Inside TV News: We Were Silenced by the Drums of War
By Jeff Cohen
t r u t h o u t | Guest Contributor
Tuesday 26 December 2006
September 11th made 2001 a defining year in our country's history. But 2002 may have been the strangest. It began with all eyes on Osama bin Laden and ended with Osama bin Forgotten - as the White House turned its attention to Iraq. Bush's January 2003 State of the Union speech mentioned Saddam Hussein 17 times, but bin Laden not once.
Everything about my nine-month stint at cable news channel MSNBC occurred in the context of the ever-intensifying war drums over Iraq. The drums grew louder as D-Day approached, until the din became so deafening that rational journalistic thinking could not occur. Three weeks before the invasion, MSNBC Suits terminated "Donahue," their most-watched program.
For 19 weeks, I had appeared in on-air debates almost every afternoon - the last weeks heavily focused on Iraq. I adamantly opposed an invasion. I warned that it would "undermine our coalition with Muslim and Arab countries that we need to [help us] fight Al Qaeda" and would lead to "quagmire."
In October 2002, my debate segments were terminated. There was no room for me after MSNBC launched Countdown: Iraq - a daily show that seemed more keen on glamorizing a potential war than scrutinizing or debating it. The show featured retired colonels and generals resembling boys with war toys as they used props, maps and glitzy graphics to spin invasion scenarios. They reminded me of pumped-up ex-football players doing pregame analysis.
It was excruciating to be silenced while myth and misinformation went unchallenged. Military analysts typically appeared unopposed; they were presented as experts, not advocates. But their closeness to the Pentagon often obstructed independent, skeptical analysis.
When Hans Blix led UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq in November 2002 after a four-year absence, Countdown: Iraq's host asked an MSNBC military analyst, "What's the buzz from the Pentagon about Hans Blix?" The retired colonel declared that Blix was considered "something like the Inspector Clousseau of the weapons of mass destruction inspection program ... who will only remember the last thing he was told - and that he's very malleable."
Retired General Barry McCaffrey was the star military analyst on NBC and MSNBC - a hawk who pushed for an invasion every chance he got. (After the war started, McCaffrey crowed, "Thank God for the Abrams tank and the Bradley fighting vehicle." Unknown to viewers, McCaffrey sat on the board of a military contractor that pocketed millions on the Abrams and Bradley.)
As the war began, CNN news president Eason Jordan admitted that his network's military analysts were government-approved:
"I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started. I met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, here are the generals we're thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war. And we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important."
[The idea of] Pentagon-approved analysts calls to mind FAIR's protest chant: "Two, four, six, eight/Separate the press and state."
Besides military analysts, each news network featured "weapons experts" - usually without opposition or balance - to discuss the main justification for war: weapons of mass destruction. The problem for US media was that there was wide disagreement among WMD experts, with many skeptical about an Iraqi threat. The problem only worsened when UN inspectors returned and could not confirm any of the US claims.
How did MSNBC and other networks solve the problem? Management favored experts who backed the Bush view - and hired several of them as paid analysts. Networks that normally cherished shouting matches were opting for discussions of harmonious unanimity. This made for dull, predictable TV. It also helped lead our nation to war, based on false premises.
CNN and other outlets featured David Albright, a former UN inspector who repeatedly asserted before the war that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons. Asked later about his assertions, Albright pointed his finger at the White House: "I certainly accepted the administration claims on chemical and biological weapons. I figured they were telling the truth."
Another CNN expert was former CIA analyst Ken Pollack, who fervently pushed for war. He warned Oprah viewers that Saddam could use WMDs against the US homeland and was "building new capabilities as fast as he can." Later, he blamed his errant remarks about Iraq's WMDs on a "consensus" in the intelligence community: "That was not me making that claim; that was me parroting the claims of so-called experts."
Not every weapons expert had been wrong. Take ex-Marine and former UN inspector Scott Ritter. In the last months of 2002, he told any audience or journalist who would hear him that Iraqi WMDs represented no threat to our country. "Send in the inspectors," urged Ritter. "Don't send in the Marines."
It's telling that in the run-up to the war, no American TV network hired any on-air analysts from among the experts who questioned White House WMD claims. None would hire Ritter.
Inside MSNBC in 2002, Ritter was the target of a smear that he was receiving covert funds from Saddam Hussein's government. The slur was obviously aimed at reducing his media appearances. It surfaced like clockwork at MSNBC when we sought to book Ritter as a guest on "Donahue."
The irony is that MSNBC at that time regularly featured another commentator who would soon become a recipient of covert government funds. The covert funder was the Bush administration. I'm talking about pundit Armstrong Williams, who pocketed nearly a quarter of a million dollars to promote Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. When I repeatedly debated Williams at MSNBC, I had no inkling of Bush's No Pundit Left Behind program.
As war neared, MSNBC Suits turned the screws even tighter on "Donahue." They decreed that if we booked one guest who was anti-war on Iraq, we needed two who were pro-war. If we booked two guests on the left, we needed three on the right. At one staff meeting, a producer proposed booking Michael Moore and was told she'd need three right-wingers for political balance.
I thought about proposing Noam Chomsky as a guest, but our stage couldn't accommodate the 28 right-wingers we would have needed for balance.
It's says a lot about TV news that people like Phil Donahue, who correctly questioned the Iraq war, have been banished from the system. Yet I'm unaware of a single TV executive, anchor, pundit or "expert" who lost his job for getting such a huge story so totally wrong. I do know of a hawkish host on MSNBC who was taken off the air - he was kicked upstairs to become the general manager of the channel.
Many in the media who were the loudest and most dramatically wrong about Iraq have not relinquished their war drums. Today, they target Iran and argue vociferously against withdrawal from Iraq. In corporate media, few are held accountable.
Jeff Cohen is the founder of the media watch group FAIR. For years, he was a pundit on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC - as well as senior producer of MSNBC's "Donahue" in 2002/2003. This is adapted from his new book, Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.