We know that governments manipulate the public in order to carry out their agendas. That’s why they have press secretaries and agencies dedicated to promoting policy and handling public perception. The war in Iraq was unique however, because it was a manipulation so transparent and ridiculous that no one should have supported it. In an open democracy it should have been impossible to build a case to go to war with a country that posed no threat to anyone outside its borders, and showed no signs of developing a massive arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
As people spoke out about the farcical evidence and bullying of government agencies, the case looked more and more ridiculous. Everyone knew the Bush Administration’s case against Iraq was utter nonsense, yet the war went ahead anyway.
How could this have happened?
The lies told about Iraq were given credence by supposedly serious news organizations that openly promoted attacking Iraq and offered little in the way of investigative reporting. Former Bush press secretary and major proponent of the war Scott McClellan had the following withering assessment of the medias role in promoting and enabling the war:
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.
As a result of this complicity, a majority of Americans lined up behind the President and sent thousands of troops into battle for a pointless war that caused indescribable bloodshed and misery for everyone involved. And it was all for lies told by an incompetent President surrounded by dangerous imperialists who were dedicated to projecting American power abroad no matter the cost.
The media’s complicity in helping the government sell the war should have consigned the major networks to irrelevancy afterwards. Some figures apologized for their role, some left, and some refused to acknowledge it at all. But in a mass display of collective amnesia, the major networks simply moved on from the shameful episode and continued with the same format that focuses on the horse race rather than the actual substance.
It wasn’t that the media ‘got it wrong’. It was the the media itself that was wrong. The entire decrepit system, built on profit and ratings rather than ethics and accountability, proved to be a gigantic failure when it came to anything vaguely serious. Journalists are supposed to focus on the story behind the story, not tell you who they think is winning. A real news network would have called out the government for its baseless claims that Saddam was building WMD’s. But not one did.
As the war unfolded, the establishment media continued to cheer-lead from the sidelines, offering no critical analysis while American troops ransacked Baghdad and dismantled the infrastructure of the country. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews offered the following type of in depth analysis:
Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple. We’re not like the Brits. We don’t want an indoor prime minister type, or the Danes or the Dutch or the Italians, or a Putin. Can you imagine Putin getting elected here? We want a guy as president!
It was only after Iraq literally broke apart that the media began to understand exactly what it had helped sell. But by then of course, it was too late. Iraq descended into internecine warfare while the Bush Administration sat scratching its head wondering why they weren’t being heralded as liberators.
10 years on, 4,486 American soldiers are dead, and 122,306 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives. America pumped over $1.7 trillion into the war and reconstruction, yet according to Foreign Policy, “Iraq ranked the eighth most corrupt country in the world”. And as the Heritage Foundation notes, it is impossible to determine how successful the economy is because, “Iraq remains unranked in the 2013 Index because of the lack of sufficiently reliable data on economic freedom within the country.” Poverty in the country is so rife that Iraqis are resorting to harvesting their own organs to make enough money to survive.
This could all have been avoided had the media done its job. As Matt Taibbi wrote:
If even one network, instead of cheerily re-broadcasting Pentagon-generated aerial bomb footage, had risked its access to the government by saying to the Bush administration, “We’re not covering the war unless we can shoot anything we want, without restrictions,” that might have made a difference. It might have made this war look like what it is—pointless death and carnage that would have scared away every advertiser in the country—rather than a big fucking football game that you can sell Coke and Pepsi and Scott’s Fertilizer to.
The Bush Administration worked hard to manufacture consent to go to war, but it had willing partners that made the task far easier than in countries with a functioning 4th estate. French President, Jacques Chirac, understood that support for the war with Iraq would be suicidal in a country where the press actually worked to uncover the truth. France wisely stayed out of the war, avoiding the black hole of death and endless spending.
What are the lessons that we can draw from the horrific debacle?
Firstly, it must now be accepted that the old mediums are broken and irrelevant. Hoping that CNN, Fox and MSNBC will suddenly get into responsible journalism is like hoping Hollywood will stop producing movies like ‘Big Mommas House 3’. There’s money to be made peddling the inside baseball game of politics in America, and that’s their business. Shifting news personalities from one slot to another doesn’t constitute major reform in the industry, it constitutes desperation.
Secondly, it means we have to move on. The world is moving online to get its information because it’s quicker, more transparent and easier to research. News is no longer consumed passively – it is created, added to and vetted by readers themselves. Arabs with cell phones and Twitter accounts helped create a mass movement to overthrow dictators all across the Middle East, and organizations like WikiLeaks allows individuals to expose governments by downloading classified documents anonymously.
It’s a brave new world, and it’s time to tell the old institutions to pack up and go home.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.