“Media Matters” ; By Jamison Foser

But -- incredibly -- some journalists responded to McClellan's statement that the fourth estate didn't perform as well as it should have prior to the Iraq war by denying that there were any flaws in prewar media coverage.

Media failures didn't stop when the war started

When excerpts from former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's new book were made public this week, you might have expected McClellan's claim that President Bush cannot remember whether he has ever used cocaine to cause a stir. After all, Bush's alleged use of the drug was one of the few negative stories about him the media had any appetite for during the 2000 campaign.

Besides, McClellan's other revelations were years removed from being timely. Does anybody who isn't employed by or related to George Bush still deny that the administration wasn't truthful about Iraq? Or that the news media could have done a better job in the months preceding the war?

That second point -- the media's flawed coverage of the march to war -- has been illustrated and explained again and again. Dan Froomkin provided a roundup of some of the more notable examples for Nieman Watchdog this week: The New York Times' May 2004 mea culpa, Howard Kurtz's critique of The Washington Post's coverage later that year, Bill Moyers' Buying The War, and more.

Earlier this month, MSNBC's Chris Matthews said of his network: “It was basically pro-war during the war ... the bosses were.” CNN's Jessica Yellin, who worked at MSNBC during the months leading up to the start of the Iraq war, said this week that the media “dropped the ball” in part due to “enormous pressure from corporate executives ... to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings.” Yellin said, “They would push me in different directions. They would turn down stories that were more critical and try to put on pieces that were more positive.” And CBS anchor Katie Couric, who worked at NBC until 2006, agreed that the media “were remiss in not asking some of the right questions.”

But -- incredibly -- some journalists responded to McClellan's statement that the fourth estate didn't perform as well as it should have prior to the Iraq war by denying that there were any flaws in prewar media coverage.

NBC's David Gregory, for example, said McClellan “also writes in the book that he think that the so-called liberal media got it wrong and was not hard enough on the administration about the war. You know, I don't know where he gets that idea. I don't know where other people get that idea.” Later, Gregory said: “I think he's wrong. He makes the same kind of argument a lot of people on the left have made. I tried not to be defensive about it. I thought a lot about this over a number of years, and I disagree with that assessment. I think the questions were asked. I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president. I think not only those of us in the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape of the media did that."

Froomkin, Glenn Greenwald, and others have convincingly rebutted Gregory's (and Charlie Gibson's) assertions that the media performed admirably prior to the Iraq war. In any case, most people -- including many journalists -- understand the absurdity of the defense. It is worth emphasizing that Gregory et al are not denying that the media's failings are primarily responsible for the rush to war; they are denying that the media did anything wrong at all. If Gregory were merely saying, “We could have done things better, but the bigger problem was a deeply dishonest administration,” few would argue. But that isn't what he says; David Gregory says the news media don't deserve any criticism.

Instead, Gregory blames ... well, everyone else: “If there wasn't a debate in this country, then maybe the American people should think about, why not? Where was Congress? Where was the House? Where was the Senate? Where was public opinion about the war? What did the former president believe about the prewar intelligence? He agreed that -- in fact, Bill Clinton agreed that Saddam had WMD.”

But, as I noted when Gregory's NBC colleague Tim Russert suggested last year that the media relied excessively on the Bush administration for prewar news reports because there wasn't an “opposition party,” the truth is that the majority of congressional Democrats voted against the Iraq war authorization. (And, as Eric Boehlert noted this week, war opponents included high-profile Democrats like Sen. Edward Kennedy. The news media basically ignored him.)

That isn't to say that various war critics couldn't have done more to stop the war, but the effort by Russert and Gregory to duck responsibility for their own failures by pointing to a lack of congressional opposition to the war is ludicrous. Either they know that most congressional Democrats opposed the war, in which case their argument is dishonest, or they don't know -- in which case their ignorance confirms the criticism that their coverage of the war is severely lacking.

But even more incredible is that David Gregory is willing to say, with a straight face, that criticizing the media's coverage of the Iraq war is something “a lot of people on the left” have done. Well, yes, technically that's true. But it is also something a lot of people in the center, on the right, and in the media -- including David Gregory's colleagues -- have done. And now it is something a Bush White House press secretary has done. Marginalizing such criticism as merely the complaints of “the left” is grossly inaccurate. It is, instead, something approaching a consensus view.

And a well-founded consensus view, at that. Anti-war voices were marginalized by the media. That isn't something “a lot of people on the left” claim; that is a fact. News reports that did challenge the administration were buried on Page A17. That isn't something “a lot of people on the left” claim; that is a fact. The false claims in Colin Powell's deeply flawed presentation to the United Nations were reported as though they were true. That isn't something “a lot of people on the left” claim; that is a fact. Anyone who has “thought a lot about this over a number of years,” as Gregory claims to have done, surely must be aware of countless other examples.

Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay of McClatchy (formerly Knight Ridder) -- seen by many as the news outlet that offered the best coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war -- wrote a scathing rebuttal to ABC's Charlie Gibson, NBC's Brian Williams, and other journalists who have denied flaws in prewar reporting: “The news media have been, if anything, even more craven than the administration has been in defending its failure to investigate Bush's case for war in Iraq before the war.”

But Gregory wasn't alone in dismissing the widespread, and factually sound, criticism of the media's prewar performance as the ravings of a few liberals. Politico's Mike Allen went on a right-wing radio program to accuse McClellan of adopting “the vocabulary, rhetoric of the left-wing haters. Can you believe it in here he says the White House press corps was too deferential to the administration ... in the run-up to the war?”

“Left-wing haters.” That's how Mike Allen described critics of the media's coverage of the run-up to the war.

Allen's rant serves as a useful reminder that the media's deferential treatment of the Bush administration didn't end when the Iraq war began. Just a few weeks ago, Allen conducted the most obsequious interviews of an American president in memory. The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin explained:

Has there ever been a more moronic interview of a president of the United States than the one conducted yesterday by Mike Allen?

[...]

Allen's interview started off with seven questions about Jenna Bush's wedding, and went downhill from there.

The only really critical question came from a reader, who asked: “Do you feel that you were misled on Iraq?” Bush predictably ducked it.

Here are some of Allen's own questions:

“Mr. President, I know you're going to hate this, but I'm hoping that we may twist your arm and talk about baseball for just a moment. (Laughter.) Mr. President, you're a Major League Baseball team owner again. Everyone is a free agent. You have a Yankees-like wallet. Who is your first position player? Who's your pitcher?”

“Now, Mr. President, you and the First Lady appeared on American Idol's charity show, 'Idol Gives Back.' And I wonder who do you think is going to win? Syesha, David Cook, or David Archuleta?”

“All right. Mr. President, who does the better impression, Will Ferrell of you, or Dana Carvey of your father?”

“And speaking of impressions, our friend, Robert Draper, author of 'Dead Certain,' said you do a great impression of Dr. Evil from 'Austin Powers'.”

Allen barely managed to stop short of offering to peel Bush a grape. And yet he wonders why people suggest that the press has been “too deferential to the administration.”

What matters most now are not the few journalists who still deny that they could have done a better job before the war started -- it is the many news organizations that have continued since the war began.

Journalists lavished praise on Bush when he declared “Mission Accomplished” rather than offering a sober assessment of whether it really had been. The U.S. media did their best to ignore the Downing Street memo -- and the establishment might never have covered it had it not been for the efforts of Media Matters, Rep. John Conyers, and progressive bloggers and writers. News reports endlessly repeated and reflected pro-war spin during the 2006 congressional debate over the war. In 2007, they went to work on behalf of Gen. David Petraeus.

And this year? This year, the media have all but ignored Iraq. The New York Times' David Carr explained this week:

Even as we celebrate generations of American soldiers past, the women and men who are making that sacrifice today in Iraq and Afghanistan receive less attention every day. There's plenty of blame to go around: battle fatigue at home, failing media resolve and a government intent on controlling information from the battlefield.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's News Coverage Index, coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has slipped to 3 percent of all American print and broadcast news as of last week, falling from 25 percent as recently as last September.

[...]

[T]he tactical success of the surge should not be misconstrued as making Iraq a safer place for American soldiers. Last year was the bloodiest in the five-year history of the conflict, with more than 900 dead, and last month, 52 perished, making it the bloodiest month of the year so far. So far in May, 18 have died.

Television network news coverage in particular has gone off a cliff. Citing numbers provided by a consultant, Andrew Tyndall, the Associated Press reported that in the months after September when Gen. David H. Petraeus testified before Congress about the surge, collective coverage dropped to four minutes a week from 30 minutes a week at the height of coverage, in September 2007.

American Journalism Review senior contributing writer Sherry Ricchiardi further illustrated the lack of coverage of the Iraq war:

A daily tracking of 65 newspapers by the Associated Press confirms a dip in page-one play throughout the country. In September 2007, the AP found 457 Iraq-related stories (154 by the AP) on front pages, many related to a progress report delivered to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Over the succeeding months, that number fell to as low as 49. A spike in March 2008 was largely due to a rash of stories keyed to the conflict's fifth anniversary, according to AP Senior Managing Editor Mike Silverman.

[...]

By March 2008, a striking reversal had taken place. Only 28 percent of Americans knew that 4,000 military personnel had been killed in the conflict, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Eight months earlier, 54 percent could cite the correct casualty rate.

When important stories have been reported, they have quickly been swept under the rug by the rest of the media. That's what happened when The New York Times revealed previously secret ties between the Pentagon and military analysts who appeared regularly as impartial experts on television news programs despite having financial ties to defense contractors that stand to profit from the war. Reports that the Pentagon cannot account for $15 billion in Iraq spending were likewise met with a yawn.

It's bad enough that some journalists still won't acknowledge their profession's role in the nation's rush into war on false pretenses. But we're still stuck in that war, with no end in sight, and the media's performance has barely improved.

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.