"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

It is impossible to overstate just how thoroughly the vast majority of the media bought what Powell was selling. Without pausing to examine his claims or the credibility of his evidence, they declared his U.N. address a home run. The media's swift and fawning reaction to Powell's speech is one of the true low points in their coverage of the Bush administration and the Iraq war -- and that is no small feat.

Did that voice inside you say, "I've heard it all before"?

In August, Sidney Blumenthal noted similarities between Gen. David Petraeus and former Secretary of State Colin Powell:

As Gen. David Petraeus prepares to deliver his report in September on the "surge" in Iraq, he is elevated into the ultimate reliable source, just as former Secretary of State Colin Powell's sterling reputation was exploited for his delivery of the case for invasion before the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, a date that will live in mendacity, for every statement he made was later revealed to be false; Powell regretted publicly that it was an everlasting "blot" on his good name. ... He was Petraeus before Petraeus, the good soldier before the good soldier, window-dressing before window-dressing.

As Blumenthal observed, Powell, like Petraeus, enjoyed a "sterling reputation" that was used to enhance the credibility of his case and to discourage scrutiny.

It is impossible to overstate just how thoroughly the vast majority of the media bought what Powell was selling. Without pausing to examine his claims or the credibility of his evidence, they declared his U.N. address a home run. The media's swift and fawning reaction to Powell's speech is one of the true low points in their coverage of the Bush administration and the Iraq war -- and that is no small feat.

Eric Alterman, now a Media Matters Senior Fellow, explained in a September 22, 2003, column for The Nation:

When Powell went before the UN Security Council in February 2003, reporters treated his accusations against Saddam Hussein as if akin to tablets passed down by Moses from the mountaintop. A study by Gilbert Cranberg, former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, discovered a nearly perfect storm of wide-eyed credulity in coverage of the speech. We heard and read of "a massive array of evidence," "a detailed and persuasive case," "a powerful case," "a sober, factual case," "an overwhelming case," "a compelling case," "the strong, credible and persuasive case," "a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information," "a smoking fusillade ... a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable," "an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence," so that "only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction." "The skeptics asked for proof; they now have it." "Powell's evidence," we were told, was "overwhelming," "ironclad ... incontrovertible," "succinct and damning ... the case is closed." "Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein." "If there was any doubt that Hussein ... needs to be ... stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest."

Another Media Matters Senior Fellow, Paul Waldman, detailed more of that coverage in his 2004 book Fraud: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies and Why the Media Didn't Tell You:

[S]ince they regard him so highly, the press declined to investigate the charges Powell made before the UN too closely. Instead, they hailed his appearance as having settled once and for all the question of whether we should invade Iraq. The editorials the following day were nearly unanimous. Speaking for many liberal commentators, the Washington Post's Mary McGrory wrote, "I don't know how the United Nations felt about Colin Powell's 'J'accuse' speech against Saddam Hussein. I can only say that he persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince." "Secretary of State Colin Powell's strong, plain-spoken indictment of the Saddam Hussein regime before the UN Security Council Wednesday embodies something truly great about the United States," said the Chicago Sun-Times. "Those around the world who demanded proof must now be satisfied, or else admit that no satisfaction is possible for them." "In a brilliant presentation as riveting and as convincing as Adlai Stevenson's 1962 unmasking of Soviet missiles in Cuba, Powell proved beyond any doubt that Iraq still possesses and continues to develop illegal weapons of mass destruction," said the New York Daily News. "The case for war has been made. And it's irrefutable." The Hartford Courant said Powell's presentation was "masterful," while the Portland Oregonian found Powell's presentation "devastating" and "overwhelming ... We think he made his case." The headline in the Dallas Morning News read, "Only the Blind Could Ignore Powell's Evidence." The editors of the San Antonio Express-News, who also found his presentation "irrefutable," thought you didn't have to be blind to disagree, but you did have to be an Iraqi sympathizer. "Only those ready to believe Iraq and assume that the United States would manufacture false evidence against Saddam would not be persuaded by Powell's case," they said.

In Bill Moyers' Buying the War, former CBS anchor Dan Rather explained that he and his colleagues gave Powell's presentation to the United Nations extra weight not because of its content, but because of Powell himself:

RATHER: Colin Powell was trusted. Is trusted, I'd put it-in a sense. He, unlike many of the people who made the decisions to go to war, Colin Powell has seen war. He knows what a green jungle hell Vietnam was. He knows what the battlefield looks like. And when Colin Powell says to you, "I, Colin Powell, am putting my personal stamp on this information. It's my name, my face, and I'm putting it out there," that did make a difference.

