Following Colin Powell’s death, mainstream media outlets downplay his role — and their own — in Iraq War

For the media to hold Colin Powell accountable, they would also have to hold themselves accountable.

Following the death of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, mainstream media outlets have demonstrated their typical failure to hold respected figures from the political establishment accountable for the events that led to the Iraq War.

Powell delivered an infamous address to the United Nations Security Council in 2003, making a number of false claims, including that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Al Qaeda. “I’m the one who presented it to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record,” Powell later said in 2005. “It was painful. It is painful now.”

But with his passing, the mainstream networks have presented Powell as something of a passive character in the build-up to the war, rather than fully acknowledging his responsibility as one of the most publicly respected members of the Bush administration at the time. And more insidiously, these events are now being presented as having been a “great tragedy” of Powell’s life, or a “sad coda” to his accomplishments — rather than as a monumental failure that caused serious consequences for world affairs.

For the media to actually acknowledge such a thing, however, would obviously create questions about the media and the political establishment having to hold themselves accountable for their own failures at the time and in the years since.

CNN ran a prepackaged obituary segment — which are common for public figures who have reached an advanced age — narrated by network anchor Wolf Blitzer. The piece contained some of Powell’s own acknowledgment of his “regret” on Iraq:

Video file

Citation From the October 18, 2021, edition of CNN Newsroom with Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto

CNN then talked to Blitzer about Powell, with Blitzer discussing Powell’s approach, in the 1991 Gulf War, of going in with overwhelming force and a clear exit strategy, “and the U.S. got out, fairly quickly.” There wasn’t any talk at all about the second Iraq War or the fact that those elements were lacking the next time. (And to be clear, Blitzer himself had treated the Bush administration and associated figures with kid gloves during the Bush years.)

Later in the program, CNN anchor Jim Sciutto spoke with former ABC News anchor Sam Donaldson, who put Powell’s presentation to the U.N. Security Council in the context of “military people” who “follow the chain of command.” (Powell was at that time a civilian cabinet member.)

Donaldson further acknowledged that administration figures such as Vice President Dick Cheney had known that Powell was “the one person that everyone was going to believe, to make the case that the U.S. should invade Iraq.” Nevertheless, Donaldson also painted a heroic portrait of Powell as having not cast off his own responsibility: “He was a man.”

Video file

Citation From the October 18, 2021, edition of CNN Newsroom with Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto

At the very end of Donaldson’s phone call, Sciutto further added: “And a man who took responsibility in an age of lack of accountability today, really.”

MSNBC’s José Díaz-Balart Reports also hosted a panel featuring numerous figures from mainstream media outlets, who variously presented Powell’s involvement in the Iraq War as some tragic event that had happened to him, rather than a process in which he participated with his own personal agency.

MSNBC anchor Andrew Mitchell — who also had a history of dismissing Iraq War skeptics — claimed that Powell as secretary of state had been “breaking with the Bush administration in many ways. He was the only member of the Bush 43 cabinet who argued against the second Iraq war, the second Gulf War, and who reluctantly testified at the U.N. in February of 2003.” 

Mitchell also described how Powell had met with then-CIA Director George Tenet at CIA headquarters the weekend before his U.N. speech, and had been “repeatedly trying to scrub that testimony, as he told me many times, and grieved for years, for the rest of his life the fact that he had misled the nation and the world over it, but had done so unwittingly.”

(Click here for the full transcript.)

Video file

Citation From the October 18, 2021, edition of MSNBC’s José Díaz-Balart Reports

Similarly, New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker noted “that great tragedy for him in having been what he saw as the frontman for what turned out to be false intelligence” and said that it had been “such a bitter pill for him.”

Baker also related an event from Powell’s testimony to the 2006 Iraq Study Group, noting that former Secretary of State James Baker had reportedly said of Powell, “That's the one person who could have stopped this.”

“And I think that he knew that,” Peter Baker said, “which is why he, you know, did find this a bitter pill in the end.”

Washington Post associate editor David Ignatius similarly said that Powell “felt that he had been asked to argue a case that he fundamentally didn't believe.”

“So, in the arc of his story, his ability to rebuild the military, make it strong, make it confident again,” Ignatius described, “and then sadly, be secretary of state at the time in 2003 when the military embarked on a campaign that really has I think been bitterly difficult, the Iraq War, more than anything else for the military, is the war that showed the limits of military power.”

And after a career of rebuilding the military from its failures in the post-Vietnam era, Ignatius said, “he did have this very sad coda to his life.”