NY Times largely mum on Moyers special about media's role in spreading prewar falsehoods

On the April 25 edition of the Public Broadcasting Service's Bill Moyers Journal, host Bill Moyers presented a 90-minute-long documentary special, Buying the War," that examined how the media “largely surrendered its independence and skepticism to join with our government in marching to war” in Iraq. The film extensively reported on the role New York Times reporters and columnists played in contributing to the “drumbeat” of war. However, the documentary has not been either reviewed or mentioned in the Times itself, aside from a two-sentence blurb that appeared in the print newspaper's television listings.

By contrast, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post all ran reviews of the Moyers documentary. The Post -- whose editorials in favor of the invasion and front-page coverage of Bush administration prewar claims were extensively highlighted by Moyers -- published two articles on the special: a preview of the documentary and a review of it. On April 25, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales reviewed the film, calling it “one of the most gripping and important pieces of broadcast journalism so far this year ... as disheartening as it is compelling.” Shales further observed: “The show asks: Did the Bush administration benefit from having an effective collection of accomplished dupers -- a contingent that Washington Post investigative reporter Walter Pincus calls 'the marketing group' -- or did the outrage of 9/11 made the press more vulnerable to being duped?”

While the documentary cast a critical eye on most of the mainstream press, Moyers especially noted The New York Times' role in credulously reporting administration claims about Iraq's WMD program, particularly focusing on former Times reporter Judith Miller. Moyers noted that, before the invasion, “Miller would write six prominent stories based on” the “testimony” of Iraqi defectors, whose stories were later found to be exaggerated or fictional. Miller relied heavily on Ahmed Chalabi -- then an Iraqi exile and head of the Iraqi National Congress -- who put her in touch with other defectors who, according to Moyers, “told Miller the Iraqis had hidden chemical and biological weapons ... [r]ight under [Saddam Hussein's] 'presidential sites.' ” Moyers reported that the “story spread far and wide,” opening floodgates for other Iraqi defectors to peddle misinformation to the U.S. media.

Moyers highlighted another front-page Times article, to which Miller contributed, that helped the Bush administration make the case that Saddam “had launched a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb using specially designed [aluminum] tubes,” a claim that later turned out to be false. Moyers used this story to demonstrate how administration officials would manipulate the media by “plant[ing] a dramatic story,” then appearing on news talk shows and “point[ing]” to the story they had leaked to confirm their argument, thus creating a “circular, self-confirming leak”:

MOYERS: Was it just a coincidence in your mind that [Vice President Dick] Cheney came on your show and others went on the other Sunday shows, the very morning that that story appeared?

TIM RUSSERT (NBC News Washington bureau chief and host of NBC's Meet the Press): I don't know. The New York Times is a better judge of that than I am.

MOYERS: No one tipped you that it was going to happen?

RUSSERT: No, no. I mean --

MOYERS: The -- the Cheney office didn't make any -- didn't leak to you that there's gonna be a big story?

RUSSERT: No. No. I mean, I don't -- I don't have the -- this is, you know, on Meet the Press, people come on and there are no ground rules. We can ask any question we want. I did not know about the aluminum-tube story until I read it in The New York Times.

MOYERS: Critics point to September 8, 2002, and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the administration plants a dramatic story in The New York Times and then the vice president comes on your show and points to The New York Times. It's a circular, self-confirming leak.

RUSSERT: I don't know how Judith Miller and [New York Times reporter] Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of The New York Times. When Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that.

Buying the War also highlighted The Washington Post's prominent coverage of the Bush administration's prewar claims, while simultaneously burying stories that cast doubt on the administration's assertions. Moyers also noted that “in the six months leading up to the invasion The Washington Post would editorialize in favor of the war at least 27 times.” But while two Post staffers -- media critic Howard Kurtz and staff writer Walter Pincus -- agreed to be interviewed for Moyers' program, three Times staffers Moyers sought to interview -- Miller and columnists Thomas Friedman and William Safire, both of whom advocated for the war -- all declined to be interviewed. In fact, aside from file footage, no one from the Times appeared on air.

Media Matters for America found that, in the past two months, the only coverage The New York Times devoted to the special was a two-line mention in the April 25 edition of the paper's Arts & Entertainment section, Page 9, which noted: “The season premiere of 'Bill Moyers Journal' examines the proposition that the news media were complicit in pushing the United States into the war in Iraq. Dan Rather, Tim Russert and Bob Simon appear in interviews.”