MOYERS: And you were impressed.

RATHER: I was impressed. And who wouldn't be?

But journalists and pundits weren't just impressed with Powell. They uncritically treated what he said as gospel. They declared it "irrefutable." Not "un-refuted" -- irrefutable. Impossible to refute.

David Gergen, for example, declared on CNN that Powell had delivered "conclusive, compelling evidence" that "effectively destroyed" the arguments of "opponents of the president's policy." (If that sounds familiar, you may remember what Gergen said about his friend David Petraeus' testimony while serving as a CNN analyst last week: "[A]fter hearing him with that blizzard of facts and statistics and charts, it's going to be very hard for Democrats now to say, let's pull the plug.")

Worse, the media suggested that anyone who disagreed with Powell was a liar or a fool.

Powell's U.N. address occurred on February 5, 2003. A look at the editorials and columns that appeared in the next day's edition of The Washington Post makes clear how quickly the media ran to Powell's side.

The Post itself led things off with an editorial headlined -- what else? -- "Irrefutable" that declared, "AFTER SECRETARY OF STATE Colin L. Powell's presentation to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. ... Mr. Powell's evidence ... was overwhelming."

The Post's columnists took it from there. Four Washington Post columnists wrote on February 6 about Powell's presentation the day before. All four were positively glowing:

  • Richard Cohen, in a column headlined "A Winning Hand For Powell," declared that Powell's presentation "had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise." Cohen was careful to make clear that he based his own conclusion not upon an examination of Powell's arguments and evidence, but on Powell himself: "The clincher ... was the totality of the material and the fact that Powell himself had presented it. In this case, the messenger may have been more important than the message."
  • George Will, under the headline "Disregarding the Deniers," wrote that "Powell's presentation, its power enhanced by his avoidance of histrionics, will change all minds open to evidence. Thus it will justify disregarding the presumptively close-minded people who persist in denying ... what? What are people denying who still deny the need for force? That Iraq has weapons of mass destruction? Or that Iraq is resisting the inspections? No, they are denying only that force is needed." Will directly equated those who were not convinced by Powell's performance to "[p]eople determined to believe that a vast conspiracy assassinated President Kennedy." "People committed to a particular conclusion will get to it and will stay there," Will wrote -- and, hard as it is to believe now, he was referring to those who disagreed with the Bush administration.
  • Mary McGrory, in a column headlined "I'm Persuaded," insisted that she had been "as tough as France to convince" of the case against Saddam, but that Powell had done it. How had the great man won over this stalwart opponent of the war? "His voice was strong and unwavering. He made his case without histrionics of any kind, with no verbal embellishments." McGrory offered no critical assessment of the evidence Powell presented; she indicated instead that she was swayed by the performance.
  • Jim Hoagland, in a column headlined "An Old Trooper's Smoking Gun," lauded Powell's presentation as a "convincing and detailed X-ray of Iraq's secret weapons and terrorism programs" that "exposed the enduring bad faith of several key members of the U.N. Security Council." Hoagland wrote: "Speaking as 'an old trooper,' the ex-general showed, through technical detail, the illogic of Iraq's protestations that it has been importing aluminum tubing for short-range rockets and not for nuclear weapons. Nobody uses this kind of tubing for rockets, Powell said convincingly. ... To continue to say that the Bush administration has not made its case, you must now believe that Colin Powell lied in the most serious statement he will ever make, or was taken in by manufactured evidence. I don't believe that. Today, neither should you."

Not only did all four buy what Powell was selling, they did so without an examination of the goods. The salesman's smile, his voice -- and his impeccable credentials as an "old trooper" -- were enough.

Worse, three of the four directly attacked anyone who would dare disagree with Powell. You'd have to be a "fool" or a "Frenchman" to disagree with Powell's assertions, according to Cohen. Will added that such foolishness would require the closed mind of a conspiracy theorist. Hoagland concluded that skeptics were guilty of "enduring bad faith" and seemed to speak for the entire punditocracy when he observed that to remain skeptical of the Bush administration's case required the belief "that Colin Powell lied." And that, of course, was unthinkable.

