By: Emily Vaughan
Back in 2004, when E&P Editor Greg Mitchell first proposed the idea of compiling his columns about Iraq war coverage, he met resistance. According to book editors, by the time such an anthology was published, the war would be over ? and people just wouldn’t be interested.
Yet in 2008 the war is still on, and Republican presidential hopeful John McCain famously said the U.S. could be in Iraq for the next 100 years.
Last year, when Mitchell pitched the idea again ? with many more columns he had written in the interim ? he found success. The result, “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits ? and the President ? Failed on Iraq”(Union Square Press), which has just been published to wide acclaim, features his best E&P columns plus a lot of new material and a lengthy introduction, from the patriotic run-up in early 2003 to cynicism about the surge near the end of 2007. His ninth nonfiction book, it features a preface by Bruce Springsteen, a foreword by famed war correspondent Joseph L. Galloway, and major endorsements from Bill Moyers and others.
This is hardly the first book about the Iraq invasion and occupation, but it may be the first to provide a full overview. While other books have covered pieces or aspects of the war, Mitchell chronicles the war in its entirety. “It may be through my sensibility, but it does get at the entire ups and downs of the five years,” he says.
“So Wrong for So Long” looks at the war through the lens of media coverage, and Mitchell’s book is a cautionary one. Journalists may be stereotyped as overly cynical, but it’s their greatest asset in uncovering the truth. But where was the skepticism in so much of the Iraq coverage? In the run-up to the invasion, E&P was among the minority in repeatedly attacking the grounds for war, while The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other leading papers, “put dozens of unquestioning reports on the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam’s quest for a nuclear weapon on their front pages,” Galloway writes in his foreword.
In the immediate post-9/11 era, everyone was trying to prove how patriotic they were, Mitchell recalls. Even the more “liberal” newspapers wanted to show they were strong on defense. “Who can forget the days when simply questioning the evidence of WMD in Iraq made you appear weak-kneed or even ‘French,'” he writes in the introduction.
But Mitchell’s “French” skepticism looks more like foresight today. “The fact is, at least in my mind, my warnings from four years ago, five years ago, have all proven true,” he says. “Even those that may have seemed edgy at the time have panned out.”
The columns are organized chronologically from early 2003 to late 2007, tracking the progress (or lack thereof) in Iraq and in the media’s coverage. Between columns comes much newly written material detailing events that transpired in that time period. Mitchell tackles a wide variety of issues from Abu Ghraib, the Pat Tillman cover-up, and the Judy Miller case to Stephen Colbert’s in-his-face mocking of the president at a White House Correspondents Association bash. The plight of injured soldiers ? and the shockingly high suicide rate among them ? gets repeated attention.
Mitchell focuses on three types of journalism: from Washington, from Iraq, and on the editorial pages. Each varied wildly over the five years. “Before the war, the reporting wasn’t tough enough and the editorials were more skeptical,” Mitchell says. “After the war started, it kind of flipped.”
As for the reporters in Iraq, the author often commends much of their work (after the initial “rah-rah” period) and bravery. Another recurring theme is Vietnam, a comparison that gained popularity as the war dragged on ? and one for which Mitchell says he was mocked when he brought up the analogy very early on. “Not that it was ever the same type of war,” he notes. “But having lived through the Vietnam era, I saw the same arguments, such as ‘not bugging out,’ being put forward.” (He notes that John F. Burns, the famed war reporter, in his assessment for the fifth anniversary of the war, referred to the “Iraq quagmire” as a fact, not a claim.)
Iraq coverage eventually became more critical as newspapers have followed public opinion in distrusting the president and Pentagon and disliking the war. But with further military engagements under discussion, such as interventions in Syria and Iran, Mitchell hopes his book will remind the media to be more skeptical in future coverage. “When any administration ratchets up the rhetoric, there are plenty of cases where the media just goes along with it,” he adds.