Mainstream media helped sell the Iraq invasion

Trust in large US news organisations has reached something of a tipping point: more than half of all Americans now view the media unfavourably, and 50 per cent feel that most outlets are deliberately trying to mislead, misinform or else persuade the general public, according to a recent poll.

It’s a lamentable situation for US journalists, but hardly a surprising one.

Our new age of polarisation, weaponised by former president Donald Trump and monetised by newsrooms of every political leaning, has made it easy for Americans to shrug off stories they don’t agree with, or simply brand these as fiction.

But today’s crisis in confidence has much older roots, dating back to 2002 and 2003.

Back then, the administration of George W Bush was working tirelessly to sell Americans – still reeling from the shock of September 11, 2001 – on the idea of invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with Al Qaeda’s terror attacks.

Colin Powell, then the US secretary of state, told the UN Security Council in February 2003 that “evidence” he was presenting proved Saddam Hussein had vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and that this information was backed up by “solid sources”.

“These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence,” he said.

Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld had a month earlier insisted that Saddam’s regime had “large, unaccounted for stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons” and was pursuing a programme to acquire and develop nuclear weapons.

Swept up in the groupthink of the prevailing narrative – that Saddam had WMDs – the US press underwent something of a systemic breakdown

None of it, of course, turned out to be true.

That a hawkish group of neoconservative officials – who’d long advocated for foreign interventions – were now determined to wage a war in Iraq was hardly a surprise.

But the fact the media failed to properly scrutinise their cherry-picked, misinterpreted or simply made-up intelligence to justify a disastrous war is more alarming.

Instead of reporting the government claims with a healthy dose of scepticism or demanding further proof, a media thirsty for scoops on the biggest story of the era repeated Bush administration justifications until a mainstream consensus of the “truth” emerged: Saddam had WMDs and was primed to use them to attack America or her allies.

The Iraq War: a timeline

January 29, 2002: US President George Bush identifies Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of an ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union address. ‘States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these… regimes pose a grave and growing danger,’ he says. Getty 

Mr Bush and his team even managed to connect Saddam, by inference and misdirection, to 9/11. By the time of the March 20, 2003 invasion, nearly half of all Americans thought the Baathist dictator was somehow tied to Al Qaeda’s plot, according to a poll at the time.

The attacks “showed what the enemies of America did with four airplanes”, Mr Bush said on March 8, 2003 in an address to the nation.

“We will not wait to see what terrorists or terror states could do with weapons of mass destruction.”

One oft-cited example of the mainstream media’s failure is the work of Judith Miller, then a reporter for The New York Times. In 2002, the Bush administration leaked to her and a colleague information about Iraq’s supposed nuclear programme.

Top Bush administration officials – including Mr Rumsfeld and Mr Powell – then appeared on news shows citing the Times as proof that an invasion was justified. Additional stories followed in the weeks afterwards, many of which also turned out to be wrong.

To be fair, the very definition of a reporter’s job is to write about what the government is saying. And in Miller’s case, her paper was hungry for stories about WMDs, not their absence.

We are not cheerleading stenographers, but it takes time to follow up on claims and check to see if official assertions are accurate.

However, much of the mainstream media at the time failed to ask the tough questions.

Swept up in the groupthink of the prevailing narrative – that Saddam had WMDs – the US press underwent something of a systemic breakdown, with some notable exceptions, and has rightly been criticised for enabling a war built on an erroneous premise.

Reporting during the war was also problematic, as the US military handpicked which reporters it chose to embed on missions, leading to an inevitable degree of bias.

In more recent years, liberal-leaning newsrooms have poured endless resources into investigations of Mr Trump that failed to deliver any knockout blows, while the Republican mouthpiece Fox News aired outrageous claims about widespread election fraud even as staff privately said they knew these to be false, according to an ongoing lawsuit.

In the hyper-patriotic fervour that gripped much of America after the 9/11 attacks, debate was somehow seen as dissent, which in turn was seen as unpatriotic.

A rigorous challenge to the government’s claims was especially crucial, given that the Democratic opposition party had largely fallen in lockstep with the Bush administration. Instead, the country’s watchdog took a nap.

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