War coverage: Media challenge presidents’ lines

One of the most repeated pieces of conventional wisdom about the lead up to the war in Iraq is that the press served as a cheerleader for the invasion, buying into the Bush administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction and connections bet

ween Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. This view is embraced so fervently in academia that it seldom is questioned.

Like a lot of conventional wisdom there is quite a bit of truth to it. The reporting of Judith Miller in The New York Times, and front-page stories about the prospect of a mushroom cloud over a U.S. city, fanned the flames of war. The Pentagon’s brilliant strategy of embedding journalists with troops resulted in front-page stories about the local boys and girls preparing for war. And some media outlets, such as Fox News, built ratings on war news.

But there also is a bit of hyperbole in the claim that the U.S. media served as lapdogs before the Iraq invasion and other American wars— a claim that my friend and former SIU colleague, Steve Hallock, makes in an interesting piece in this issue.

Hallock maintains that the editorial pages of the Times and other elite papers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, have “helped every president since Harry Truman wage war abroad.” Over the past six decades, he writes, there has been “avid support by the nation’s press for each presidential argument for foreign military intervention . . . skeptical journalism came late — after the wars had begun, the troops had landed, the bombs had fallen, the missiles had fired, the troops and innocent civilians had been slaughtered.”

In the run up to the 2003 war in Iraq, he writes, none of the elite newspapers “ardently disagreed with or challenged the larger, dominant frame for war that the Bush presidency built carefully over a period of months: that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to his neighbors and to the United States; that he was aligned with the terrorists who attacked the United States on SEPT. 11, 2001; that he was an evil despot, part of an Axis of Evil, who needed to be plucked like a toxic weed from Middle East.”

I must disagree with my friend based on my experience as the former deputy editorial editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I don’t believe that Post-Dispatch editorials over the past 60 years provided uncritical support of U.S. war policies.

Irving Dilliard, the brilliant, liberal editorial editor of the Post-Dispatch, wrote as early as 1954, that the United States should stay out of Vietnam. His successor, Robert Lasch, won a Pulitzer prize for his Jan. 17, 1965 editorial, “The Containment of Ideas,” calling for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam long before the war was controversial.

As the war in Iraq approached, I reread Lasch and Dilliard. Our editorials challenged President Bush’s premises for the war beginning in the summer of 2002, before the nation had focused on the invasion.

In an Aug. 4, 2002, editorial we wrote: “The legal and moral justifications for war are debatable. This would be a pre-emptive strike against a nation that has not threatened us in a decade. A nation is justified in acting in its self-defense if another nation is threatening an imminent attack . . . But the best intelligence estimates are that Saddam won’t have a nuclear bomb until 2005. Are we justified in striking the first blow now?”

On Sept. 22, 2002, in an editorial “American Empire,” we questioned the connection of Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida, stating, “It never was clear why the war against terrorism morphed into the war against Iraq. There is no proof that Saddam had a link to al-Qaida. Saddam hasn’t been connected to a terrorist act against the United States in a decade. And al-Qaida terrorists hiding in Iraq are not under Saddam’s protection.”

Although most editorials are written in a day, I spent two months preparing our major statement on the war, the Jan. 26, 2003, editorial, “Persian Gulf II: A war too soon.” Here are excerpts:

“Mr. Bush is too eager to wage war, too bellicose in his expression of a dangerously inconsistent foreign policy, too arrogant in his projection of U.S. power, too certain of the omnipotence of military might. His crusade’s links to Sept. 11 are tenuous, and its potential for generating war after war is great.

“In his State of the Union address one year ago, Mr. Bush transformed the war against terrorism into a war against an ‘Axis of Evil’ — rogue states with weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorists. That is a far different proposition than a war on stateless terrorists. His crusade’s links to Sept. 11 are tenuous, and its potential for generating war after war is great.

“…Even though we don’t seek religious conversion, or land, we fight in the footsteps of the European crusaders. Even though we don’t seek empire, the Arab world sees us as neo-imperialists dictating the rules for the world — which don’t apply to us — by deploying our economic might and history’s most powerful fighting force. Even though we say we fight for democracy, our allies include the House of Saud and Pakistan’s military dictator.

“…The United States does not have an inalienable right to swagger about the globe knocking down governments and setting up new ones — and then wondering why we are not universally loved, respected and admired.

“…Nations must have compelling reasons to ask their sons and daughters to shed their blood. Sept. 11, 2001, was such a reason. So far, we haven’t seen one in Iraq.”

Four days later, in “Separating Fact from Fiction,” we wrote: “Mr. Bush’s nightmare scenario depends, in part, on closing the link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. For months, the administration has tried fitfully to link al-Qaida and Saddam. But intelligence analysts say there is no evidence that Saddam either cooperated with al-Qaida on terrorist operations, or was linked to the Sept. 11 attacks. In fact, Saddam’s secular party has traditionally been at odds with bin Laden…Mr. Bush also claimed Tuesday that Iraq had imported aluminum tubes ‘suitable for nuclear weapons production.’ But only the day before, United Nations weapons inspector Mohamed ElBaradei had said the tubing was for rockets, not uranium centrifuges.”

Finally, a few days before the war, on March 9, we said: “Mr. ElBaradei followed Mr. Blix with a point-by-point rebuttal to U.S. claims that Saddam has a nuclear program. He said that documents from 1987 show that the specifications for stainless steel tubes had been set for building rockets, not a centrifuge for reprocessing uranium. And he said that documents purporting to show Iraqi uranium imports from Niger were ‘not authentic.’”

The Post-Dispatch was not the only newspaper to question Bush’s major premises for war. Other papers also editorialized against the war. When I remind people that this includes Times, they often are surprised, given the conventional wisdom about the Times’ role in the lead up to the war.On Oct. 23, in the “Illusory Prague Connection,” the Times noted that two-thirds of Americans believed Saddam had a hand in Sept. 11 and added: “Trouble is, no hard evidence of such a link has been made public.”

In a Feb. 14 editorial, the Times added, “there is little hard evidence” of a connection between Saddam and al-Qaida, and said, “the administration should stop peddling that line to the American people.”

Finally, in the March 9 editorial “Say No to War,” the Times wrote: “If it comes down to a question of yes or no to invasion without broad international support, our answer is no.” It added that, “despite endless efforts by the Bush administration to connect Iraq to Sept. 11, the evidence simply isn’t there.”

Nor were editorial pages the only places where the administration was challenged. Knight Ridder Washington reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay provided terrific reporting on the weaknesses of the intelligence backing the move to war. At the Post-Dispatch, Washington Bureau Chief Jon Sawyer also wrote stories raising questions. But Sawyer’s stories did not get the front-page play that stories from our embedded reporters at the front received.

Yes, the press should have done a better job warning the nation about the weaknesses of the president’s argument to go to war. Perhaps even the editorials we wrote at the Post-Dispatch were not ardent enough in their opposition to war to please the Noam Chomsky’s of the left. But beware of the hyperbole that cloaks the conventional wisdom about the press’ failings in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and contributes to the St. Louis Beacon. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

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