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This weekend brings the third anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war -- a war the administration and the media told us would be quick, easy, and over long before now.
Three years later, it's clear that nearly everything we were told, by our government and by our media, was wrong.
Yet Fox News' Bill O'Reilly perversely argued this week that Democrats, not President Bush, lied about Iraq. Media Matters for America detailed some of Bush's unequivocal assertions that were not only found to have been false, but determined to not have been justified by the intelligence available at the time. Among the assertions:
- Iraq's aluminum tubes were intended to enrich uranium.
- Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Africa.
- Iraq possessed stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons.
- Iraq's unmanned drones could attack enemies near and far.
- Iraq would mount an unprovoked attack against the United States.
- Iraq could launch an attack in 45 minutes.
The Bush administration's false claims about Iraq are not irrelevant matters to be left to the history books. The same people who misled the nation into war, then bungled and botched it at every turn, are still running the country. It's important to understand what went wrong in Iraq so we don't make the same mistakes in Iran. It's important for the media to understand how they were misled, and how they were used to mislead the nation, into war -- and to apply those lessons in covering the administration's claims about Iran.
And it is important to assess the consequences of the administration's lies about, and mishandling of, the Iraq war. Is the public less likely to believe the administration if it says we need to use force against Iran because of their false claims about Iraq? That's a question we've repeatedly asked; why don't reporters? Perhaps the third anniversary of the Iraq war would be a good time to finally include the question in a poll.
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting marked the war's anniversary by looking back at the Iraq war's "Pollyanna pundits" -- the pundits and journalists who assured us that the war would be fast and easy; that war critics were "arrogant," "misguided" and "dead wrong"; and that only "the duped, the dumb and the desperate" could doubt Colin Powell's (now-discredited) presentation to the United Nations.
Among the highlights of FAIR's report:
"The three-week swing through Iraq has utterly shattered skeptics' complaints." (Fox News Channel's Tony Snow, 4/13/03)
"The war winds down, politics heats up.... Picture perfect. Part Spider-Man, part Tom Cruise, part Ronald Reagan. The president seizes the moment on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific." (PBS's Gwen Ifill, 5/2/03, on George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech)
"We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who's president. Women like a guy who's president. 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." (MSNBC's Chris Matthews, 5/1/03)
"Maybe disgraced commentators and politicians alike, like Daschle, Jimmy Carter, Dennis Kucinich, and all those others, will step forward tonight and show the content of their character by simply admitting what we know already: that their wartime predictions were arrogant, they were misguided and they were dead wrong. Maybe, just maybe, these self-anointed critics will learn from their mistakes. But I doubt it. After all, we don't call them 'elitists' for nothing." (MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, 4/10/03)
"Over the next couple of weeks when we find the chemical weapons this guy was amassing, the fact that this war was attacked by the left and so the right was so vindicated, I think, really means that the left is going to have to hang its head for three or four more years." (Fox News Channel's Dick Morris, 4/9/03)
"Chris, more than anything else, real vindication for the administration. One, credible evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Two, you know what? There were a lot of terrorists here, really bad guys. I saw them." (MSNBC reporter Bob Arnot, 4/9/03)
"Well, the hot story of the week is victory.... The Tommy Franks-Don Rumsfeld battle plan, war plan, worked brilliantly, a three-week war with mercifully few American deaths or Iraqi civilian deaths.... There is a lot of work yet to do, but all the naysayers have been humiliated so far.... The final word on this is, hooray." (Fox News Channel's Morton Kondracke, 4/12/03)
FAIR's compilation is essential to understanding the role journalists and pundits played in taking the United States to war; their uncritical cheerleading for the administration; their swooning at the sight of Bush; their unfounded assumptions of administration competence. Read the whole report here.
