By far, the most perplexing question in the whole tragedy that has become the invasion of Iraq is why intelligent editors at American newspapers didn’t see the real story from the beginning. Long before Paul O’Neill and David Kay’s revelations, it was clear to us and most of the rest of the planet that the Bush Administration was intent on an invasion of Iraq for a whole laundry list of commercial, strategic and ideological reasons that had nothing to do with 9/11 or any military threat–reasons Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld & Co. had made clear in writings going back a decade. There was overwhelming evidence before the invasion that the administration was twisting thin intelligence to the point of outright lies in order to deceive the American public–Good Soldier Powell before the U.N., the 45-minute charge in the State of the Union address, Hans Blix’ U.N. findings that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, and the phantom al Qaeda connection.
But coverage of the administration’s war plans remained — and remains — uncritical, as if none of that had ever come to light. That failure has played a significant role in many readers’ and viewers’ support for the war.
I got a scary insight into the problem last week at one of the cocktail parties that were part of the North Carolina Press Association’s annual award festivities. While chatting with a top editor, he positively gloated over Lord Hutton’s finding that BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan reported more than he’d been told by the late David Kelly when he said in a sloppy 6 a.m. broadcast that the Blair administration had “sexed-up” the risk of Iraq’s weapons. The BBC is “anti-American,” the editor told me, and it made him mad whenever he listened to the BBC news while driving to work in the morning.
Gilligan and two top BBC officials quit as a result of the report. I won’t even go into the question of whether there were political motivations behind clearing the Blair government. But I was amazed that a journalist would revel in a single mistake by one of the world’s best news organizations, one that barely changed the fundamental story. If heads at the BBC should roll for Gilligan’s mistake, what should happen to Bush, Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld? Why isn’t that editor or his newspaper calling on those leaders to resign for the calculated lies they told to send us into war?
The reason, it is clear to me now, is that at least some American newspaper editors are truly as jingoistic as the one-sided coverage they’re passing off as news. It explains why their newspapers repeat the administration’s propaganda without raising obvious questions of credibility in every article. It explains why they now run stories blithely repeating the Bush Administration’s new contention that the WMD fiasco must have been a result of bad intelligence–without making clear that around a year ago the administration was setting up its own intelligence outfit on Iraq because it thought the CIA wasn’t sufficiently acknowledging the Iraqi threat.
Because of that attitude, the sad truth is that now we have to resort to foreign sources like the BBC, often via the Web, to get that kind of context. It’s not anti-American. It’s just better journalism.