CNN Makes News with WMD Special, But Press Deserves Blame, Too

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By: Greg Mitchell

A documentary to be aired on CNN this Sunday night on the “intelligence meltdown” on Iraq before the U.S. invasion is already making news. On Friday, CNN said that in the program, “Dead Wrong,” a former top aide to Colin Powell calls his involvement in the former secretary of state’s presentation to the United Nations on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction “the lowest point” in his life.

“I wish I had not been involved in it,” Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a longtime Powell adviser who served as his chief of staff from 2002 through 2005, told CNN. He said the information in Powell’s presentation came from a document he described as “sort of a Chinese menu” that was provided by the White House. “It was anything but an intelligence document,” he added, with some assertions based on the word of known fabricators.

While the long-awaited program is sure to revive interest, and anger, over the administration’s false selling of the war on the basis of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, it may well leave the press off the hook. [Update: The show, as viewed Sunday night, offered a brief glimpse of a crucial, and faulty, New York Times story co-authored by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller.] Yet it was the media’s swallowing of the false claims in Powell’s crucial speech that enabled the march to war to continue.

E&P raised questions about the credibility of the Powell speech at the time and was critical of the press coverage from the start. Then, two years ago, it presented the first in-depth demolition of the Powell speech, provided by Charles J. Hanley, special correspondent for the Associated Press. E&P called the Powell charade the turning point in the march to war, and charged that the media, in almost universally declaring that he had “made the case,” fell for it, hook, line and sinker, thereby making the invasion (which some of the same newspapers later questioned) inevitable.

It’s a depressing case study of journalistic shirking of responsibility. The press essentially acted like a jury that is ready, willing and (in this case) able to deliver a verdict ? after the prosecution has spoken and before anyone else is heard or the evidence studied. As media writer Mark Jurkowitz put it at the time in the Boston Globe, Powell’s speech may not have convinced France of the need to topple Saddam but “it seemed to work wonders on opinion makers and editorial shakers in the media universe.”

The San Francisco Chronicle called the speech “impressive in its breadth and eloquence.” The Denver Post likened Powell to “Marshal Dillon facing down a gunslinger in Dodge City,” adding that he had presented “not just one ‘smoking gun’ but a battery of them.” The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune called Powell’s case “overwhelming,” while The Oregonian in Portland found it “devastating.” To The Hartford (Ct.) Courant it was “masterful.” The Plain Dealer in Cleveland deemed it “credible and persuasive.”

One can only laugh, darkly, at the San Jose (Ca.) Mercury News asserting that Powell made his case “without resorting to exaggeration, a rhetorical tool he didn’t need.” The San Antonio Express-News called the speech “irrefutable,” adding, “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.”

And what of the two giants of the East? The Washington Post echoed others who found Powell’s evidence “irrefutable.” That paper’s liberal columnist, Mary McGrory, wrote that Powell “persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince.” She even likened the Powell report to the day John Dean “unloaded” on Nixon in the Watergate hearings. George Will said Powell’s speech would “change all minds open to evidence.”

Another Post liberal, Richard Cohen, opined: “The evidence he presented to the United Nations — some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail — 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.”

Here’s the Post’s Jim Hoagland: “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.”

The New York Times, meanwhile, hailed Powell’s “powerful” and “sober, factual case.” Like many other papers, the Times’ coverage on its news pages ? in separate stories by Steven Weisman, Michael Gordon and Adam Clymer ? also bent over backward to give Powell the benefit of nearly every doubt. Apparently in thrall to Powell’s moderate reputation, no one even mentioned that he was essentially acting as lead prosecutor with every reason to shape, or even create, facts to fit his brief.

Weisman called Powell’s evidence “a nearly encyclopedic catalog that reached further than many had expected.” He and Clymer both recalled Adlai Stevenson’s speech to the U.N. in 1962 exposing Soviet missiles in Cuba. Gordon closed his piece by asserting that “it will be difficult for skeptics to argue that Washington’s case against Iraq is based on groundless suspicions and not intelligence information.” Try reading that with a straight face today.

One recalls two quotes garnered by Howard Kurtz last year when he took a look back at the Washington Post’s pre-war coverage.

“There was an attitude among editors: Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all the contrary stuff?” — Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks.

“We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.” — Reporter Karen Young.

Why does any of this matter? It’s fashionable to suggest that the White House was bent on war and nothing could have stopped them. But until the Powell speech, public opinion, editorial sentiment (as chronicled by E&P at the time) and street protests were all building against the war.

The Powell speech, and the media’s swallowing of it, changed all that.

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