The Emperor’s Old Clothes

Bill Moyers has long been one of the sharpest and most in-depth voices in American Media, a journalist who can take us deeper into a story than almost any other. In his recent look at American media failures in the run up to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, Buying the War, he demonstrates that even in 2007, he is still one of the sharpest tools in the shed. It’s a relentlessly detailed time line of the media reporting of the case for war in the last part of 2002 and early 2003 that would be comical to watch were it not frighteningly true, chronicling the misstatements, exaggerations, and spin of media pundits as the Bush administration laid out the case for the Iraq war. Its a long piece, but definitely well worth the time.

I was alerted to the Bill Moyer’s piece through another excellent article by Glenn Greenwald over at Salon. I won’t deconstruct his deconstruction of the Moyers’ documentary here, except to say that its an excellent companion to the film, and one of the important points Greenwald highlights is that the problems Moyers identifies from 2002 and 2003 are largely still here because the people he identifies in the documentary, like Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and others, are still being used as expert commentary even having never answered for their false commentary from the run-up to the war. At the end of his piece, Greenwald nods to a genius cartoonist, Tom Tomorrow (I’ve pointed Tom Tomorrow out before here) and his lampoon of pundits 4 years later, and the quotes he uses read like a who’s who of current “media stars” (For the record, I LOVE the Bill O’Reilly quote he starts it off with … “I will bet you the best dinner in the gas light district of San Diego that military action will not last more than a week.” 01/29/2003). Its fascinating to re-read the quotes again. and I don’t think its unfair to ask how many times you can be wrong and still be considered an expert on something.

Interestingly enough, Greenwald also touched on the failure of the media to accurately report a story, and on the ability of the government to manufacture the storyline they need, the previous day when he talked about Congressional efforts to investigate the Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman affairs. In both cases, the military made up heroic stories in the immediate aftermaths of the respective incidents, stories that later turned out to be almost entirely false. As with the Iraq War intelligence, the media in general barely questioned the official stories of Tillman and Lynch for quite awhile … it was another example of the uncritical nature of media in 21st century. As I mentioned in a previous post (and again something brought to my attention through Greenwald), the state of mainstream media is so bad that “covering what the White House does, not just what it says” is actually, LITERALLY, grounds for a Pulitzer Prize, apparently.

But its worth pointing out, as well, that none of this is terribly new. What happened in 2002 and 2003 wasn’t a fundamental collapse of an institution … it was business as usual at least as far back as the first Gulf War. In all the talk of manufactured stories, of spoon-fed media, of a mainstream media in the pockets of Washington Power structure back in 2002 and 2003 as the case was made for the war in Iraq, no one is really bothering to mention that the same thing happened back in 1990 and 1991 in the run up to the first Gulf War. It wasn’t wild accusations of WMD’s, or threats of mushroom clouds in 1991, of course … in that case it was Iraqi soldiers brutally bayoneting poor, defenseless Kuwaiti babies in the maternity ward of of the Al Adan Hospital in Kuwait City, courtesy of compelling testimony by a “volunteer nurse.” Of course, months later, after the war and after it mattered, it became clear that she was a fiction, created “out of whole cloth” by the Hill and Knowlton PR firm, hired to literally sell the war to the American people. Their “sales pitch” was Nurse Nayirah, and she was on all the TV news programs, talk shows and morning shows, recounting her tail of atrocities by Iraqi soldiers with very little critical comment from the media.

The Moyers documentary is an excellent examination of the failures of the American Media in the run-up to the Iraq war, and I think its worth a watch for everyone, especially to remind us who said what, and when as far as the case for the war in Iraq is concerned. It is perhaps the first full examination of the failures by American television media, so in that respect, at least, its worth paying attention to. Glenn Greenwald can always be counted on to pipe up and point out the inconsistency, and the examples of uncritical media he highlights are very valuable. But I think its also worth remembering that this is an old play book … its notable to see people like Moyers standing up and pointing at the naked guy on the podium, but I fear that the Emperor has had no clothes for far longer than people care to admit. He was just as naked back in 1990 when Nurse Nayirah was parading around the shows making the case for that war and while its nice to see these “exposes” of the bad reporting, one wonders why we should think we’ll learn anything from the Iraq war coverage, or the Lynch story, or the Tillman story that we didn’t learn from Nurse Nayirah way back in 1990.

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