20 Years Later: The Truth About the Media and the Iraq War

March 18th, 2023 9:05 AM

Generally speaking, conservative critics want the news media to be fact-based and refrain from skewing their coverage to favor the left. Liberal media critics want the media to throw out such old-fashioned ideas, and focus only on the “correct” side of a debate, so audiences aren’t confused by facts or opinions that might lead them to a “wrong” conclusion.

So when liberals fail to win a policy argument, it’s an opportunity to shame their allies in the media for not being aggressive enough in going after the other side. A prime example came 20 years ago, when lefties blasted the press as either weak or corrupt because they did not prevent the Bush administration from launching the war in Iraq. It’s become an enduring myth amongst liberals — and one that an honest review of news coverage would quickly debunk.

Even as the bombs began to fall, a March 22, 2003 New York Times headline showed the media had become a domestic battleground: “Critics of Iraq War Say Lack of Scrutiny Helped Administration to Press Its Case.” As the fighting reached Baghdad, National Public Radio’s longtime morning host Bob Edwards, in an April 8 speech, accused White House reporters of failing to challenge President George W. Bush:

With the nation about to enter a war that’s decidedly unpopular everywhere but here, no one asked the hard questions....The press didn’t wait until the intern scandal to ask tough questions of Bill Clinton, so why is the incumbent getting a pass?

In the years that followed, the Left’s indictment of the media hardened. PBS’s Bill Moyers, a Democratic stalwart who served as President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary in the 1960s, slammed the media in an April 2007 special, Buying the War. “Our press largely surrendered its independence and skepticism to join with our government in marching to war,” Moyers insisted.

Former Crossfire co-host (and onetime chairman of the California Democratic Party) Bill Press coughed up the same hairball on CNN’s Reliable Sources the following month: “The media, in large part, gave us this war, because they went along and repeated everything that George Bush said without asking tough questions....[If the] American people knew what the truth was, as opposed to the propaganda we were getting from the White House, I think there would not have been the support for the war.”

As the war’s tenth anniversary approached, the media’s self-flagellation continued. Newsweek’s Daniel Klaidman wrote in March 2013 that “the rap on the press, largely true, is that we did not write as skeptically as we should have in 2002 and early 2003.”

“Major news organizations aided and abetted the Bush administration’s march to war on what turned out to be faulty premises,” agreed the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, calling it “the media’s greatest failure in modern times.”

All of this is factually untrue; the media were NOT pro-war or pro-Bush activists in 2002 and 2003. The Media Research Center painstakingly documented the media’s hostility to the idea of war with Iraq throughout the months-long debate leading up to the March 2003 invasion, and there’s no doubt that the media tilted their coverage to favor the war’s opponents. As I explained back in 2007:

In the congressional debate over using force, for example, all three broadcast networks gave the losing anti-war side much more airtime. An MRC study in October 2002 found nearly three in five of soundbites from members of Congress (59%) opposed the use of force, or roughly double the percentage of Senators and Representatives who actually voted against using force (29%).

Despite the claim that the media never “asked tough questions,” an MRC study of all Iraq stories on ABC’s World News Tonight during September 2002 discovered that ABC reporters were nearly four times more likely to voice doubt about the truthfulness of statements by U.S. officials than Iraqi claims.

“Today, the administration made a brand new accusation,” ABC anchor Peter Jennings announced on the September 26, 2002 broadcast. Reporter Martha Radditz quickly scoffed: “A senior intelligence official tells ABC News there is no smoking gun. There’s not even a smoking unfired weapon linking al Qaeda to Iraq.”

“The war policy is a crock,” Newsweek international news editor Michael Hirsh announced at a Yale forum on November 6, 2002. “This is a hugely risky operation for potential gains that probably won’t justify the risk.”

Columnist Helen Thomas declared Bush’s policy “immoral,” and used her role at White House press conferences to bring her anti-war message to a wide audience. “You are leaving the impression that Iraqi lives, the human cost doesn’t mean anything,” Thomas scolded the President at his November 7, 2002 press conference.

Whether you supported or opposed the war in Iraq, an honest re-reading of the record shows the media were anything but cheerleaders. A short review (more here):

■ “There are legal scholars who....say it would be unprecedented, a violation of the United Nations charter, and a reversal of nearly 200 years of U.S. policy to act only in response to an attack or the immediate threat of one.”
— ABC’s John Yang, World News Tonight, August 29, 2002.

