens, even educated ones, that too frequently go unchallenged— media are a democratic force, journalists challenge the ideology of the status quo, there is a liberal bias in media — so its nice to see Moyers most recent counterexample is available online. I’ll watch it!

    If you think any of these three claims are largely true, and if you are open to persuasion, I offer for your consideration a couple semi-recent books (1999) that refute these media myths:
    Jeffery Scheuer, “The Sound Bite Society: Television and the American Mind” , and
    Robert McChesney, “Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times”

    Both were given to me by Ralph Nader during his visit to the College Scholars Program here at Case in 2000. Nader himself is a potent media critic. Look for the DVD release of the documentary profile, “Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man” in June 2007.

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