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Friday, December 19, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

On 'Buying the War'

Like a lot of people who have followed the war in Iraq closely, and like a lot of journalists who understand that the press, with few exceptions, failed in its obligation to challenge tenaciously the administration's case for war before it began, I looked forward to the airing of the new "Bill Moyers Journal" on PBS and his 90-minute special, "Buying the War."

This is a very important story and Moyers did a good job with it. Actually, he did more than a good job; he provided a powerful indictment of an institution that is central to American democracy yet slipped at a crucial time, and Americans, who watch television more than they read newspapers, need to see this.

Ironically, this important program got off on the wrong foot with what I think is an unfair indictment, which I'll get to later.

The failure of much of the American press to uncover — and provide some prominence to — the private doubts and even the public case against the war was, in my view, its most egregious failure in my 50 years in journalism. The press has done much better in recent years, since the war began in March 2003, unraveling many of the false pretenses that sent the U.S. to war and many other stories that the Bush administration didn't want told. But it was before the war when the chips were really down, and it is usually only when a president is noticeably weakened that the press gets noticeably bolder. So this story, though not exactly new, needs to remain fresh in people's minds if the press is to do better when it is most needed.

At the outset, Moyers says, "The story of how high officials misled the country has been told." Certainly it has been made clear that almost everything the country was told about the reasons for going to war and how it would likely unfold has been shown to be wrong. Did the leaders intentionally mislead the country? People will argue about that. But the administration did, indeed, present its case to the public with a great degree of certainty in the face of what we now know were some serious internal doubts at the time, and public assessments by specialized UN agencies declaring a lack of evidence.

Seeing It, Not Just Reading About It

Moyers then goes on to say, "Yet the story of how the media bought what the White House was selling has not been told in depth on television." That, it seemed to me, was the real value of this program. To their great credit, some print news organizations such as the New York Times and The Washington Post have gone back, in print, and looked at where they went wrong. Many others have also looked at them.

But television, from which most Americans get their news, hasn't really looked at its role and hasn't really told this story in any depth. And even though those who have followed this will know most of what Moyers has put together on film, it manages to be newly revealing in many ways through interviews, especially, with TV news personalities and executives that reach even to the ongoing Oprah Winfrey show and the cancelled Phil Donohue program.

It's hard to think of anyone else who would have done this important story for American viewers other than PBS and Bill Moyers, although the excellent PBS series Frontline has also done aspects of it and has kept the Iraq conflict and its beginnings steadily in its crosshairs.

The ombudsman's office received hundreds of letters about "Buying the War." The majority were both positive comments about the program and in praise of PBS for bringing Moyers back into PBS programming on a regular basis with his new weekly "Journal." Most of those that were negative were mostly about Moyers, describing him, often more harshly than I summarize here, as a left-wing, agenda-driven propagandist who should have no place on public television.

Was He Ever Really Gone?

In December 2004, Moyers actually left PBS — and the widely-acclaimed weekly newsmagazine program "NOW with Bill Moyers" that he created three years earlier — after he and his program became the focus of attention of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and its then Chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who was concerned about the issue of "unbalanced journalism" on PBS. Tomlinson eventually stepped down after a critical CPB Inspector General's report took issue, among other things, with the manner in which the scrutiny of the NOW program was carried out.

It was recently reported by Communications Daily that Moyers has said he would invite Tomlinson on his show and that Tomlinson said he would accept such an invitation. Now that would be worth watching.

Although Moyers, who is now 72, said he was retiring from PBS in 2004, he actually was back on PBS with a seven-part series called "Faith and Reason" last year and a three-parter titled "Moyers on America."

I'm not a scholar on Moyers. I've never met him. He has been on the air only with the programs mentioned above since I started here 18 months ago. I thought those programs were well done and journalistically solid. But Moyers is definitely a force, an original, a hard-to-categorize person of many interests and talents. When he had his journalism hat on, my sense of him was tough but fair, with opposing views invited and frequently aired. I don't like labels, and I don't care whether Moyers is a "liberal." Clearly there is no shortage of conservative views on the nation's airwaves and I have always judged him on the authoritativeness of his reports.

