Could Twitter Have Stopped The Media's Rush To War In Iraq?

Responding to a barrage of criticism he received for a factually inaccurate and flawed column he wrote this month about the sequestration battle, New York Times columnist Bill Keller wrote a follow-up blog post to detail how critics had hounded him online, especially via Twitter.

Denouncing the social media tool's tendency to produce what he called mean and shallow commentary, Keller lamented Twitter's suddenly pervasive power. “It is always on, and it gets inside your head,” he wrote, adding, “there is no escape.” Indeed, within days of writing his column, Keller felt compelled to pen a lengthy piece about his Twitter encounter.

The columnist painted an unpleasant picture of being hounded and “bull[ied]” on Twitter for merely expressing “an unpopular view.” But as the tenth anniversary of the United States-led invasion of Iraq approaches, I couldn't help thinking back to when columnists like Keller, and newspapers like the New York Times, where Keller became executive editor in July 2003, helped cheer the nation to war. To date, that conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 8,000 U.S. service members and contractors and more than  130,000 Iraqi citizens, and is projected to cost the U.S. Treasury more than two trillion dollars. (The Times' public editor later called the paper's prewar coverage "flawed journalism.")

Thinking about the historic failure of the Times and others in the media a decade ago, I couldn't help wish that Twitter had been around during the winter of 2002-2003 to provide a forum for critics to badger writers like Keller and the legion of Beltway media insiders who abdicated their role as journalists and fell in line behind the Bush White House's march to war. I wouldn't have cared that recipients might have been insulted by the Twitter critiques or seen them as mean and shallow, the way Keller does today. Sorry, but the stakes in 2003 were too high to worry about bruised feelings. 

Looking back, I wish Keller and other pro-war columnists had been “bullied” (rhetorically) as they got almost everything wrong about the pending war. I think the revolutionary peer connection tool would have been invaluable in shaming journalists into doing their jobs when so many failed to. (Keller later admitted the invasion was a “monumental blunder.”)

Twitter could have helped puncture the Beltway media bubble by providing news consumers with direct access to confront journalists during the run-up to the war. And the pass-around nature of Twitter could have rescued forgotten or buried news stories and commentaries that ran against the let's-go-to-war narrative that engulfed so much of the mainstream press.

Considering the central role the lapdog media played in helping to sell President Bush's pre-emptive invasion, I wonder if Twitter could have stopped the Iraq War.  

Make no mistake, the nascent liberal blogosphere was  raising its collective voice against the war in 2003 and calling out the press for its lapdog  ways. In fact, one of the catalysts for the rapid expansion of the liberal  blogosphere one decade ago was the ingrained sense of frustration.  Progressive often searched in vain for passionate and articulate anti- war voices within the mainstream media. (And when they found a champion, Phil Donahue, he was summarily fired just weeks before the invasion.) Denied a voice, they created their own platform, liberal blogs.

The problem was the liberal blogosphere got the war story right, but they did it in something of a bubble. It was a bubble the mainstream media bolstered to isolate their progressive critics; to isolate and marginalize the new band of rowdy citizen journalists. Still new enough in 2002 and 2003  that they didn't necessarily command journalists' respect, and lacking the technological ability to reach into newsrooms, liberal blogs were often ignored by media elite, despite the fact the blogs were raising all the questions  about the pending war.

Why am I convinced Twitter would have made an impact? The same reason Keller mentioned in his blog post this month: It's always on. Every Beltway newsroom is now wired to Twitter. It's today's media nervous system, the way The Drudge Report supposedly was during the Clinton years. It's the current that powers each news cycle. It's the first warning signal for breaking news and it's supplementing cocktail chatter that forms conventional wisdoms.  

In 2009,  America Journalism Review noted some of the benefits that Twitter offered reporters:

It can provide instantaneous access to hard-to-reach newsmakers, given that there's no PR person standing between a reporter and a tweet to a government official or corporate executive.

It's that same lack of a filter, and that power to communicate directly with journalists, that can make it so influential. They may not always choose to respond, but like all Twitter users, journalists regularly tap the 'Connect' icon to follow what people are saying to them and about them.

So yeah, it's the best place to tweak the press and get an instance response.  I'm not talking about trolling and name calling. I'm talking about flagging dubious work, the way critics used Twitter to spread the word about the obvious holes in Bill Keller's recent sequestration column.

And Keller isn't alone. Take David Brooks' Times piece a few weeks back, in which he erroneously suggested Obama hadn't issued a proposal to avoid the looming sequestration other than raising taxes on the rich. Thanks to the wildfire messaging of Twitter, Brooks' column became something of a laughing stock by noon on the day it was published. And like Keller, Brooks felt the need to quickly respond to the criticism; to apologize. That kind of a real-time debunking, and a debunking that was read inside every newsroom, was precisely what liberals lacked ten years ago. They lacked an intimate amplifier that found its media mark every time.