Even after it became clear that Powell's address was not only quite refutable, it relied on forgeries and supposed British intelligence dossiers that were in fact plagiarized from the Internet, many journalists steadfastly refused to criticize Powell. In his book Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, Eric Boehlert noted that ABC's Ted Koppel hosted Powell for three "in-depth interviews" on Nightline. In the first appearance, according to Boehlert, Powell "was not asked one question about his U.N. performance despite the fact that observers had already detailed the obvious errors in Powell's presentation. In fact it took the international press just one week to detail the holes in Powell's speech. But eight months later on Nightline, Koppel paid no attention to that fact." In what must surely be a coincidence, Koppel and Powell are, according to Boehlert, "good friends."

Less than five years ago, America's news media enthusiastically embraced Powell's U.N. address -- an address that we now know was riddled with untruths and bogus "evidence." But the nation's leading journalists and commentators bought it and shouted down skeptics. They bought it not after examining and assessing the quality of Powell's evidence, but because "Powell himself had presented it." They shouted down skeptics not because of the quality of the evidence, but because of the quality of the man. To be a skeptic required believing "that Colin Powell lied"; thus, being a skeptic was unacceptable.

Why dwell on that now? Because the media's coverage of David Petraeus in 2007 is depressingly similar to their treatment of Colin Powell in 2003.

Compare Tucker Carlson's questioning of a Powell skeptic in 2003 to Wolf Blitzer's questioning of a Petraeus skeptic in 2007.

In 2003, Carlson was a co-host of CNN's Crossfire. When Vermont Congressman (now Senator) Bernie Sanders expressed skepticism about Powell's presentation, Carlson expressed shock and demanded to know why Sanders did not believe Powell: "Wait, wait, wait, wait. I'm sorry. I think we're making news here. Possibly. Colin Powell, the secretary of state, got up before the U.N. yesterday and said in no uncertain terms that this happened. Are you saying he's lying? ... Do you not take his word?"

Earlier this week, Blitzer interviewed television host and comedian Bill Maher. When Maher indicated that he did not believe Petraeus' claims that his testimony was prepared completely independently of the White House and Pentagon, Blitzer pounced: "Let me point out. General Petraeus, who has been a military officer for more than 30 years, the first thing he basically said out of his mouth last week is, 'I didn't show this testimony to anyone. I wrote it myself. I didn't have it vetted by the chain of command. Not by the White House. Not by anyone at the Pentagon. Not by anyone in Congress.' Don't you believe him when he says that?"

Later in the interview, Blitzer described Maher as having "attack[ed]" Petraeus "personally" for saying he didn't believe that Petraeus' testimony was independent of the White House and Pentagon.

There is an obvious commonality between Powell and Petraeus that no doubt drives some of the media sycophancy toward them, particularly the incredulity at any suggestion that they might not be telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Both are longtime military men, and highly decorated ones at that. As I noted last week, Blitzer actually walked CNN viewers through an examination of the medals on Petraeus' chest that was more detailed than many news reports about the testimony he delivered.

Journalist Chris Hayes argues that the national discourse has come to be dominated by a "cultural and political ethos" he describes as "the Cult of the Soldier":

It's not surprising that during a time of war, civilians and politicians hold an elevated opinion of the nobility and valor of warriors. After all, it is ostensibly for our collective benefit that a tiny fraction of American citizens voluntarily endure (over and over) some of the worst horrors of human existence as both the target of violence and its implacable agent. But the Cult of the Soldier is something more than mere gratitude or appreciation. It's the insidious belief that since warriors transcend the petty and corrupt world of politics, they are uniquely equipped to make the nation's decisions about war and peace.

[...]

In sending General Petraeus to Capitol Hill, the White House was trying to have it both ways: to smuggle in a radical and unpopular agenda under the sainted mantle of an outstanding soldier. When MoveOn called this move bullshit by taking out a full-page ad in the Times accurately pointing out that Petraeus was "cooking the books" to paint a rosy picture, not only Republicans but the majority of mainstream pundits acted as if the group had violated an unspoken taboo. The Washington Post's Richard Cohen sniffed that the ad "recalls the ugly McCarthy era," adding that "MoveOn.org and the late senator from Wisconsin share a certain fondness for the low blow."

Cohen's comparison of the MoveOn ad to "the ugly McCarthy era" is an interesting one. That era draws its name from Joseph McCarthy, a United States senator from Wisconsin. McCarthy's actions can be boiled down to using the power of the United States Senate to condemn people for their political views.