We've addressed the bizarre tendency on the part of journalists to assume that everything, no matter how bad it appears, is good news for Republicans. Most recently, we noted in January:
Los Angeles Times reporter Ron Brownstein, for example, wrote in a January 27 article detailing the results of an L.A. Times poll that there remains "broad, though slightly eroded, confidence in Bush's handling of terrorism." But, several paragraphs later, Brownstein got around to revealing the actual poll results: "48% said they approved of Bush's performance in fighting terrorism, whereas 49% disapproved."
The attentive reader will note that more Americans disapprove of Bush's performance in fighting terrorism than approve of it. That's the "broad, though slightly eroded" confidence in Bush's handling of terrorism Brownstein referred to.
The headline on Brownstein's article read "Bush's Ratings Sink, but Trust Remains." But did the poll really show that the public continues to trust Bush, or was the Los Angeles Times' headline writer also spinning the results for Bush? The poll results show that 47 percent think Bush is not "honest and trustworthy"; only 46 percent think he is. So, more Americans think Bush is not trustworthy than think he is -- and the Los Angeles Times tells readers "Trust Remains." Presumably, they meant "Trust Remains Low" but ran out of room.
The New York Times went further. In an article that could have been written by Karl Rove, the Times previewed Bush's upcoming State of the Union address by asserting that Bush "stabilized his political standing after a difficult 2005." As Media Matters noted, that creates a grossly misleading impression in readers: Bush's poll numbers, for example, are remarkably stable -- and remarkably bad. Not the kind of stability the Bush administration is looking for.
But even by those standards, NBC's Matt Lauer made an extraordinary claim this week. Referring to Bush's approval ratings -- which seem to reach a new low every day -- Lauer asked Tim Russert:
LAUER: These approval numbers, Tim, are they in some ways a blessing in disguise for Republicans in these midterm elections? Because, basically, they can look and say, "Look, I don't have a popular president here. I can turn my back on that president, or even oppose that president going into these elections and stem the tide of this voter anger."
Think about that for a moment: Lauer suggests that Bush's low approval rating is a good thing for Republican candidates, because now, they can run away from him. We assume Lauer would agree that it would be a positive for Republican candidates if Bush had a high approval rating. What, then, is left? Can anything be bad news for Republicans?
How about this: the latest Pew poll, which found only a 33-percent approval rating for Bush, asked participants to describe their impression of him. The most frequently-used word? "Incompetent." "Idiot" and "Liar" also came in near the top of the list. And tied for the 10th spot were "Leader" and "Ass," just beating out "Jerk." That's right: as many people described Bush as an "ass" as called him a "leader." Keep that in mind the next time some pundit (we're looking at you, Matthews) praises Bush's leadership abilities.
For some reason, no matter how many polls show that, to put it bluntly, people don't like much of anything about George Bush, journalists can't help overestimating his strength and support. As we've argued before:
The simple reality is that polls consistently show the following: The American people don't like President Bush. They don't approve of the way he's done his job. They don't trust him to handle key issues. They don't trust him, period. They think he deliberately misled the nation into war. They think history will judge him poorly. They think Congress should consider impeachment. They don't like his political party. They like Democrats better. They trust Democrats more on more important issues.
Any journalist or pundit who makes reference to public opinion in a way that contradicts these basic facts, without offering specific data, is simply misleading the American people.
Yet we constantly see news reports that falsely claim or presume widespread support for Bush and his policies.
This week, for example, The Washington Post reported that Democrats are "wary of polls showing that a majority of Americans side with the president on wiretapping tactics." But polls simply do not show that. Poll show support for the concept of spying on Al Qaeda -- but then, no prominent political figure opposes that concept. The dispute is over the specific ways in which Bush is conducting that spying -- that is, without obtaining a warrant, and in apparent violation of the law. Polls that actually assess public support for the president's "wiretapping tactics" contradict the Post's assertion, as Media Matters pointed out:
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted February 21-28 found that while 79 percent of "American voters say the government should continue monitoring phone calls or e-mail between suspected terrorists in other countries and people in the U.S.," 55 percent say "that the government should get court orders for this surveillance." A CBS News poll conducted February 22-26 asked respondents: "Regardless of whether you approve of the President authorizing the wiretaps, do you think the President has the legal authority to authorize wiretaps without a court warrant in order to fight terrorism, or doesn't he?" Fifty-one percent said the president does not have the legal authority to do so. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll from February 9-12 reported that 50 percent of respondents believed the Bush administration was "wrong" to wiretap "conversations without a court order," while 47 percent said it was "right."