With the interactivity of Twitter, journalists, I think, feel a much stronger urge to defend their work and to not let legitimate criticism go unanswered. Ignoring Twitter, and specifically ignoring what people are saying about your work on Twitter, isn't really an option the way turning a blind eye to anti-war bloggers may have been ten years ago.

As the New York Times recently noted:

The harshest judges of those in news media are often others in the news media, and, with the benefit of Twitter, that intrajournalistic watchdog role can be performed simultaneously with the journalism being criticized.

That description appeared in a Times piece about the angry reaction that erupted on Twitter when journalists were called together for President Obama's first news conference after the Sandy Hook, CT., school massacre. After Obama made public how the administration would respond to the tragedy, the assembled scribes then promptly ignored the issue pressed Obama on budget tactics.  Media critics flipped out on Twitter and the Times wrote that up as news.

Think back to the night of Bush's final, pre-war press conference on March 6, 2003. Laying out the reasons for war, Bush mentioned Al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks of September 11 thirteen times in less than an hour. Yet not a single journalist challenged the presumed connection Bush was making between Al Qaeda and Iraq, despite the fact that U.S. allies had publicly questioned any such association.

With Twitter, media condemnations would have been instant that night and somnambulant journalists certainly would have felt the public sting.

Or imagine how Twitter could have been used in real time on February 5, 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell made his infamous attack-Iraq presentation to the United Nations. At the time, Beltway pundits positively swooned over what they claimed was Powell's air-tight case for war. (Powell later conceded the faulty presentation represented a "blot" on his record.) But Twitter could have swarmed journalists with instant analysis about the obvious shortcoming. That kind of accurate, instant analysis of Powell's presentation was posted on blogs but ignored by a mainstream media enthralled by the White House's march to war.

Now, I realize the social media tool has been credited with helping start a revolution, but stopping an invasion that the full force of the Bush administration was determined to wage? Doesn't that seem like a stretch?

My point is Twitter could have altered, in important ways, the media coverage, especially during the run-up to the war when the Beltway press experienced something close to collective malpractice. It could have helped shame journalists into rediscovering the notion of skepticism.  

A year after the war began, then-Washington Post editor Leonard Downie downplayed any role the media may have played in helping launch the invasion. He insisted people who opposed the war “have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media's coverage had been different, there wouldn't have been a war.” 

I disagree. It would have been far more difficult for Bush to have ordered the war of choice with Iraq -- and  sold the idea at home -- if it weren't for the bountiful help he received from the mainstream media, and particularly the stamp of approval he received from so-called liberal media institutions such as the Washington Post, which in February of 2003 alone, editorialized in favor of war nine times. (Between September 2002 and February 2003, the paper editorialized twenty-six times in favor of the war.)

Ten years ago, Twitter could have also performed the Herculean task of making sure brave news stories that did raise doubts about the war didn't fall through the cracks, as invariably happened back then. With swarms of users touting the reports, it would have been much more difficult for reporters and pundits to dismiss important events and findings.

For instance, Twitter could have trumpeted the news that on October 10, 2002, retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, the former head of Central Command for U.S. forces in the Middle East, delivered a keynote address at a Washington think tank where he outlined his grave concerns about the Bush administration's war with Iraq. (The Washington Post devoted just 300 words, on page 16, to Zinni's deeply prophetic warning.)

Twitter could have spread the word about the Associated Press' January 18, 2003 dispatch, "Inspectors Have Covered CIA's Sites of 'Concern' and Reporter No Violations," which documented how more than a dozen inspected Iraqi weapons facilities had failed to produce any evidence of Saddam's alleged arsenal.

Twitter could have championed the work of the Washington Post's Walter Pincus, who was writing insightful, skeptical war stories, but ones his editors refused to put on page-one. Pieces like "Bush Clings To Dubious Allegations About Iraq," “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” “Alleged al-Qaida Ties Questioned; Experts Scrutinize Details of Accusations Against Iraqi Government,” and “Making the Case Against Baghdad; Officials: Evidence Strong, Not Conclusive.”

And Twitter could have touted John Barry's March 3, 2003 piece in Newsweek:

Hussein Kamel, the highest-ranking Iraqi official ever to defect from Saddam Hussein's inner circle, told CIA and British intelligence officers and U.N. inspectors in the summer of 1995 that after the gulf war, Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them.

In other words, Twitter could have been the megaphone -- the media equalizer -- that war critics lacked ten years ago. And yes, for pro-war columnists like Bill Keller who later admitted they got the Iraq story very wrong, Twitter back then might've meant enduring some “bullying” critiques.

Given the dire consequences of the war, it would've been worth it.