by Kevin Howley
Associate Professor of Communication, DePauw University
Kevin Howley 2005.jpg
Scott McClellan’s memoir What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception continues to make headlines nearly two weeks after the former White House press secretary released his tell-all book about the Bush Administration’s efforts to manipulate public opinion on the war in Iraq. No small feat when you consider that two weeks is an eternity in the modern news cycle — not to mention the fact that there have been a few dramatic developments in the Democratic presidential primary race in recent days.
McClellan’s revelations are not simply an indictment of the Bush administration’s deceptions. He argues that mainstream media were complicit in selling Bush’s war to the American people like so much snake oil. According to McClellan, “The national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House.” Further, he argues that by “enabling” the administration’s propaganda efforts, the press failed to fulfill its critical role as a watchdog of the powerful.
As with most high-profile news stories these days, this one has generated more heat than light. Not surprisingly, the Republican attack machine has been operating at full throttle to discredit McClellan — and the press dutifully records all of it. Likewise, journalists and pundits have wagged incessantly about McClellan’s motivations, how these revelations might affect the general election, and what all of this might mean for the Bush legacy.
While the mainstream media has been all over this story, there is a predictable lack of candor regarding the substantive claims McClellan has made regarding press performance during the lead up to the Iraq invasion. According to the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), most working journalists are in a state of denial regarding the media’s complicity in supporting the Bush Administration’s rush to war.
However, FAIR does note that a few journalists have fessed up to the media’s complicity in promoting White House spin. For instance, former MSNBC correspondent Jessica Yellin, (now working for cable news competitor CNN), told her colleague Anderson Cooper that network executives pressured her to avoid pieces that were critical of the administration’s war plans.
CBS’s Katie Couric also confirmed McClelland’s accusations in a highly publicized discussion of the issue with her fellow broadcast news anchors, Brian Williams of NBC and Charlie Gibson of ABC. Although you have to wonder if Couric would have been quite so forthcoming if her position as anchor of the CBS Evening News were more secure.
For their part, neither Gibson nor Williams are willing to acknowledge the magnitude of the press failures surrounding the Iraq war. Cable news stalwarts Wolf Blitzer and Chris Matthews likewise defended their respective outlets’ pre-war reporting. With a few notable exceptions, then, the press corps fails to appreciate the implications this episode might have for the future of American journalism.
For my money, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert got it right when he suggested that McClellan’s decision to blow the whistle on the Bush Administration’s deceptions and obfuscations “really took balls … five years ago.” Colbert’s point is clear — unless of course you are a permanent resident of the Beltway bubble.
If McClellan really was troubled with the White House’s war propaganda and the press corps’ “deferential” treatment to administration mouthpieces, he should have spoken up (and out) sooner. If he had done so, perhaps the United States would not have invaded Iraq in the first place — and we wouldn’t be on the verge of yet another military adventure.
All of which is to suggest that unlike so-called professional journalists and news organizations, Comedy Central’s Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart have connected the dots between McClellan’s allegations, the New York Times’ recent expose on the Pentagon-sponsored program of putting paid, pro-war military pundits on broadcast and cable news programs, and the increasingly belligerent rhetoric of administration officials, neo-cons and presidential hopefuls aimed at Iran.
And so, while the media plays gotcha with McClellan and company, official Washington is gearing up for a military showdown with Tehran. Tragically, the U.S. press corps is, once again, uncritically repeating the hawks’ specious arguments. As baseball hall of famer and sometime philosopher Yogi Berra would put it: It’s deja vu all over again.
The rub here is that “fake news” shows, like the Colbert Report and The Daily Show, exhibit the clear-eyed skepticism that is, or should be, the hallmark of high-caliber journalism. And that’s no laughing matter.
Kevin Howley is Associate Professor of Media Studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at [email protected]