The MoveOn ad in question doesn't seem to fit that bill. The ad, whatever you think of its merits or propriety, was simply a case of private citizens criticizing a government official and government policies. That isn't McCarthyism; that's private citizens exercising one of the most sacred rights a democratic nation has to offer: the right to disagree with, and criticize, the government.

But Cohen, like much of the Beltway media, ran frothing after MoveOn for more than a week, barely needing the prodding the Republicans so eagerly gave them. As Eric Boehlert explained earlier this week, MoveOn's ad got far more cable news attention than did the deaths of nine American service members in Iraq the day the ad ran -- 250 times as much. Not only that, the coverage of the ad rarely explained its actual contents or assessed its accuracy. Instead, reporters and pundits simply screeched about the outrage of the language used to describe Petraeus. Little attempt was made to assess whether the ad was right that Petraeus was misleading the Congress and the nation about Iraq. All that mattered was that his honor had been challenged. It was Petraeus that mattered, according to the media, not his testimony -- just as it was Colin Powell, not the actual merits of his presentation, that mattered to Richard Cohen in 2003.

Paul Krugman noted earlier this week:

To a remarkable extent, punditry has taken a pass on whether Gen. Petraeus's picture of the situation in Iraq is accurate. Instead, it was all about the theatrics -- about how impressive he looked, how well or poorly his Congressional inquisitors performed. And the judgment you got if you were watching most of the talking heads was that it was a big win for the administration -- especially because the famous MoveOn ad was supposed to have created a scandal, and a problem for the Democrats.

[...]

But here's the thing: new polls by CBS and Gallup show that the Petraeus testimony had basically no effect on public opinion: Americans continue to hate the war, and want out. The whole story about how the hearing had changed everything was a pure figment of the inside-the-Beltway imagination.

What I found striking about the whole thing was the contempt the pundit consensus showed for the public -- it was, more or less, "Oh, people just can't resist a man in uniform." But it turns out that they can; it's the punditocracy that can't.

And so, for more than a week, the media played along with the Republicans' absurd little game. They pretended the MoveOn ad criticized every member of the military, which it clearly did not. They acted as though there was no substance to the ad, only insult. They seemed to stipulate that Gen. Petraeus, by virtue of his title, was exempt from such criticism.

All of this came to a head yesterday, when the United States Senate voted, by a 72-25 margin, to officially condemn private citizens for criticizing their government.

Whether one agreed with the substance of the MoveOn ad or found the wording offensive, there should be something disconcerting about a government body formally condemning private citizens for criticizing the government.

Surely journalists, of all people, should recognize how chilling it is for the Senate to take such action. But I can find not a single journalist who has made that point, or even raised the question of the appropriateness of such a government action in a free society. Nor did most of the news reports about the vote include necessary context. I have not seen a single news report, for example, that told readers how frequently the United States Senate condemns citizens for speech acts critical of the government. I suspect (and hope) it is quite rare. But that context was absent from media coverage of the vote.

To be sure, there have been some journalists who have criticized the vote. Keith Olbermann and Dan Abrams and Joan Walsh, among others, noted the absurdity of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body taking the time to condemn a newspaper ad when there are more serious things going on -- like, say, a war. Others noted the hypocrisy of Republicans voting to condemn the MoveOn ad, but voting against condemnation of their ideological allies who mocked the military service of John Kerry and Max Cleland.

But I find no journalist who has yet spoken out against our elected representatives formally condemning private citizens for criticizing their government.

Isn't that, ultimately, at least as important as speaking out against private citizens for the words they use in criticizing their government?

One of the key differences between a democracy and a dictatorship is that, in the former, no one is exempt from criticism because of his or her title. America elects presidents; we do not serve kings.

In 2003, the news media believed everything Colin Powell said simply because of who he was and shouted down any who dared disagree. They based their faith in Powell's presentation on their faith in Powell -- on their stipulation that he was honorable and honest. The results were disastrous.

In 2007, another highly decorated military veteran was sent out by the Bush administration to make its case for war. Again, much of the media uncritically accepted his claims and shouted down those who disagreed. As with Powell, David Petraeus' personal honor, stipulated to by the media, seemed reason enough to believe him. No need to examine the evidence.

And this time, much of the media cheered on the United States Senate as it formally condemned American citizens for daring to be impolite in their criticism of the government.

Those journalists are not only repeating the mistakes of 2003, they're adding new ones.

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