The Post's Dana Milbank, meanwhile, wrote of Sen. Russ Feingold's (D-WI) call for the Senate to censure Bush:
The cause of so much evasion was S. Res. 398, the resolution proposed Monday by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) calling for the censure of President Bush for his warrantless wiretapping program. At a time when Democrats had Bush on the ropes over Iraq, the budget and port security, Feingold single-handedly turned the debate back to an issue where Bush has the advantage -- and drove another wedge through his party.
What "advantage" does Bush have? Not on whether his secret warrantless domestic spying program is legal, as we've shown. Maybe Milbank meant the broader issue of terrorism? Bush doesn't have much of an "advantage" there anymore, either: the latest Gallup poll found that a plurality disapproves of his handling of the issue; other polls show that whatever advantage he does have is rapidly dwindling.
Milbank went on to assert that Democrats "know Feingold's maneuver could cost them seats in GOP states."
Sure, it could. It also could win them seats in Democratic states. And opposing Feingold's measure could cost Republicans seats. After all, an American Research Group poll released this week found that a plurality of Americans favors censuring Bush -- and that, by a 7-point margin, a plurality of independents favors impeaching Bush.
Of course, the fact that the only public polling on censure finds a plurality in favor doesn't stop the pundits from simply asserting that censure is wildly unpopular. On Fox News, John Gibson and Dick Morris made that claim:
On the March 16 edition of The Big Story, Gibson claimed that "the trouble is the vast majority of Americans ... think it is absurd and purely political to push either censure or impeachment over the surveillance program." That evening on Hannity & Colmes, Morris echoed Gibson, saying that Americans "don't believe the president should be censured, particularly in the middle of a war."
What were they basing their assertions on? Nothing. They apparently hope that if they say it often enough, it will become true.
Further, Bush is unpopular even in "GOP states," as a recent Elon University poll found:
A majority of adults in five key Southern states disapproves of President Bush's job performance and says the war in Iraq was not worth fighting ... In the survey, 52 percent of respondents said they disapproved or strongly disapproved of Bush's job performance, compared to 43 percent who said they approved or strongly approved. ... All five of the states polled -- Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida -- went to Bush in the 2004 presidential election by margins ranging from 58 percent in South Carolina and Georgia to 52 percent in Florida.
A Zogby poll found that Bush's approval rating in states that voted for him is only 43 percent.
It's about time media stop portraying every new controversy as a danger to Democrats, and start recognizing that these things are threats to Republicans: they're the people in charge of a government widely seen as incompetent and corrupt; they're the party led by a horribly unpopular president; and they're the people who pushed a soundly rejected Social Security privatization scheme. And yet, media see everything as an opportunity for them, and a danger for Democrats. Osama bin Laden may be dead? Good news for Republicans: They got bin Laden! New tapes prove bin Laden is still alive? Good news for Republicans: It reminds people of the threat of terrorism! Democrats don't criticize Bush? Good news for Republicans: Democrats are timid! Democrats do criticize Bush? Good news for Republicans: Democrats are shrill!
Some journalists and pundits are apparently so smitten by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, they'll spin anything about him into the Official John McCain Storyline. Here's The Hotline's Chuck Todd, during an appearance on Hardball, explaining McCain's embrace of George W. Bush: "He's never been a front-runner before. He was always the insurgent. So, right now, rallying around the president is the maverick thing to do."
McCain is aligning himself with the man who has led his party for nearly six years and who has been the most powerful person in the world for five years -- and Chuck Todd sees that as confirmation that McCain is a "maverick." Is there any action that could possibly be less "maverick" than siding with the most powerful person in the world? Of course not. But reporters and pundits are so committed to the McCain-as-maverick storyline they've been shoving down our throats for the past decade, they'll spin anything into "proof" of his independent streak.
How common is the "maverick" talking point?
- A Nexis search for the words "McCain" and "Maverick" within ten words of each other in just the last two years cannot be completed "because it will return more than 1,000 documents."
- MSNBC's Chris Matthews used the word "maverick" to describe McCain five times on March 11 alone.
When the media aren't calling McCain a "maverick," they're labeling him a "moderate" -- a Nexis search for "McCain" within five words of "moderate" yields nearly 1,000 hits in the last two years. In introducing a July 22, 2005, segment on the Supreme Court, Gwen Ifill, host of the PBS program Washington Week, clearly -- if inadvertently -- demonstrated the tendency by many journalists to portray McCain as a moderate separate from -- and presumably above -- partisan politics:
IFILL: It feels as if we have been sitting on the edges of our seats for months waiting for one shoe or the other to drop at the Supreme Court. And so now we have John G. Roberts almost universally described as genial, intelligent and, well, judicious. Republicans were overjoyed.
SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN): The United States is ready to go. We look forward to a dignified process, a fair process, a process that treats you, our nominee, with respect.
IFILL: Moderates were optimistic.
McCAIN: By no means, by no means, by any stretch of the imagination would Justice Roberts because of his credentials, because of his service, because of his extraordinary qualifications would meet the extraordinary circumstances criteria.
IFILL: Democrats were subdued.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): I'm making a plea here and that is to Judge Roberts to answer the questions fully and openingly. And I think it's his obligation and our responsibility to make sure that those questions are answered.
Notice how Ifill describes the players: You have Republicans, Democrats, and moderates. McCain, in Ifill's construction, is a moderate.
But McCain-the-moderate may be an even bigger media invention than McCain-the-maverick. In fact, a quick glance at McCain's stands on major issues shows that he's much less a moderate than most congressional Democrats, if, by "moderate," we mean "opposed to radical or extreme views or measures." As we recently explained:
The notion of McCain as "independent" and a "maverick" is so deeply ingrained in the minds of many reporters, they actually point to his frequent appearances on the Sunday shows as evidence there is not a rightward tilt to those programs. Never mind that McCain has run for president as a Republican, that he campaigned for George Bush, that he supports the Iraq war. Never mind that NARAL-Pro Choice America has given him a zero rating for the last decade. Never mind that he hasn't received a rating higher than 50 percent from the National Education Association in this century. Never mind that the right-wing John Birch Society gave him a rating of 90 in 2004, or that the Christian Coalition gave him an 83. Never mind his support for diverting taxpayer funds to religious schools, or his support for Social Security privatization.
And that was before McCain indicated that he would have signed the South Dakota law that banned all abortions except in cases where the woman's life is threatened by pregnancy. And that doesn't even include McCain's staunch support for Bush's handling of the Iraq war -- an increasingly unpopular and immoderate position.
So here's a challenge for reporters and pundits: the next time you refer to John McCain as a "moderate," how about explaining what, exactly, makes him more "moderate" than, say, John Kerry. Or Hillary Rodham Clinton. Or Harry Reid. Or Nancy Pelosi. Or Howard Dean. Or Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Barack Obama, or countless others. On Social Security, on the Iraq war, on abortion, on countless other issues, nearly every prominent Democrat has a position that is closer to the views of most Americans than does John McCain. It's time for the media to put up or shut up: Either provide actual evidence that McCain is a moderate, or stop saying asserting that he is.
Last year, after MSNBC's Chris Matthews smeared the Democratic National Committee by lying about a memo the committee circulated about Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr., we noted that prominent progressives didn't step forward to insist that Matthews tell the truth:
Meanwhile -- though Matthews referred to the memo again and again, bringing it up on at least four separate occasions, and though the false claims echoed throughout the media -- no reporter corrected Matthews's lie. Matthews's colleagues simply looked the other way as he lied about the memo and smeared Democrats -- just as reporters looked the other way (or joined in) while their colleagues lied about Al Gore in 2000, falsely claiming that he had taken credit for discovering Love Canal.