The Associated Press story about his return by Frazier Moore says, "Moyers has never denied being a liberal, but, in his decades of interviews, he has provided a forum for people of all stripes. Many of them were individuals — both prominent and unknown — who TV otherwise overlooked."

Been There; Done That

As a top aide to President Lyndon Johnson, he was also someone familiar with the kind of predicament we now face in Iraq. Writing in USA Today, Peter Johnson says, "The media-White House dance is familiar to Moyers, who once spun the Vietnam War as a special assistant to President Johnson." Moyers told USA Today: "We circled the wagons. We didn't want to listen to the (CBS') Morley Safers and (the Associated Press') Peter Arnetts and (the New York Times') David Halberstams reporting on the ground. There's a tendency in Washington government to deal with your own view of the world without being contradicted by mischief-making journalists." But during the build-up to Iraq, he added, very few journalists made mischief, and those who questioned the administration's motives were largely ignored.

If you watch closely, Moyers manages to capture much of what went wrong and a few things that went right but were, indeed, largely ignored. This actually is a huge and complex story with lots of angles and aspects, and the ability to pull it together and bring it into focus in a 90-minute documentary is another important value of this program.

From November 2000, the time of a deadlocked election for the presidency, through 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq I was the ombudsman at The Washington Post, so I have a special interest in this subject. During those years, I wrote dozens of columns, reflecting views of readers and my own observations, which were critical of Post coverage of the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. And the Post actually was one of the better papers. As the documentary makes clear, newspapers are especially crucial because they report and uncover most of the news and television's agenda is often set by what's in the papers.

At the beginning of his program, Moyers says the administration could not have carried out this misleading of the American public "on their own; they needed a compliant press to pass on their propaganda and cheer them on." Well, there certainly was a passing along of administration statements because the press has a duty to report what they say, although they also have a duty to report what is not known about administration claims. And certainly there was some cheerleading, especially on television and among commentators, and probably some post-9/11 suspension of skepticism and challenge.

But from what was then my perspective inside one of the country's biggest and best newspapers, the problem was less a compliant press, although that label sticks to a big chunk of what is now called "the media." Rather it was, in my judgment, a disturbingly too consistent pattern of poor news judgment, mostly on the part of editors up and down the line — some of them too inexperienced for a story as serious as a war about to unfold. As one of the Post's best reporters, Walter Pincus, says in the film, "People do not have a fear of irritating the White House — certainly not at The Washington Post," or, I would add, at the New York Times or most other big daily newspapers.

The stars of "Buying the War," and properly so, were the team of reporters at the former Knight Ridder News Service Bureau in Washington who did do some excellent reporting pointing out that there was no real evidence to support some administration claims about WMD and other issues. Nobody paid much attention because they didn't have the big outlets in New York or Washington.

But there actually was a fair amount of similar reporting going on elsewhere, such as the Los Angeles Times and, especially, at the Post. But much of this at the Post, inexplicably, was buried time and again in the inside pages rather than the front page, where a newspaper tells its readers what it judges to be most important. There were some good front-page stories, to be sure. But the collective impact, in my view, of the failure to sense the importance of these other, sometimes more vague, stories diminished the idea that there was much of another case. And because this happened at the Post, it was especially important because it is a paper that other news outlets, especially television, look to for leading-edge reporting.

Different Strokes

The Post and the Times, as the two leading newspapers, played different roles. The Times had several stories that actually wound up helping the administration make its case for war. Indeed, the administration didn't seem to care much when a Times story, which absolutely would have been stamped "Top Secret," about Iraq's hunt for aluminum tubing to build centrifuges appeared on the front page. Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice all rushed to the TV talk shows to use the Times to buttress their case. But when the Times reported last year about a program to look into bank records that hadn't been authorized by Congress, the president declared that to be "disgraceful. The fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror."

The Post, on the other hand, had several stories that contradicted, or cast doubt upon, the administration's case and, as I said, too often they buried them. But in addition, the Post failed several times to cover, or provide adequate coverage of, many public events where the case against the administration's arguments was laid out. The Times did much better on that score. Examples of this can be seen in the documentary.

