How to be an American Journalist: Part I—Dan Rather says it best. “We didn’t do a good job.” On Bill Moyers’ 90-minute dissection of U.S. media in the run-up to military action in Iraq, “Buying the War,” Rather’s shown crying on Lettermen when discussing Ground Zero, saying he’ll get in line where the president needs him to get in line.
My jaw dropped at that clip alone. It was familiar. I’d seen it before, maybe even at the time it first aired, but somehow in the panic of the day, it passed under every hyper-vigilant ethics breech detection scanner. Dan Rather, the face of the CBS Evening News for 24 years, was willing to do what the president needed him to do—wave a flag, avoid throwing hardball questions to the government and help make the Iraq-9/11 connection.
Hey, dude knows his business.
Bush may have been the “chief salesman” of the war in Iraq, but he had plenty of company flacks helping him make the case. The company? America. The flacks? Sadly, our journalists.
“Buying the War” aired on PBS Wednesday, April 25. You can watch the whole damning investigation into media gone patriotic on the PBS website. Maybe sometimes the public doesn’t need the watchdogs. Maybe the prescription for a country reeling is flags and fervor, war drums and unity--not questions. Maybe sometimes we don’t need hard-nosed journalists digging where no one wants them to dig.
Yet in 20/20 hindsight, questions are what we needed most. As the executives and anchors and reporters and columnists backpedal and apologize, or even straight-up admit failure on Moyers’ program, a scary portrait of big-time media companies emerges.
How to be an American Journalist:
Step One: Avoid the wrath of advertisers—CEO of CNN, Walter Isaacson, talks of the patriot police, who came knocking after the channel reported the civilian casualties of early military action in Afghanistan. “Big people in corporations were calling up and saying, ‘You’re being anti-American here.’”
Step Two: Cater to your public—It’s not that there wasn't anyone writing stories criticizing the Hussein-9/11 link. Warren Strobel wrote some of them for the Knight-Ridder chain. Most papers just chose not to run them. After the initial photos of the chaos in Afghanistan, papers received hundreds of letters.
Step Three: Stay ahead of the curve but not out on a limb—Specialists raising questions about weapons of mass destruction ran on page 18 of the Washington Post, though the paper ran 140 front-page stories making the case for war in seven short months.
Step Four: Cut costs in the newsroom—It’s journalism on the cheap. Hire columnists and pundits to go after one another and call it balance. It’s much less expensive and less work-intensive than hiring investigative reporting teams. Opinions are like paychecks: Every ill-informed loudmouth’s got one.
Step Five: Dissent is bad for business—Staring down flag-waving competitors like FOX “News,” Phil Donohue’s somewhat war-skeptical show was taken off the air 22 days before the invasion. “The drum was beating, everybody wanted to bomb somebody,” says Donohue.
In the end, soldiers at war have a largely unpunished media to thank for their thankless job, the impossible task of finding an achievable mission in Iraq. And the heads can apologize for a job done wrong as much as they’d like. But Moyers’ special should be remembered the next time unrestrained fervor leads to shoddy journalism. That might be worth thinking about as we approach conflict with Iran.