On This Iraq Anniversary, Recalling the Shame of the ‘Free Press’

With such powerful forces determined to use 9/11 as a justification to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein for good, the American people really didn’t have a chance in proverbial hell to stop it. As Woodrow Wilson knew with the U.S. entry into WWI, the media must play a central role in controlling the message, mainstraining public support, and crushing all dissent threatening that support.

Wilson, for his part, created the Committee for Public Information and put an accomplished investigative journalist George Creel in charge of it. According to writer and historian Brandon Buck, the committee "shot propaganda through every capillary in the American bloodstream," including and most importantly, the press.

It may not be how all American wars are won, but it is certainly how they are fought, at least at home. Ted Carpenter has written extensively on this, in his recent Unreliable Watchdog: the News Media and US Foreign Policy, in which he painstakingly details how the Fourth Estate both wittingly and coercively played a role in carrying out Washington’s militarist goals dating back to the Spanish-American War.

But wow, with Iraq, now 20-years in the rearview, it was so much easier. By that time, major media ownership – from the top TV and radio networks on down – were consolidating until they would be owned by just eight major corporations in 2006 and six in 2012 thanks to President Clinton signing the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Where the Internet was supposed to herald an age of limitless information and free speech, it too, has been corporatized and monopolized, with Meta, Google and Amazon playing god and jackboot at the same time.

The ground was fertile for war in 2002 and the media lived up to its reputation. It was not only compliant but served as gatekeepers for the Bush Administration and its handmaidens in the foreign policy establishment in the run up to the invasion on March 20, 2003. The New York Times’ Judy Miller and Michael Gordon were able to peddle the WMD myth without pushback; the paper’s editor, Bill Keller would declare himself a member of the "I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk-Club." The neocon Weekly Standard ran a number of specious stories connecting Al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, those who did not conform were cast out, including Phil Donahue, who lost his MSNBC talk show just before the war, he says, because he did not support the invasion. He’s only the most high profile loss. Quietly so many more were marginalized and silenced, mostly through professional self-censorship.

To say the Iraq War is a stain on the profession is an understatement, considering the trillions of US taxpayer dollars spent, the thousands of American servicemen and women and their families impacted, the deaths and displacement of millions in Iraq and the region, and the evisceration of trust in our institutions that carries on to this day.

My own journey took me from FoxNews.com at the start of war to the American Conservative and Antiwar.com, which has been a beacon for the skeptical and open minded since the Bosnian War in 1995. Today as editorial director of Responsible Statecraft, I help, in part, to watchdog the media coverage in Ukraine, which again, has been captured by the Washington establishment narrative, at the expense of independent reporting and alternative views about what the US role should be there.

To commemorate the 2003 anniversary, I’ll be joining Jonathan Landay, who was one of the only mainstream reporters to challenge the WMD narrative back then, along with Peter Beinart and moderator Krystal Ball, for a special Quincy Institute discussion this Wednesday in D.C. (March 22) about the media march to war. Co-sponsors include Breaking Points, the John Quincy Adams Society, and The Nation magazine. This is open to the public, and will be followed by a reception. Please follow this link for details and to RSVP.

Reminding ourselves of the media’s dark role in war is so important. As we can see, without a course correction, the press’s default is to lean into willing complicity every time.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is Editorial Director of Responsible Statecraft and Senior Advisor at the Quincy Institute. She was a regular news writer and reporter for Antiwar.com from 2009 to 2014. She served for three years as Executive Editor of the The American Conservative magazine, where she had been reporting and publishing regular articles on national security, civil liberties, foreign policy, veterans, and Washington politics since 2007. From 2013 to 2017, Vlahos served as director of social media and online editor at WTOP News in Washington, D.C. She also spent 15 years as an online political reporter for Fox News at the channel’s Washington D.C. bureau, as well as Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine.