As some will note I have written several diaries now on the failure of the fourth estate during this primary season. The reactions to these pieces were mixed from agreement, indifference and denial of any bias in the coverage. But with the recent feeding frenzy of the press in response to former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's new book - nothing could be clearer: A CORRUPT MEDIA HAS FAILED.
Amongst other things, McClellan's asserts that the media's failings are primarily responsible for the rush to war in Iraq and complicit in enabling the Bush administration.
And through it all, the media would serve as complicit enablers. Their primary focus would be on covering the campaign to sell the war, rather than aggressively questioning the rationale for war or pursuing the truth behind it... the media would neglect their watchdog role, focusing less on truth and accuracy and more on whether the campaign was succeeding. Was the president winning or losing the argument? How were Democrats responding? What were the electoral implications? What did the polls say? And the truth--about the actual nature of the threat posed by Saddam, the right way to confront it, and the possible risks of military conflict--would get largely left behind...
If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq. The collapse of the administration's rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should have never come as such a surprise. The public should have been made much more aware, before the fact, of the uncertainties, doubts, and caveats that underlay the intelligence about the regime of Saddam Hussein. The administration did little to convey those nuances to the people, the press should have picked up the slack but largely failed to do so because their focus was elsewhere--on covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.
He goes on to blame a liberal media bias, but that's a whole other story. PBS's Bill Moyers devoted an entire show in April 2007, entitled Buying the War to answering the questions of a complicit media.
How did the mainstream press get it so wrong? How did the evidence disputing the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the link between Saddam Hussein to 9-11 continue to go largely unreported? What the conservative media did was easy to fathom; they had been cheerleaders for the White House from the beginning and were simply continuing to rally the public behind the President -- no questions asked. How mainstream journalists suspended skepticism and scrutiny remains an issue of significance that the media has not satisfactorily explored. How the administration marketed the war to the American people has been well covered, but critical questions remain: How and why did the press buy it, and what does it say about the role of journalists in helping the public sort out fact from propaganda?
But what's more interesting about the fallout of this book is the sudden Mea Culpa by some members of the press.
"... I'll start by saying I think he's fairly accurate. Matt, I know when we were covering it--and granted, the spirit of 9/11, people were unified and upset and angry and frustrated. But I do think we were remiss in not asking some of the right questions. There was a lot pressure from the Bush White House. I remember doing an interview and the press secretary called our executive producer and said, `We didn't like the tone of that interview.' And we said, `Well, tough. We had to ask some of these questions.' They said, `Well, if you keep it up, we're going to block access to you during the war.' I mean, those kind of strong-arm tactics were really...
CNN's Jessica Yellin on 360:
Yellin: I think the press corps dropped the ball at the beginning. When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings.
And my own experience at the White House was that, the higher the president's approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives -- and I was not at this network at the time -- but the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president.
I think, over time --
Cooper: You had pressure from news executives to put on positive stories about the president?
Yellin: Not in that exact -- they wouldn't say it in that way, but they would edit my pieces. They would push me in different directions. They would turn down stories that were more critical and try to put on pieces that were more positive, yes. That was my experience.
Washington Post's Dana Milbank::
Of course he`s right. We didn`t do as much as we could have and the fact of the matter is we did raise these questions. And I mean I guess what Scott`s just saying in a backwards way there is they were just doing a particularly good job of keeping the facts out of the public domain.
What's worse is as Eric Boehlert points out, the warning signs were provided by Senator Edward Kennedy, who largely was ignored by the press.
Specifically, back in September 2002, with the Bush administration and much of the Beltway media rushing to embrace war with Iraq, Kennedy delivered a passionate, provocative, and newsworthy speech raising all sorts of doubts about a possible invasion. Unlike today, the political press wasn't very interested in Kennedy or what he had to say about the most pressing issue facing the nation. Back in that media environment, being the voice of American liberals didn't mean much.
So what is the moral of the story?
Boehlert puts it best "let's not forget that it wasn't that long ago that the media did their best to ignore what Kennedy had to say. And when it ignored Kennedy, and when it ignored the voice of liberals, the press -- and the country -- paid a dear price."