News Media Mostly Ignoring Iraq War Critics
When it comes to Iraq, the media only seems to be giving Americans one side of the story.
Yesterday, James Joyner linked to his piece at The National Interest regarding the arguments that some have made that we should not be listening to people such as Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney given the fact that they got the Iraq War so spectacularly wrong a decade ago. As I noted in my own comment to the post, I think James raises good points and that the failure, if there is one, isn’t in the fact that these former Bush Administration are talking about what to do in Iraq today but in the failure of hosts of the Sunday morning and other news talk shows where they’ve appeared to challenge them more directly on the role their decisions have played in the present situation. On the other side of the coin, though, Sam Stein and Michael Calderone raise a very good point at The Huffington Post when they ask why there aren’t more people who were critical of the decision to go to war originally being asked to talk about what’s going on in Iraq today:
Kent Conrad’s phone hasn’t been ringing very much over the past few weeks, as Iraq, and the debate over America’s future in the country, has once again dominated the news.
The architects of the Iraq war are back in TV studios and on op-ed pages, as are journalists and pundits who promoted the Bush administration’s ultimately bogus case for invading. But Conrad, a former senator who was one of only 23 to vote against authorizing the war in October 2002, hasn’t heard from CNN, MSNBC or any other TV outlet. “Not once,” he said, when asked if anyone in the press had reached out regarding the current crisis in Iraq.
In an email to The Huffington Post, Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, offered two possible explanations. The first, he said, is “simply the incompetence of the media.” The second is “the shrillness of those trying desperately to rewrite history to cover their own devastating failures.”
Despite catastrophic misjudgments — that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators, that the war would pay for itself with oil revenues — the Iraq war boosters keep getting booked, while those politicians and journalists who were skeptical of the Bush administration’s “slam dunk” case for war remain largely on the sidelines.
McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay, who was part of the Knight Ridder team that produced what is widely regarded as the best pre-war reporting, has only been invited to discuss Iraq’s unraveling on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” a media criticism program. Landay, who just returned from a 10-day reporting trip in neighboring Syria, hasn’t heard from any cable news or Sunday public affairs shows.
Landay views the decision to book former Vice President Dick Cheney and former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz as a cynical attempt at getting “clicks and eyeballs.” Though Cheney and Wolfowitz “got things so disastrously wrong,” he said, the media gives them platforms “to create controversy, and that controversy will be enhanced by whatever they say, irrespective of whether it’s accurate or not.”
According to liberal watchdog Media Matters, Cheney, Wolfowitz, former presidential envoy to Iraq Paul Bremer and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol have made 16 TV appearances in less than two weeks.
“The analogy I’d draw is the following: You go to a doctor, who diagnoses an ailment and prescribes drugs and surgery,” Landay said. “The diagnosis, however, turns out to be disastrously wrong and as a result, the drugs and surgery leave you crippled for years to come. Are you going to go back to that same doctor to diagnose your next illness? No, you aren’t. In fact, you probably sued him/her for malpractice after the first go-round. Unfortunately, we can’t sue Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Feith and the others for malpractice. But we can stop listening to them.”
Landay’s absence from the talking head circuit could be chalked up to the fact that he’s not a lawmaker who has say over how to proceed in the civil war-ravaged region. TV bookers, of course, tend to gravitate toward higher-profile guests. And herein lies another media challenge for the community of Iraq war skeptics. There simply aren’t that many high-profile lawmakers who got the vote right last time around.
Of the 23 senators who voted against the war, only eight remain in Congress. Three passionate critics of the Iraq invasion, Sens. Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd and Paul Wellstone, have died. Another major skeptic, former Sen. Russ Feingold, now serves in the Obama administration as a special envoy to an African region. And former Vice President Al Gore, who, unlike his successor, was right about Iraq, remains focused on climate change and hasn’t spoken out about the current mess.
Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and presumed Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton were all senators in 2002 and all voted for the Iraq resolution. (The latter two have apologized for their votes in recent interviews.)
That leaves a small group of Democratic senators with both the political clout and moral standing to represent the anti-war faction on television, including Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Pat Leahy (D-Vt.). Boxer is the only one who has gone on TV to discuss the current crisis, saying on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday that her 2002 vote against the war was one of her “proudest moments.”
If the pool of current senators who opposed the war in 2002 is too shallow, bookers could look to former ones, like Conrad. But they too are being kept largely out of the discussion. Former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado said that he has not been asked to discuss the current situation on television despite having been against the invasion when “most leading Democratic senators voted aye.”
“Fair and balanced mainstream media,” he said sardonically, when asked why the war boosters were appearing so frequently instead.
The complaint that Stein and Calderone make her goes well beyond Iraq, actually. As I’ve noted before in relation to the Sunday morning programs specifically (see here and here), the major networks all seem to draw from a very tiny pool of potential guests that is made up for the most part of Administration officials, those members of Congress who stick around town on the weekend, and the same group of inside-the-beltway political pundits week after week. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and (when he was still in the Senate) Joe Lieberman have been on these shows so frequently that one has to wonder if they’ve taken up permanent residence in the studios where these shows are shot. The situation is largely the same with the weekday programming on the cable news networks, which generally each have their own rotating set of pundits from which they seldom stray. Indeed, it’s likely that if you watch one of these networks during the course of the day you’ll see most of these people recycle their appearance in the morning, afternoon, and evening and they’ll say the same thing every single time.
As Stein and Calderone note, this seems to be repeating itself when it comes to discussions regarding current events in Iraq. You’re more likely to see people who supported the war a decade ago than you are to see any of the critics. Admittedly, much of that is due to the fact that the people who were on the critical side of the war debate don’t typically get invited on these shows to begin with and the fact that many of them aren’t located in the New York or D.C. areas to begin with. Like James, I am not going to argue that the people who supported the war ten years ago should be ignored or silenced, although I do think that they should be confronted about the consequences of their decisions as I noted above. In the end, the marketplace of ideas is not served by excluding people from it, and that’s the main motivations for my zealous defense of the First Amendment. The problem isn’t that Paul Wolfowitz is getting air time, the problem is that the people who have a different perspective and might actually be able to educate viewers about the flaws in his position aren’t being that same time. Some may argue that this is part of some conscious choice on the part of the media, but I tend to think its more abject laziness motivated by the factors noted above. Whatever the reason, though, the debate on Iraq over the past few weeks has most assuredly been dominated by the people who were in support of the original invasion, and they are the ones who have been setting the parameters of the debate because of that. The American people are being deprived of alternative points of view to a large degree, and the news media is responsible for it.