Over the past 18 months, the media have repeatedly dismissed the need to follow up on new evidence that President Bush knowingly misled the nation in making the case to go to war in Iraq. Media figures have defended this lack of coverage by claiming that the public is already aware that Bush made false claims about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his purported arsenal of WMDs. But a recent Harris poll found that the share of Americans who believe Saddam actually did possess WMDs at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has increased substantially since February 2005, from 36 percent to 50 percent.
On several occasions over the past year and a half, new evidence that President Bush knowingly misled the nation in making the case to go to war in Iraq has surfaced, only to be ignored or glossed over by the U.S. media. In dismissing the need to report and follow up on these explosive stories, editors and other media figures have claimed that the public is already aware that Bush made false claims about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) he supposedly possessed. But a Harris poll released July 21 found that the share of Americans who believe Saddam actually did possess WMDs at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has increased substantially since February 2005, from 36 percent to 50 percent. This finding suggests two things: The media are wrong in claiming that the public already has all the facts on the White House's misleading case for war; and the media's failure to probe the administration's case for war in an in-depth, systematic, and sustained way has actually resulted in a decline in the public's knowledge and understanding of the situation in Iraq and the administration's misrepresentations of that situation.
The most prominent example of the media's dismissal of the need to cover these issues came after the May 1, 2005, publication of the so-called Downing Street Memo in the Sunday Times of London. This secret British intelligence memo detailed a July 2002 meeting attended by Prime Minister Tony Blair and his advisers in which the British intelligence minister -- having just returned from a trip to the United States -- reported that President Bush had already decided to go to war with Iraq and "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around" this decision. In his new book, Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, May 2006), Eric Boehlert explained the significance of the document and the U.S. media's immediate reaction to it:
In total, the remarkable Downing Street Memo offered intriguing, "extremely sensitive" insights into the timing of the war, the use of U.S. intelligence estimates, the "thin" rationale behind the invasion, the lack of postwar planning, and the cynical use of the United Nations to trigger a preemptive war. A treasure trove of information, the Downing Street memo revelations created an electronic stampede to the Sunday Times of London website, where the exclusive was still attracting a large online readership one month after the newspaper published it. Additionally, the memo prompted more than one hundred Democratic members of Congress to write to the White House, asking for answers to questions raised by the memo.
Despite all that, the early reaction from the American media, with a few noticeable exceptions, came in the form of a collective yawn.
Indeed, as Media Matters for America noted at the time, the explosive memo drew little attention from U.S. news outlets in the five weeks following its disclosure in the British press. Moreover, when criticized for this lack of coverage, many in the media responded by dismissing the memo as old news and claiming that one would have to be "brain-dead" or a "moron" not to know that Bush had sought intelligence to justify the war only after deciding to invade Iraq. Following are several examples:
- In a May 21, 2005, column, Atlanta Journal-Constitution public editor Angela Tuck defended her newspaper's delay in covering the story by claiming that "Americans learned about Bush's faulty intelligence during U.S. elections."
- Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank argued in a June 8, 2005, column that "the memo never gained traction here because ... the notion that Bush was intent on military action in Iraq had been widely reported here before."
- In a June 12, 2005, column, then-Los Angeles Times editorial page editor and columnist Michael Kinsley dismissed the memo, claiming that "you don't need a secret memo" to know that "the administration's decision to topple Saddam Hussein by force" had been reached by the fall of 2002 and that the war was "inevitable."
- On the June 14 edition of MSNBC Live, NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell explained: "There have been anti-war groups and anti-Bush groups who've tried to generate this [coverage of the Downing Street Memo] on the Internet, but ... there's no smoking gun here." Mitchell then explained the purported insignificance of the memo: "[I]f you go back to George Bush's own comments [in summer 2002], you had to be brain-dead not to know what he was up to."
- A June 15, 2005, Washington Post editorial stated: "The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the [Bush] administration's prewar deliberations."
- In a June 14, 2005, article, New York Times reporter Todd Purdum noted that the "memos are not the Dead Sea Scrolls," citing the purported fact that "[t]hree years ago , the near-unanimous conventional wisdom in Washington held that Mr. Bush was determined to topple Saddam Hussein by any means necessary." Purdum later said in a June 16, 2005, public radio interview, "You'd have to be a moron [in the summer of 2002] to think we were not headed to war," as Boehlert notes in Lapdogs [p.254].
- Wall Street Journal staff reporter Christopher Cooper downplayed the significance of the document in a June 28 article headlined " 'Downing Street Memo' Has Lingering Effect." Cooper wrote: "In many ways, though, the documents don't reflect much new; at the time they were produced, U.S. news outlets were speculating that Mr. Bush might be heading toward conflict in Iraq, which is why they garnered little attention here when reported earlier."
As more evidence came to light over the following year that Bush had deliberately misled the public in the lead-up to war, the media responded in similar fashion.
For instance, on March 27, The New York Times reported on a leaked British memo summarizing a January 31, 2003, Oval Office meeting between Bush and Blair, in which the leaders "expressed their doubts that chemical, biological or nuclear weapons would be found in Iraq in the coming weeks" and discussed a proposal to paint a U.S. surveillance aircraft in U.N. colors in the hopes of provoking an Iraqi attack. The Times reported that the document showed that Bush "was determined to invade Iraq without the [United Nations'] second resolution, or even if international arms inspectors failed to find unconventional weapons." But the media did not follow up on the story and in some cases ignored it all together, as Media Matters noted. When asked about the media's neglect of the story on the March 31 broadcast of National Public Radio's The Diane Rehm Show, Philadelphia Inquirer foreign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin posited a familiar theory. "I think part of the story is there has been so much written that indicates the administration was planning to go into Iraq early on that perhaps many journalists feel like everybody knows this," Rubin said, adding, "So maybe it's seen as overkill here."
Similarly, in a March 30 article, National Journal investigative reporter Murray Waas reported that an internal White House review found that Bush "had been specifically advised that claims he later made in his 2003 State of the Union address -- that Iraq was procuring high-strength aluminum tubes to build a nuclear weapon -- might not be true." But In an April 3 online chat, Washington Post congressional reporter Shailagh Murray dismissed a reader's suggestion that the Post should follow up on the story, writing, "Does anyone out there really doubt at this point that Bush had some indication that the intelligence on the tubes was faulty?"