Bill Moyers’ “Buying the War” Documentary

April 25, 2007 at 10:14 pm | Posted in American politics, Bush Administration, Media, War, War on Terror | 11 Comments

(UPDATED)

I just finished watching Bill Moyers’ “Buying the War” documentary.

In “Buying the War” Bill Moyers and producer Kathleen Hughes document the reporting of Walcott, Landay and Strobel, the Knight Ridder team that burrowed deep into the intelligence agencies to try and determine whether there was any evidence for the Bush Administration’s case for war. “Many of the things that were said about Iraq didn’t make sense,” says Walcott. “And that really prompts you to ask, ‘Wait a minute. Is this true? Does everyone agree that this is true? Does anyone think this is not true?’”

In the run-up to war, skepticism was a rarity among journalists inside the Beltway. Journalist Bob Simon of 60 Minutes, who was based in the Middle East, questioned the reporting he was seeing and reading. “I mean we knew things or suspected things that perhaps the Washington press corps could not suspect. For example, the absurdity of putting up a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda,” he tells Moyers. “Saddam…was a total control freak. To introduce a wild card like Al Qaeda in any sense was just something he would not do. So I just didn’t believe it for an instant.” The program analyzes the stream of unchecked information from administration sources and Iraqi defectors to the mainstream print and broadcast press, which was then seized upon and amplified by an army of pundits. While almost all the claims would eventually prove to be false, the drumbeat of misinformation about WMDs went virtually unchallenged by the media. THE NEW YORK TIMES reported on Iraq’s “worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb,” but according to Landay, claims by the administration about the possibility of nuclear weapons were highly questionable. Yet, his story citing the “lack of hard evidence of Iraqi weapons” got little play. In fact, throughout the media landscape, stories challenging the official view were often pushed aside while the administration’s claims were given prominence. “From August 2002 until the war was launched in March of 2003 there were about 140 front page pieces in THE WASHINGTON POST making the administration’s case for war,” says Howard Kurtz, the POST’s media critic. “But there was only a handful of stories that ran on the front page that made the opposite case. Or, if not making the opposite case, raised questions.”

“Buying the War” examines the press coverage in the lead-up to the war as evidence of a paradigm shift in the role of journalists in democracy and asks, four years after the invasion, what’s changed? “More and more the media become, I think, common carriers of administration statements and critics of the administration,” says THE WASHINGTON POST’s Walter Pincus. “We’ve sort of given up being independent on our own.”

This was an excellent documentary. It wasn’t refined, spectacular, but just good hard journalism at work. ( Here is the transcript ) The most astounding part came right at the start. The documentary starts with Bush’s press conference two weeks before the war begins. You can hear Bush himself state it, “it’s a script.” The press conference was scripted just so. Bush would call on certain “journalists” who would lob softballs at him, questions such as “how does your faith help you in this moment?” and other such astoundingly absurd questions to ask two weeks before the war starts.

I remember well those awful dark days before the run up to the war. I kept asking myself, what is going on? How can this be? I remember Colin Powell stating in February 2001 about the sanctions in Iraq working. He said:

We had a good discussion, the Foreign Minister and I and the President and I, had a good discussion about the nature of the sanctions — the fact that the sanctions exist — not for the purpose of hurting the Iraqi people, but for the purpose of keeping in check Saddam Hussein’s ambitions toward developing weapons of mass destruction. We should constantly be reviewing our policies, constantly be looking at those sanctions to make sure that they are directed toward that purpose. That purpose is every bit as important now as it was ten years ago when we began it. And frankly they have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors. So in effect, our policies have strengthened the security of the neighbors of Iraq…

That one briefing that he gave (along with his comments about North Korea in March 2001, which Bush himself publicly rebuked Powell the day after) led me to believe that this Bush administration was not going to be forthcoming, and that I should not trust what they said.

This documentary shows quite well that most Americans had no clue, because well, the media did not give them a big enough clue, that the Bush administration was lying through their teeth. They were doing it so frequently, and they had the platform to do it in (the media) that dissenting views were stifled. Another masterful point in the documentary came when talking about Phil Donahue’s show on MSNBC. He was told by his higher-ups that if he were to have a Scott Ritter on the show, he must have a war proponent there with Mr. Ritter. However, if he were to have a Richard Perle on his show, he didn’t need to find a war dissenter to counter Mr. Perle. More importantly, he was to have two conservatives for every liberal on the show. Now, why did MSNBC feel the need to do this? Why because of none other than Fox News, their main competitor.

