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MEDIA CRITICISM:

Bill Moyers' "Journal" Report on Iraq War Falls Short

by Jordan Cooper
"Buying the War" failed to address the complacency, obstinacy, and apathy of the American people.
With 9/11 came the War on Terror. And so it was that, with the American media’s complicity, came Operation Iraqi Freedom, the drawn-out disaster now referred to as the War in Iraq.

On Wednesday, April 25, PBS’s “Bill Moyers Journal” aired a special 75-minute documentary on the American media’s role in precipitating the war in Iraq. In "Buying the War," Moyer presents the Bush Administration as one that meant to sell a war to America that it had already decided to wage. Moyer contends that the Press was negligent in its role of providing a safe forum for balanced, multifaceted approaches to issues. And not only that, but, Moyers argues, the press was instrumental in propagating the administration’s war-making goals in late 2002 and early 2003.

The evidence that Moyer presented on his show suggests that the administration's largest obstacle in pursuing their war was not in planning the logistics of the military campaign, but in securing the support of the American public. The war would have to be legitimized and sold in a massive marketing campaign to America, and the press was just the right instrument for the job. If America could be convinced that Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath thugs, represented an imminent threat to America, that Al Qaeda terrorist cells were operating out of Iraqi territory, supported by Hussein’s regime (thus construing potential actions against Iraq in a retaliatory light for the September 11th attacks), essentially if this war could be sold as a defensive war in which America could not afford “to wait for the final proof in the smoking gun of an atomic cloud," then America might be cajoled into supporting aggressive preemptive actions against Saddam’s Iraq.

Moyer suggested that the Bush administration's largest obstacle in pursuing the Iraq war was not in planning the military logistics, but in securing the support of the American public. For that, the press was essential.
Even if the veracity of all these claims could be proven, there would still be plenty of room for the press to ask questions and cast doubt upon the claims of the Bush administration.

But history took an unexpected turn. The powerful American media, the fourth pillar of free and democratic governance, the champion of free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, chose to align its interests with those of the Bush Administration in this time of ‘national crisis.'

Indeed, this was a time of national crisis, but not because of some hyperbolized, fantastical, and irrational threat to American security. Instead the threat presented itself in the form of willful ignorance, apathy, and conformity which flourished under the oppressive patriotic fervor that had swept the nation since 9/11, making the political arena ever more uncomfortable for dissident voices.

The real threat to the ‘American’ ideals of freedom and democracy, ideals to which the American people are apparently so wedded that they feel compelled to spread them across the globe (on a civilizing mission reminiscent of the exploits of the country's imperial predecessors), was mutually nurtured by the American public and press at the behest of the Bush administration.

As Moyers ably demonstrates, the Bush administration unquestionably disrespected, lied to, and duped the American people, the American press, and most of the world. There was not sufficient cause to invade Iraq. There was ample evidence that challenged the administration’s official stance—evidence that could have been found in abundance, had America's leading journalistic enterprises seen fit to do due diligence in their reporting.

Instead of playing the blame game, it is important for American journalists to confront their shortcomings in their coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq. The lesson learned is that although the public relies upon and trusts certain institutions to check and balance each other, it takes a vigilant media to check the government, and it takes a vigilant citizenry to demand balanced coverage from the press.

Watchdogs have to watch the watchdogs. This democracy depends upon an open and even contentious forum for political discussion. Responsibility for the media's mistakes must be acknowledged, and the public should demand accountability and increased vigilance.

The press should have provided (and the American public should have sought) more balanced coverage prior to the onset of the Iraq war, and there should have been more space and time provided for expressing doubts, skepticism, and criticism. Certainly there should have been no intimidation of those thorough journalists who dared to do so.

In his show, Bill Moyers presented an interesting critique of the media’s role in precipitating the war in Iraq, but the program fell short when addressing the complacency, obstinacy, and apathy of the American people, who largely permitted the media to get away with presenting such unbalanced coverage. The public deserves a hefty dose of self-criticism for their own role in supporting the war wholesale, as the press did.


Jordan Cooper, an aspiring journalist, is graduating this month from Vassar College, with a B.A. in political science.


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This story was published on May 5, 2007.