The modern gold standard for media failure is the behavior of the press in the run-up to the Iraq War in March of 2003 and the majority of the coverage of the war from then until the Fall 2006 midterm elections.
The press, still in a hangover from the national unity following the September 11, 2001 attacks, repeated the assertions of the Bush administration about the purported nuclear capabilities of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq without any serious skepticism. There were outliers, like the McClatchy news service, but they were the exception to the norm.
Most influential among these misinformers was the New York Times, who placed stories about Hussein’s supposed pursuit of weapons of mass destruction on the most prized real estate in the press – page A1. We learned in the months and years after that these stories were placed on purpose by the Bush administration, using a series of Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi as puppets to spread disinformation to stoke the drumbeat for the war.
At the end of the day, the decision to go to war and pursue a failed war strategy lies on the Bush administration and those in Congress who voted to give them the authorization to go to war – including Democrats like Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden. But the media gave the case for war an enormous boost by regurgitating propaganda and marginalizing those who were skeptical of the Bush administration’s drive for conflict.
Despite the claims from many now, thirteen years after the war was launched, “everybody” wasn’t for the war. There were many people who thought the war was a bad idea, not just the pacifist left who are inherently opposed to any military action. Even some (though not many) Republicans.
But in the pages of the Times and the Washington Post, on CNN and MSNBC and especially Fox News, as well as on the AP wire and in many other venues, these voices and warnings about the war and what would happen were drowned out. When the press assembled to question President George W. Bush about the impending war in a press conference, the dominant assumption was that the war was going to occur, not that it was a bad idea running along like an out of control freight train.
We now know what happened. Over 4,000 American military were killed. Over 30,000 wounded. According to the Associated Press, over 100,000 Iraqis were killed. That doesn’t even take into account the ripple effect that the resulting destabilization has had on the Middle East, including the rise of groups like ISIS and their effect on civilians in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States.
Yet now in 2016, there is absolutely no indication that the media has learned from its mistakes. If anything, the media is worse off than in February and March of 2003. The media is too often unwilling to use its power of influence to investigate misstatements from politicians and the institutions that support them. Instead, the preferred posture of so much of the press is to print or broadcast any and all claims regardless of their veracity, throw its collective arms up and say “what can you do?”
That’s the kind of feckless behavior that leads to thousands of people dying. That includes the American media’s failure to cover international events unless something blows up, then losing interest when the next shiny object comes along. Yes, our government is constantly monitoring the world – for better or worse – but it would be great if festering international conflicts didn’t seem to pounce on us “all of a sudden.” Yet media coverage of events outside American borders comes from this point of view, and it is hard to blame American citizens for their ignorance of what the heck is going on if the broadcast morning news shows only reference one or two news blips of what Democrats or Republicans are doing before giving comprehensive coverage of what the Kardashians are up to.
The argument that people don’t click, read, or watch the broccoli of news is a trash excuse. Children would sit in their rooms and play video games all day if we let them, but responsible parents don’t.
If the news media doesn’t cover what matters with a tough-nosed approach towards what is fact and what is fiction, people will actually die as a result. It’s that simple.
My belief is not that the press mangles its coverage out of a desire to do harm or out of malicious corporate control and conspiracy, but rather that it is far easier to coast than to swim against the tide. In March of 2003, the easiest thing in the world to do was to take the Bush administration’s words about WMD at face value, to go along with the dominant tide because the blowback from rocking the boat just wasn’t worth the effort.
But perhaps if the Times editors who greenlit Judith Miller’s WMD stories had known that thousands would die in part due to their failure to vet their sources and challenge their reporter, perhaps those stories wouldn’t have made A1. If those stories weren’t on the front of the New York Times, perhaps the Bush administration would have had to present a more concrete case for the war. And maybe they would have gone to war anyways but this time, at least, they would have done it without an accomplice in the most important newspaper in the world.
The news media shouldn’t be an organ of either political party or the ideological movements connected to them. Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be given an open pass from the press, and her claims and policies should be thoroughly fact checked, questioned, challenged and beyond. It would not be “bias” to examine a claim from her and, finding it the opposite of accepted fact, to declare the claim “false.” As a supporter of hers, that’s what I want. I’ve seen, via Fox News and the Bush administration, what happens when a news outlet accepts as gospel truth everything an ideologically aligned political leader says. Again, people end up dead. The news media ends up being a participant in the bloodshed to follow because they’ve given cover.
Right now, the media is on the verge of complete collapse in it’s most important role. While there are new ventures and old companies that are better off financially than they were 10-15 years ago, the industry is overall worse off than it has been in a very long time. I’m not someone who indulges in the nostalgia that there was a golden era of news, where everyone was a dogged news gumshoe digging up corruption and wrongdoing. That never existed (and liberals would do well to quit invoking this idea). But we are at a moment where the wrong type of leader, and the darkest most terrifying elements behind him or her, would be in a prime place to inflict serious harm on America and the world. I don’t mean Donald Trump, but the movement supporting him now has an opening for a slicker and frankly more terrifying character to slide in, and the media is in such a state of fear of backlash that they would facilitate their rise.
If this keeps up, people are going to die. Thousands of people.