In fact, two years earlier in February 2001 at a meeting with Egypt's foreign minister in Cairo, Secretary Powell defended the U.N. sanctions program already in place against Iraq. He noted the success of U.S. containment of Hussein and regarding the sanctions, he explained that, "Frankly, they have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors."
Of course, Secretary Powell was right the first time. But many members of the news media proved eager accomplices in this misinformation campaign, just as they had during the Gulf of Tonkin episode that began America's disastrous involvement in Vietnam. During this incident, newspapers and newsweeklies published lurid accounts of a battle that never took place based on fabricated stories passed along to them by the Johnson administration — a depressing phenomenon that I describe in great detail in my book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Presidential Deception And Its Consequences. The media again fell victim to presidential deception as the Bush administration pushed for the invasion of Iraq.
Gilbert Cranberg, former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, examined the media reaction to Powell's U.N. presentation in great detail. Cranberg observed that the secretary's speech "cited almost no verifiable sources, and was filled with unattributed assertions, vague references, and the like." Despite this, virtually everyone in the mainstream media swallowed it hook, line, and proverbial sinker.
Surveying the print and broadcast coverage of the speech, Cranberg found descriptions of Powell's presentation that claimed it was "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," and "a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information." Furthermore, the media concluded that "the core of his argument was unassailable," that it was "a smoking fusillade … a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable," "an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence," and that "only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction." Further attacking those who did not support the war, the media argued that "the skeptics asked for proof; they now have it," claiming the presentation was "a much more detailed and convincing argument than any that has previously been told," "an ironclad case … incontrovertible evidence," "succinct and damning evidence … the case is closed" — and the list continues.
I was reminded of the panic over Iraq's imaginary WMD cache recently not only because this month marks the 10th anniversary of the invasion, but also because the Pew Research Center released its annual "State of the News Media" report this week. According to a section titled "Lessons Learned About the Media from the 2012 Election," the authors observe that:
Journalists are a shrinking source in shaping the candidate narratives, while campaigns and partisans have assumed a much larger role in defining the press discourse. Reporters (and talk show personalities) account for about half as many of the assertions about the candidates' character and biography as they did 12 years ago — 27 percent versus 50 percent in 2000. At the same time, campaigns, their surrogates and allies now account for nearly half of these themes, 48 percent, up from 37 percent in 2000. That shift, giving partisans a bigger role in shaping the media narrative, has been gradual and may reflect in part the shrinking reportorial resources in newsrooms.
In other words, the reporting profession is actually moving away from the ideal that their job is not to simply repeat what their sources say — nor to give them unmediated access to their audiences — but instead to submit the claims to tough-minded scrutiny. When combined with the flight from reality that characterizes the modern conservative movement and drives both the words and actions of Republican candidates, we now have a formula for more disinformation in the future, and sadly, more catastrophes akin to the Iraq invasion.
No one can predict where and when these potential calamities will occur. But when a democracy is constantly fed misinformation, and those charged with correcting it pass it along unedited and unchecked, bad things happen. Iraq may be the worst of these — let us hope — but it certainly won't be the last.