by Helen Thomas
posted March 15, 2006 (March
27, 2006 issue)
Of all the unhappy trends I have
witnessed--conservative swings on television networks, dwindling
newspaper circulation, the jailing of reporters and "spin" - nothing
is more troubling to me than the obsequious press during the run-up
to the invasion of Iraq. They lapped up everything the Pentagon and
White House could dish out - no questions asked.
Reporters and editors like to think of themselves as watchdogs for
the public good. But in recent years both individual reporters and
their ever-growing corporate ownership have defaulted on that role.
Ted Stannard, an academic and
former UPI correspondent, put it this way:
"When watchdogs, bird dogs, and bull
dogs morph into lap dogs, lazy dogs, or yellow dogs, the nation
is in trouble."
The na´ve complicity of the press and
the government was never more pronounced than in the prelude to the
invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The media became an echo chamber
for White House pronouncements. One example: At President Bush's
March 6, 2003, news conference, in which he made it eminently clear
that the United States was going to war, one reporter pleased the
"born again" Bush when she asked him if he prayed about going to
war. And so it went.
After all, two of the nation's most prestigious newspapers, the New
York Times and the Washington Post, had kept up a drumbeat for war
with Iraq to bring down dictator Saddam Hussein. They accepted
almost unquestioningly the bogus evidence of weapons of mass
destruction, the dubious White House rationale that proved to be so
costly on a human scale, not to mention a drain on the Treasury. The
Post was much more hawkish than the Times - running many editorials
pumping up the need to wage war against the Iraqi dictator--but both
newspapers played into the hands of the Administration.
When Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his ninety-minute "boffo"
statement on Saddam's lethal toxic arsenal on February 5, 2003,
before the United Nations, the Times said he left "little question
that Mr. Hussein had tried hard to conceal" a so-called smoking gun
or weapons of mass destruction.
After two US special weapons inspection
task forces, headed by chief weapons inspector David Kay and later
by Charles Duelfer, came up empty in the scouring of Iraq for WMD,
did you hear any apologies from the Bush Administration? Of course
It simply changed its rationale for the
war--several times. Nor did the media say much about the failed
weapons search. Several newspapers made it a front-page story but
only gave it one-day coverage. As for Powell, he simply lost his
halo. The newspapers played his back-pedaling inconspicuously on the
My concern is why the nation's media were so gullible. Did they
really think it was all going to be so easy, a "cakewalk," a
superpower invading a Third World country? Why did the Washington
press corps forgo its traditional skepticism? Why did reporters
become cheerleaders for a deceptive Administration? Could it be that
no one wanted to stand alone outside Washington's pack journalism?
Tribune Media Services editor Robert Koehler summed it up
In his August 20, 2004, column in the
San Francisco Chronicle Koehler wrote,
"Our print media pacesetters, the
New York Times, and just the other day, the Washington Post,
have searched their souls over the misleading pre-war coverage
they foisted on the nation last year, and blurted out qualified
Reaganesque mea culpas: 'Mistakes were made.'"
All the blame cannot be laid at the
doorstep of the print media. CNN's war correspondent, Christiane
Amanpour, was critical of her own network for not asking enough
questions about WMD. She attributed it to the competition for
ratings with Fox, which had an inside track to top Administration
Despite the apologies of the mainstream press for not having
vigilantly questioned evidence of WMD and links to terrorists in the
early stages of the war, the newspapers dropped the ball again by
ignoring for days a damaging report in the London Times on May 1,
2005. That report revealed the so-called Downing Street memo, the
minutes of a high-powered confidential meeting that British Prime
Minister Tony Blair held with his top advisers on Bush's
forthcoming plans to attack Iraq.
At the secret session Richard
Dearlove, former head of British intelligence, told Blair that
"wanted to remove Saddam Hussein
through military action, justified by the conjunction of
terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being
fixed around the policy."
The Downing Street memo was a bombshell
when discussed by the bloggers, but the mainstream print media
ignored it until it became too embarrassing to suppress any longer.
The Post discounted the memo as old news and pointed to reports it
had many months before on the buildup to the war. Los Angeles Times
editorial page editor Michael Kinsley decided that the classified
minutes of the Blair meeting were not a "smoking gun."
The New York Times touched on the memo
in a dispatch during the last days leading up to the British
elections, but put it in the tenth paragraph.
All this took me back to the days immediately following the
unraveling of the Watergate scandal. The White House press corps
realized it had fallen asleep at the switch--not that all the
investigative reporting could have been done by those on the
so-called "body watch," which travels everywhere with the President
and has no time to dig for facts. But looking back, they knew they
had missed many clues on the Watergate scandal and were determined
to become much more skeptical of what was being dished out to them
at the daily briefings.
And, indeed, they were.
The White House press room became a
By contrast, after the White House lost its credibility in
rationalizing the pre-emptive assault on Iraq, the correspondents
began to come out of their coma, yet they were still too timid to
challenge Administration officials, who were trying to put a good
face on a bad situation.
I recall one exchange of mine with press secretary Scott
McClellan last May that illustrates the difference, and what I
mean by the skeptical reporting during Watergate.
Helen: The other day, in fact
this week, you [McClellan] said that we, the United States, are
in Afghanistan and Iraq by invitation. Would you like to correct
that incredible distortion of American history?
Scott: No. We are...that's where we are currently.
Helen: In view of your credibility, which is already mired...how
can you say that?
Scott: Helen, I think everyone in this room knows that
you're taking that comment out of context. There are two
democratically elected governments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Helen: Were we invited into Iraq?
Scott: There are democratically elected governments now
in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are there at their invitation.
They are sovereign governments, but we are there today.
Helen: You mean, if they asked us out, that we would have
Scott: No, Helen, I'm talking about today. We are there
at their invitation. They are sovereign governments.
Helen: I'm talking about today, too.
Scott: We are doing all we can to train and equip their
security forces so that they can provide their own security as
they move forward on a free and democratic future.
Helen: Did we invade those countries?
At that point McClellan called on
Those were the days when I longed for ABC-TV's great Sam Donaldson
to back up my questions as he always did, and I did the same for him
and other daring reporters. Then I realized that the old pros,
reporters whom I had known in the past, many of them around during
World War II and later the Vietnam War, reporters who had some
historical perspective on government deception and folly, were not
I honestly believe that if reporters had put the spotlight on the
flaws in the Bush Administration's war policies, they could have
saved the country the heartache and the losses of American and Iraqi
It is past time for reporters to forget the party line, ask the
tough questions and let the chips fall where they may.