But I don't think it adds up to a case of compliance, at least as it applies to newspapers at the heart of the nation's news-gathering forces; rather a case of, in my view, truly bad news judgment at a couple of very important newspapers that never was addressed or corrected, as far as I could tell. It seems to me that all news organizations need to take a no-holds-barred look at how they performed, and not just at how the reporters performed, and where, specifically, they fell short.

For Openers, a Cheap Shot?

Now, back to the beginning. For such a valuable program, I thought it got off to a cheap-shot start that made me wonder if it would, indeed, capture the complexity of where and how the press fell short.

Moyers started with a March 6, 2003 White House press conference which turned out to be some two weeks before the war, although reporters did not know at the time when the invasion would begin. First, Moyers played a clip of a portion of a total softball, ready-made-for-ridicule question from one reporter, asking the president: "How is your faith guiding you?" Moyers then says the president, "at least a dozen times during this press conference will invoke 9/11 and al Qaeda to justify a preemptive attack on a country that has not attacked America. But the White House press corps will ask no hard questions tonight about those claims."

Viewers would have no way to know that that is not exactly correct or fair, at least in my opinion. First, it's too simple to suggest that in this press conference, Bush linked 9/11 and al Qaeda to Iraq a dozen times. He did, at one point, claim that Saddam "has trained and financed al Qaeda-type organizations before," and he did say that as long as "there's a terrorist network like al Qaeda, and others willing to fund them, finance them, equip them — we're at war." But his main point, as I watched the news conference and then read the transcript, was that "September the 11th changed the strategic thinking" and that "we not only must chase down al Qaeda terrorists, we must deal with weapons of mass destruction, as well" which is what he claimed Saddam Hussein had.

Ironically, Moyers point is more broadly correct. The administration repeatedly has sought to tie al Qaeda and 9/11 to Iraq to justify this war. But it was the alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, viewed in the aftermath of 9/11, that were at the heart of this particular press conference, at least as I read it.

And, while this may not have been the world's toughest grilling of a chief executive, the White House press corps did not exactly rollover.

Here Are the Questions. You Be the Judge

Here are some of the questions that were asked:

"You . . . and your top advisors . . . have repeatedly said that we have shared with our allies all the current, up-to-date intelligence information that proves the imminence of the threat we face from Saddam Hussein . . . If all these nations, all of them our normal allies, have access to the same intelligence information, why is it that they are reluctant to think that the threat is so real, so imminent that we need to move to the brink of war now?"

"During the recent demonstrations, many of the protestors suggested that the U.S. was a threat to peace, which prompted you to wonder out loud why they didn't see Saddam Hussein as a threat to peace. I wonder why you think so many people around the world take a different view of the threat that Saddam Hussein poses than you and your allies."

"How would you answer your critics who say that they think this is somehow personal? As Senator Kennedy put it tonight, he said your fixation with Saddam Hussein is making the world a more dangerous place."

"In the past several weeks, your policy on Iraq has generated opposition from the governments of France, Russia, China, Germany, Turkey, the Arab League and many other countries, opened a rift at NATO and at the U.N., and drawn millions of ordinary citizens around the world into the streets in anti-war protests. May I ask, what went wrong that so many governments and people around the world now not only disagree with you very strongly, but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power?"

"There are a lot of people in this country — as much as half, by polling standards — who agree that he should be disarmed, who listen to you say that you have the evidence, but who feel they haven't seen it, and who still wonder why blood has to be shed if he hasn't attacked us."

"As you know, not everyone shares your optimistic vision of how this might play out. Do you ever worry, maybe in the wee, small hours, that you might be wrong and they might be right in thinking that this could lead to more terrorism, more anti-American sentiment, more instability in the Middle East?"

"When it comes to the financial costs of the war, sir, it would seem that the administration, surely, has costed out various scenarios. If that's the case, why not present some of them to the American people so they know what to expect, sir?"

"Fifty thousand Americans died. The regime is still there in Hanoi, and it hasn't harmed or threatened a single American in the 30 years since the war ended. What can you say tonight, sir, to the sons and the daughters of the Americans who served in Vietnam to assure them that you will not lead this country down a similar path in Iraq?"

So, in my view, this program didn't get off to a good start. But all's well that ends well.


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