This is a textbook example of how completely false, made-up claims about progressives have repeatedly become accepted as fact over the past several years. A "mainstream" pundit says something about Democrats that's blatantly false; a few others join in, and the rest of the media looks the other way, daring not to criticize one of their own. Before you know it, it's accepted as "fact."
Sure enough, by the end of the week, at least two prominent Democrats were criticizing the memo -- even though it didn't say what Matthews claimed it did.
Chris Matthews lied about the Democratic memo; some of his colleagues repeated the lie while others ignored it; conservative activists seized on and amplified the lie, and not one prominent progressive stepped forward to forcefully and clearly say, "That isn't true. Stop lying."
And so it has become true, like the fiction that Al Gore took credit for discovering Love Canal.
We don't say this as often as we should: Media Matters can lead the fight against conservative misinformation in the media, but we can't win the fight by ourselves. Conservatives have been effective in using media criticism to further their agenda not because they have good arguments -- they don't -- but because conservatives across the country, from precinct chairs to the president of the United States, understand that critiquing the media is something they all must do.
Look how successful they've been -- even while their criticisms all too often are of the "I didn't need to read any transcripts of the Chris Matthews MSNBC Hardball show to know what's he's been doing" variety. Now, imagine how successful progressives can be if we work together to offer and amplify specific criticisms of specific errors, omissions, and distortions.
That's why it has been encouraging to see two prominent progressives openly challenging false claims made by Chris Matthews and Tim Russert in recent days.
During his appearance on the March 12 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-DE) echoed a recent Media Matters item that challenged Russert's suggestion that Democratic lawmakers seized on the recent port controversy in order to build their national security credentials. Media Matters pointed out that, in fact, over the past several years, Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly put forward legislation to bolster port security, only to see these measures defeated by Republicans. Biden reiterated this point:
RUSSERT: Senator Biden, what has the port controversy done to the Bush presidency?
BIDEN: It's sort of stripped away the curtain that there was any competence on homeland security. I heard you on another show with [Today host] Katie Couric, Tim, saying something, in effect, that the Congress hadn't done much either. Back in 2001, we introduced legislation for port security and rail security; 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005. It's been repeatedly spurned by the administration. Virtually nothing's been done. Their priorities are backwards, Tim. Tim, if, in fact, they spent as much money on homeland security as they do one year on Star Wars, we could fund another 13,000 police locally, another 1,000 FBI agents. We could have every container at every port inspected with gamma rays as well as with radiation. We could, in fact, secure our railroads. These guys have priorities that are backwards and they're dangerously, dangerously incompetent. And this is going to be the next place you're going to see that incompetence show.
The next day, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), who is also chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, appeared on MSNBC's Hardball, where Matthews falsely asserted that "people trust Republicans more than Democrats on tax cutting." All too often, a progressive leader in such a situation will grant the premise, even though Matthews offered no facts to support his assertion, and, indeed -- as Media Matters previously illustrated -- recent polling indicates that the opposite is true. But Emanuel pointed out Matthews's false claim:
MATTHEWS: Why do people -- excuse me. Why do people trust Republicans more than Democrats on tax cutting?
EMANUEL: Well, they don't. First of all, if you look at even your own data and your own polling, they don't. Democrats are gaining and not only holding their lead on traditional Democratic issues of education and healthcare and other types of investments. We now hold an advantage over Republicans on fiscal discipline, taxes, and stewardship of economy. And because of what they've done, they've seen six years of Republican stewardship, and they want a change. They want new priorities and a new direction that, again, invest in American people while putting our fiscal house in order. We can do that, it's just they've now seen six years of Republican stewardship, and they want to change directions.