These last six years will be viewed as an embarrassment by all future generations of Americans. I hope we become more skeptical of anything that comes out of the mouths of our political and military leaders, and not trust the media to tell us the truth in the future, but I’m not holding my breath.

Finally, these are my comments to Mr. Moyers on his program this evening:

Thank you for your efforts. They did not go unnoticed. I remember reading many of your stories and wondering the very same thing.

Two important points I wish this documentary addressed.

1. In the documentary, Mr. Moyers talks about the UN Inspectors leaving Iraq in 1998. His wording seemed to reflect the “conventional wisdom” pressed hard by neo-conservatives that Saddam kicked the inspectors out, which was not the case at all. In fact, it was President Clinton who ordered them out after the Americans were discovered to be spying on Iraq. I wonder why this bit of information was not disclosed in this documentary. It shows that this failure on the part of the media was certainly around from even before 9/11.

2. Colin Powell stated in February 2001 in a press conference with the Egyptian foreign minister that sanctions in Iraq worked and that Saddam was not really a threat. His own words:

We had a good discussion, the Foreign Minister and I and the President and I, had a good discussion about the nature of the sanctions — the fact that the sanctions exist — not for the purpose of hurting the Iraqi people, but for the purpose of keeping in check Saddam Hussein’s ambitions toward developing weapons of mass destruction. We should constantly be reviewing our policies, constantly be looking at those sanctions to make sure that they are directed toward that purpose. That purpose is every bit as important now as it was ten years ago when we began it. And frankly they have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors. So in effect, our policies have strengthened the security of the neighbors of Iraq…

I was disappointed that this bit of information was also not present in the documentary. Ms. Rice also said something to the same effect in the summer of 2001 (all of course before the paradigm-shifting 9/11, as Donald Rumsfeld liked to point out often).

Otherwise, I appreciate greatly the efforts of Mr. Moyers and all those who participated with him in shedding more light on one of our darkest hours.

(Update)

Christy Hardin Smith writes at Firedoglake about her thoughts on the documentary:

Having done graduate work in security studies and had classes through the years with people who have actually looked at these issues for a living, I can honestly tell you that certainty of the evidence on something like this is a dead giveaway that someone is selling you a load of crap.

The White House Iraq Group did an excellent sales job. And the people that should have been the most skeptical fell for it hook, line, and sinker…because it was easier that way on their immediate personal connections, on their reputations, on their corporate bottom line. And on their immediate political aspirations, in the case of far too many elected representatives.

After watching the Moyers special last night, I was infuriated. This morning, sipping my first cup of coffee and trying to make some sense of it all, I’m still angry. So I’m going to watch it again later, with a pot of tea, and see if I can glean something beyond “the truth really, really hurts…all of us.”

Barry Yourgrau writes in the Huffington Post about the notable absence of a review on the New York Times of Moyers’ documentary.

Welcome to the post-David Halberstam NY Times. Where today they write up the rapper-Imus nexus and some “controversial” book about mothers who stay at home. And a PBS show about Roosevelt.

But nada about this country being conned into a war: a conjob in broad daylight, that is, with cameras running.

The con job continues right in front of our eyes, right in broad daylight.

Digby writes:

I guess it’s not so surprising that the NY Times didn’t bother to review this. It’s cowardly, however.

Those of us who have been following this story in depth from the beginning know most of this, of course. But I’m glad that Moyers has amassed the footage and put it all in one place so that people can see it again in its glory. It’s a big story and I’ll be interested to see how many of the most dizzying moments during that long national acid trip Moyers was able to capture…

A whole bunch of America sat there watching these sycophantic performances with our jaws agape, wondering if we had lost our minds. Bush was barely articulate, as usual, mouthing the worst kind of puerile platitudes (when he was coherent at all) while the press corps slavered over him as if he were Cicero. Bush, the clearly in-over-his-head man-child was molded into a hero and cheered by the media as he led this country into the dark, morass of an illegal war in the middle east. It was the most disorienting thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.

