July 28, 2008—For six years, with few exceptions, the Washington press corps has been cheerleading for the Iraq War – and the pattern is continuing in Campaign 2008 with the endless demands that Barack Obama apologize for not supporting the troop “surge.”
On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” NBC’s Tom Brokaw became the latest Big Media star to hector Obama about his opposition to George W. Bush’s troop “surge,” which the U.S. press corps and Republican John McCain credit with reducing violence in Iraq.
Obama’s efforts to point to other factors that predated the “surge” – such as the Anbar Awakening (the Sunni tribal rejection of al-Qaeda extremists) and cease-fires ordered by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – fall on deaf ears.
Even further out of the U.S. news media’s frame are uglier realities that Obama doesn’t mention:
--Brutal ethnic cleansing has succeeded in separating Sunnis and Shiites to such a degree that there are fewer targets to kill. Several million Iraqis are estimated to be refugees either in neighboring countries or within their own.
--Concrete walls built between Sunni and Shiite areas have made “death-squad” raids more difficult but also have “cantonized” much of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, making everyday life for Iraqis even more exhausting as they seek food or travel to work.
--Awesome U.S. firepower, concentrated on Iraqi insurgents and civilian bystanders for more than five years now, has slaughtered countless thousands of Iraqis and has intimidated many others to look simply to their own survival.
--With the total Iraqi death toll estimated in the hundreds of thousands and many more Iraqis horribly maimed, the society has been deeply traumatized. As tyrants have learned throughout history, at some point violent repression does work.
But for the major U.S. news media, the criminality of Bush’s invasion has never been part of the story. “Shock and awe” was a stupendous pyrotechnic display that looked cool on TV. The excitement in the voices of embedded journalists made the invasion seem like a great lark.
And back in the studios, there were the likes of NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, sitting among retired generals (many of whom were directly or indirectly on the Pentagon’s payroll), engaging in manly banter about the glory of the new war.
In the heady first hours of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Brokaw shed his journalistic objectivity and slid into the first-person plural. "In a few days, we're going to own that country," Brokaw said about Iraq.
If anything, the cable news networks – CNN, MSNBC and Fox News – demonstrated even less professionalism. In an apparent competition to "brand" themselves the most patriotic news channel, MSNBC and Fox News superimposed a waving American flag over scenes from Iraq.
The major print media may have been slightly more restrained, but they already had supplied intellectual heft to the imperial ambitions of the Bush administration and its neoconservative backers, including John McCain.
The New York Times famously promoted false stories about Iraq intending to use aluminum tubes for nuclear centrifuges. The Washington Post’s editorial and op-ed pages treated Bush’s bogus claims about Iraq’s WMD as incontrovertible facts, not what they were: controversial claims that lacked factual support.
Meanwhile, there was little tolerance for war skepticism. MSNBC talk-show host Phil Donahue was fired for allowing on war critics. Politicians who dissented were ignored or mocked. American citizens, who objected to the rush to war or the misuse of intelligence, were treated as fools or traitors.
At no point since has the Washington press corps faced any meaningful accountability for its historically abysmal performance. With very few exceptions, such as the removal of the New York Times Judith Miller (co-author of the aluminum tube story), the major newspapers and the TV news offer up the same roster of pundits and journalists that rallied around the Iraq War.
In May 2008, when former White House press secretary Scott McClellan published his memoir, What Happened, his accusation that the press corps had behaved like “complicit enablers” drew defensive reactions.
Interviewed about McClellan’s book, Brokaw refused to admit that he and most of his well-paid colleagues had shirked their journalistic duties to the American people. Instead he offered excuses.
“It needs to be viewed in the context of that time,” Brokaw said about the war fever that followed “when a President says we’re going to war, that there’s a danger of the mushroom cloud.”
Brokaw also sought to shift the blame to others, such as members of Congress who didn’t raise enough objections to the war.
“But there are other parts of America that also have a responsibility,” Brokaw said. “How many senators voted against the war? I think 23 is all.”
Brokaw, however, left out the fact that even when senior members of Congress did speak out against the rush to war, their opinions were virtually ignored by NBC and other news outlets.
The truth, which Brokaw wouldn't acknowledge, was that few in the Big Media were willing to buck the powerful Bush administration and suffer the career consequences. It was easier and safer (for the journalists at least) to join the stampede for war rather than to stand against it and ask tough questions.
As Brokaw explained: “This President was determined to go to war. It was more theology than it was anything else. That's pretty hard to deal with.”
So, instead of doing the “pretty hard” thing and challenging the President’s “theology,” Brokaw saddled up and helped drive the stampede toward the cliff of the Iraq War. He added, lamely, “all wars are based on propaganda.”
While much of this is now history, another part of this reality is the present.
Not only won’t Brokaw apologize for his earlier lack of journalistic courage – which has contributed to the deaths of more than 4,100 U.S. soldiers – but he still won’t go against the grain and question today’s “conventional wisdom” about the success of the “surge.”
Like every Big Media journalist who has interviewed Obama in the past two weeks, Brokaw opened this Sunday’s “Meet the Press” with a barrage of questions demanding that Obama acknowledge that he was wrong to oppose the “surge.”
“Let me ask you a direct question,” Brokaw said. “Do you believe that [Iraq’s] President Maliki would be in a position to more or less endorse your timetable of getting troops out within 16 months if it had not been for the surge?”
In response, Obama referred to the broader need for political reconciliation in Iraq – and his belief that “we could not stop a civil war simply with more troops” – before harkening back to the original strategic mistake of invading Iraq.
But Brokaw wouldn't stand for that.
“We have to talk about the reality of what's going on in Iraq right now,” Brokaw countered. “The Anbar Awakening, most people believe, was successful in large part because the American troops did come in and make it possible for them to have the kind of political reconciliation. Do you disagree with that?”
Brokaw didn’t say who the “most people” were, but the reference apparently included “surge” advocates, like Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, who are often treated as objective observers on the war even though they supported the invasion as well as the “surge.”
Obama responded, “As I said before, our troops made an enormous contribution, but to try to single out one factor in a very messy situation is just not accurate, and it doesn't, it doesn't take into account the larger strategic issues that have been at stake throughout this process.
“Look, we've got a finite amount of resources. We've got a finite number of troops. Our military is stretched extraordinarily because of trying to fight two wars at the same time. And so my job as the next Commander in Chief is going to be to make a decision what is the right war to fight, and, and how do we fight it?
“And I think that we should have been focused on Afghanistan from the start. We should have finished that job. We have not, but we now have the opportunity, moving forward, to begin a phased redeployment and to make sure that we're finishing the job in Afghanistan.”
Still not satisfied, Brokaw cited an editorial in USA Today that said, "Why can't Obama bring himself to acknowledge the surge worked better than he and other skeptics thought that it would?"
However, one might wonder why another question isn’t asked: “Why can’t Tom Brokaw and other media stars bring themselves to acknowledge that they failed their profession and the American people by enabling the Iraq War?”
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This story was published on July 28, 2008.