■ “On Capitol Hill today, historians delivered a petition to Congress saying Congress must vote on whether or not to declare war against Iraq, not just authorize military action. The petition, signed by more than 1200 historians, says by not acting Congress has left the President solely in control of war powers to the detriment of democracy and in clear violation of the Constitution.”
— ABC’s Peter Jennings on World News Tonight, September 17, 2002.

■ “Across the Arab world, few would miss Saddam Hussein, but even fewer believe a U.S.-led war is the way to remove him. Even America’s closest allies are reluctant....Many here see the U.S., not Iraq, as the greater threat to peace.”
— ABC’s Jim Sciutto on World News Tonight, November 20, 2002.

■ “Braving frigid temperatures, they traveled across the country — black and white, Democrat and Republican, young and old....The protesters say there is no evidence justifying a war with Iraq and say the government needs to hear their views.”
— ABC’s Lisa Sylvester on World News Tonight/Saturday, January 18, 2003.

■ “There are many here today who speak with a sense of urgency and frustration....So many voices, filling the streets, struggling to be heard.”
— ABC’s John McKenzie on World News Tonight/Saturday, February 15, 2003.

■ “Ladies in stiletto heels and fur-fringed jackets, fathers pushing strollers trailing McDonald’s balloons, drably dressed union members, students in face paint and carnival clothes — all turned out to make some noise. Yet despite the gay atmosphere beneath a brilliant blue sky, the message was stark, even dark. ‘The United States is a barbarian country,’ shouted some. ‘Bush, let’s murder,’ shouted others. One group chanted, ‘Bush, Blair, Sharon, Putin, Chirac: Justice in Palestine, don’t touch Iraq.’”
— Introduction of Craig Smith’s February 16, 2003 New York Times story headlined, “Throwing a Party With a Purpose.”

■ “The size of the demonstrators, at least here, at least in Europe, seems to underscore, Chris, that there are now perhaps two world superpowers. There’s the United States and then there are those millions of people who took to the streets opposing U.S. policy.”
— MSNBC’s David Shuster to Hardball host Chris Matthews, February 17, 2003.

■ “[President Bush] is bringing along a world coalition that he calls a ‘coalition of the willing,’ when it’s really a coalition of the bullied and the bribed.”
Newsweek Contributing Editor Eleanor Clift on the McLaughlin Group, February 22, 2003.

■ “People in other parts of the world want to know why our weapons of mass destruction are good and everybody else’s is bad....We have to confront the hypocrisy....Let us be honest. We’ve got the biggest thing that goes boom in the history of the universe and we appear to be rather lofty and pious in our demands that nobody else have one!”
— MSNBC’s Phil Donahue on his Donahue program, February 24, 2003.

■ “In the past several weeks, your policy on Iraq has generated opposition from the governments of France, Russia, China, Germany, Turkey, the Arab League, and many other countries; opened a rift at NATO and at the UN; and drawn millions of ordinary citizens around the world into the streets in anti-war protests. May I ask what went wrong that so many governments and peoples around the world now not only disagree with you very strongly, but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power?”
— ABC White House correspondent Terry Moran to President Bush at a prime-time press conference, March 6, 2003.

■ “There is a considerable body of opinion in the United States that thinks this war is a mistake and was opposed to the war....History tells you that it’s going to be very difficult for people who are opposed to the war to debate it now that the forces are in combat.”
— Peter Jennings to historian Michael Beschloss during ABC’s live war coverage about 2:45pm ET on March 20, 2003.

■ “We ought to take note of the significance of what is happening here because this is an invasion that in this particular case, of course, was not prompted by any invasion of the United States. I know that members of the administration have been creating a tenuous linkage between al-Qaeda and the Iraqis so that there is that linkage between 9/11 and what’s happening here now, but this is a more pro-active, pre-emptive kind of operation, certainly a larger pre-emptive operation than I think the United States of America has ever engaged in....”
— ABC’s Ted Koppel, accompanying the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, during live war coverage at about 10:20pm ET on March 20, 2003.

■ “Across the country, citizens have been coming out to voice their opposition, all calling for the same things. They want government accountability, they want environmental justice, and most of all, they’re calling for peace....While protesters like today are a statistical minority, in American history protests like this have been prescient indicators of the national mood. So the government may do well to listen to what’s said today.”
— Correspondent Chris Cuomo on a special Saturday edition of ABC’s Good Morning America, March 22, 2003.

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.