There are many similar memories of that bizarre period, which, looking back, I realize were a strange kind of book-end to the equally freakish Clinton impeachment — the earlier story marked by its triviality and the latter by its terrible seriousness. Yet the press behaved in both as if they were cheerleaders for the Republican line not skeptics or fact-finders (and certainly not truth-tellers) while half the American public and most of the world looked on in utter disbelief. It was a very bad time. And I wasn’t sure if we would ever be able to sort it all out. I’m still not.

Matt Taibbi wrote about the shady press conference way back in 2003:

The Bush press conference to me was like a mini-Alamo for American journalism, a final announcement that the press no longer performs anything akin to a real function. Particularly revolting was the spectacle of the cream of the national press corps submitting politely to the indignity of obviously pre-approved questions, with Bush not even bothering to conceal that the affair was scripted.

Abandoning the time-honored pretense of spontaneity, Bush chose the order of questioners not by scanning the room and picking out raised hands, but by looking down and reading from a predetermined list. Reporters, nonetheless, raised their hands in between questions–as though hoping to suddenly catch the president’s attention.

In other words, not only were reporters going out of their way to make sure their softballs were pre-approved, but they even went so far as to act on Bush’s behalf, raising their hands and jockeying in their seats in order to better give the appearance of a spontaneous news conference.

Even Bush couldn’t ignore the absurdity of it all. In a remarkable exchange that somehow managed to avoid being commented upon in news accounts the next day, Bush chided CNN political correspondent John King when the latter overacted his part, too enthusiastically waving his hand when it apparently was, according to the script, his turn anyway.

KING: “Mr. President.”

BUSH: “We’ll be there in a minute. King, John King. This is a scripted…”

A ripple of nervous laughter shot through the East Room. Moments later, the camera angle of the conference shifted to a side shot, revealing a ring of potted plants around the presidential podium. It would be hard to imagine an image that more perfectly describes American political journalism today: George Bush, surrounded by a row of potted plants, in turn surrounded by the White House press corps.

“This is scripted.” Indeed, Mr. President. Indeed.

(Update)

Digby writes about another incident of someone speaking out and losing her job because she spoke out against the media establishment and the way they drove the war. Highly recommended reading.

Perhaps someone with more stature than Banfield could have gotten away with that speech and maybe it might have even been taken seriously, who knows? But the object lesson could not have been missed by any of the ambitious up and comers in the news business. If a TV journalist publicly spoke the truth anywhere about war, the news, even their competitors — and Banfield spoke the truth in that speech — their career was dead in the water. Even the girl hero of 9/11 (maybe especially the girl hero of 9/11) could not get away with breaking the CW code of omerta and she had to pay.

She’s now a co-anchor on a Court TV show.

11 Comments »

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. Watching the build up before the
    invasion of Iraq everyday it was like watching an informercial
    where the salesman was yelling , “BUY IT NOW ! BUY
    IT NOW BEFORE THE PRICE GOES UP ! HAVE I GOT
    DEAL FOR YOU! BUT WAIT THERE IS MORE!”

  2. you should listen to this
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/ontheropes/pip/sy4r8/

    On The Ropes – a BBCradio interview with Hans Blix. I learned a lot about who wanted what, and why, before the war, and what they were prepared to do to get it.

  3. RALPH,

    Thank you for that very cogent perspective. It really was like a crappy infomercial we see at like 2am on sleepless nights.

    Anne,

    Thanks for sharing that. I remember Hans Blix and what he kept saying, how he was derided by war proponents, but in the end was right all along.

  4. Ol’ Mr. Moyer should know about “buying” things… Moyer runs a foundation that funnels significant money to left wing organizations, like TomPaine.com, which was conveniently run by his son John. TomPaine repeatedly attacks Republicans, and warns that the United States is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state.

    So while taxpayers were flipping the bill for Bill to speak on PBS, he was funding liberal causes behind the scenes. Shouldn’t PBS have made that public in the interest of fairness???

  5. Heh, nice red herring, Mr. Hospitaller.

  6. Just some fun facts on the side… ;)

  7. It’s called a logical fallacy dude.

  8. “It’s called a logical fallacy dude.”

    Exactly, that IS what YOU call facts isn’t it???

  9. nope, you can have logical fallacies with lies too.

  10. As evidenced by all of your posts. :)

  11. you mean your comments?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com. | The Pool Theme.
Entries and comments feeds.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: