By Rehabilitating Iraq War Boosters, Is The Press Trying To Forgive Itself?

The bad bout of 2003 déjà vu continued on Sunday when former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on ABC's This Week to lecture President Obama about how his policies had allegedly made a mess out of Iraq, as violence there continues to grip the country and threatens to completely destabilize the nation.

Cheney's appearance continues a maddening, week-long stroll down Baghdad memory lane as media outlets rush to get commentary from the people who, eleven years ago, got everything wrong about the Iraq War: The stunning cost, the causalities, the war planning, the intelligence, the sectarian violence.

All of it.

“The neoconservative program cost the United States several trillion dollars and thousands dead and wounded American soldiers, and it sowed carnage and chaos in Iraq and elsewhere,” writes Harvard University professor Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy.

The head-scratching question continues to be, why? Why are the discredited “experts” who botched Iraq last time  now being a given a platform to comment on the military crisis they helped create? And why are these rejected mouthpieces being given a chance to bash President Obama, someone who opposed the failed war in the first place? (ABC's Jonathan Karl to Cheney: “What would you do in Iraq?” Left unsaid: Cheney left office with a 13 percent approval rating, in large part for leading the charge for the Bush administration's failed invasion.)

Why the strange rehabilitation? Here's a hint: People might be forgetting the deep bond that ran between the compliant Beltway media in 2003 and the very same failed Iraq War architects and partisan boosters the press is now turning to for advice. In other words, the Beltway press was part of the Iraq problem then. (They sold us a disastrous war.) So it's not that surprising the press is part of the problem now.

Fact: You can't talk about the Iraq War without addressing the central role the U.S. news media played during the run-up to the invasion, and the fevered and futile hunt for weapons of mass destruction. And that's why the current move to treat failed war sponsors as knowledgeable experts might also be seen as an effort by some journalists to put behind them the massive media missteps that led to the war.  

Meaning, the reason the press doesn't think it's strange having the people who got everything wrong about the war on TV today is because so much of the Beltway press got the same things wrong eleven years ago.

As the years pass by and memories fade, it's important to never forget just how much government stenography went on prior to the war in D.C. newsrooms, and just how little daylight existed between the Bush administration and media elites in their ironclad agreement about the need to invade Iraq. Only then does the continued symmetry now on display begin to make sense. (Fact: The “liberal” Washington Post editorialized more than two dozen times in favor of war, between September 2002 and February 2003.)

For instance, in my 2006 book Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over For Bush, I point to an episode of NBC's Meet the Press from December 25, 2005, where retired network anchormen Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw, busy portraying the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as inevitable, insisted President Clinton, surrounded by his Democratic administration advisers, would have ordered the same massive, unprecedented, and preemptive invasion against a country that had not attacked the United States:

KOPPEL: If 9/11 had happened on Bill Clinton's watch, he would have gone into Iraq.

BROKAW: Yeah. Yeah.

Separately that same month, CBS anchor Bob Schieffer agreed “there was no other choice for the president to make, but to invade Iraq.” Schieffer stressed, “I still give them the benefit of the doubt.” And this: “I don't think they deliberately misled people.”

And again, people wonder why the media are once again embracing Iraq War sponsors? For media elites like Schieffer, the war  boosters tried their best in 2003, they just misread the situation. And since they're Very Serious People, maybe this time their take will be accurate.  

The current rehabilitation tour brings back painful media memories. Like the fact that during the first two weeks of February 2003, when the debate about the war should have been raging on the public airwaves, of 393 people interviewed on-camera for network news reports about the war just 17 percent expressed skepticism about the looming invasion, according to a FAIR survey.

Recall that 23 percent of U.S. senators voted to oppose the war in the fall of 2002, but only 11 percent of the senators invited to appear on the Sunday morning talk shows prior to the invasion were antiwar, according to Media Matters research.

Another damming nugget: Of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS from September 2002 until February 2003, almost all the stories could be traced back to sources from the White House, the Pentagon, or the State Department, according to figures from media analyst Andrew Tyndall. Only 34 stories, or eight percent, were of independent origin.

That's why Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler later wrote that the mainstream media's performance in 2002 and 2003 likely represented their most crucial newsroom failing in nearly half a century. “How did a country on the leading edge of the information age get this so wrong and express so little skepticism and challenge?” asked Getler. “How did an entire system of government and a free press set out on a search for something and fail to notice, or even warn us in a timely or prominent way, that it wasn't or might not be there?”

On some level it makes sense that news organizations today accept the word of Iraq War boosters since they did the exact same thing a decade ago. What's stunning though, is that lots of media players don't seem to have learned any lessons from their historically bad Iraq coverage. Instead, discredited war hawks are allowed to dominate the conversation and to set the parameters for debate.

By rehabilitating the epically ignorant Iraq War founders, I think the press is also trying to rehab itself.