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So Wrong for So Long: Greg Mitchell on How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq

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As the Iraq war passes its fifth anniversary, we take a look at the corporate media’s coverage of five years of war with Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher. He has just written a new book chronicling the media’s failing on covering Iraq titled, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits—and the President—Failed on Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the war. The number of US troops killed in Iraq has hit 4,000. Four soldiers died Sunday when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle in southern Baghdad. The symbolic 4,000 mark was reached just days after the fifth anniversary of the war. 2007 was the deadliest year for the US military with over 900 soldiers killed. Many thousands more have been wounded. Meanwhile, at least fifty-eight Iraqis died Sunday. The total number of Iraqis killed since the start of the war may be over one million.

The scale of casualties is staggering, but the corporate media rarely asks why the war was allowed to happen in the first place. One reason might be the corporate media bears some responsibility for legitimizing the invasion and occupation of Iraq. That’s the premise of a new book chronicling the failure of the media on covering Iraq. It’s by Greg Mitchell. He is the editor of Editor & Publisher. His book is called So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq. Greg Mitchell joins us now in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!.

GREG MITCHELL: Thank you. Happy to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re moving into the sixth year of this war. What’s so interesting about your book is that you start from the beginning, and it’s almost like a diary, a journal, of how the foundation was built, the justifications were built, for war.

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, it’s really the first five-year history that anyone’s written, I think, and it goes from the run-up to the surge debate last fall. So it really is a chronology. It’s not in calendar form, of course, but it really does cover the whole period, so you do get all the arguments and the debate and the failures before the invasion was launched and then the five years of deceit and shortcomings ever since.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the pre-invasion period and what you felt was most — how the media was most successful in laying the false foundation.

GREG MITCHELL: Right, right. Well, as you said, it really was the mainstream media that, starting early on, relayed the false information that came from the administration — as we know, the New York Times and the Washington Post, among the worst in that — and it not only was putting forth the false information, but also the placement of it, putting it on the front page. So it wasn’t just a matter of carrying the information. So it had tremendous impact on everyone, including Democrats in Congress, who were afraid to speak out.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you getting response at the time? I mean, you were writing about this at Editor & Publisher and online.

GREG MITCHELL: Right, right. Well, I mean, that’s the thing. We were among the few who were really deeply questioning in the mainstream what was being put out. So it was not a secret to us, people have said, about the Knight Ridder Washington office and others who were covering this, within the mainstream. So there were people who were covering the actual facts and raising the questions about the need for war, about the WMD, about the links to al-Qaeda, and so forth. So it was not information that was really impossible to get.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the “Iraq Follies,” and you’ve summarized this in a recent piece you did, the eighteen things we’ve already forgotten about the media’s flawed coverage of Iraq.

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, it’s really going back to the run-up and past the run-up, all the various commentators, like Chris Matthews or Bill O’Reilly or David Brooks and Tom Friedman —- people like to poke fun at Tom Friedman for the so-called “Friedman Unit,” where he continually every six months would say, “Let’s give the war another six months,” and that went on for four years. But that was actually -—

AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Friedman of the New York Times

GREG MITCHELL: Yeah, Thomas Friedman, yeah. But that was actually sort of a majority position. If you go back — I had to write at Editor & Publisher — and it’s all collected in the book — about every three months, I would write a column saying, “When is the first major newspaper going to come out for a — to reverse course and to begin a pullout?” And every three months, I would write this, and it never happened and never happened, until last year. So the Thomas Friedman situation really was the mainstream view.

AMY GOODMAN: You have, number one, the day before the invasion, Bill O’Reilly said, “If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it’s clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation; I will not trust the Bush administration again, all right?”

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, that didn’t quite happen. He did have a brief period when there were all those polls came out that showed that the Iraqis, the majority of Iraqis, were in favor of shooting at Americans, and that kind of threw him off his game for about a week, and he said, “Well, if they don’t want us there, let’s get out.” But then he — you know, he kind of settled down.

AMY GOODMAN: After the fall of Baghdad, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews declares, “We’re all neocons now.”

GREG MITCHELL: Well, he’s — you know, I think Chris likes to think of himself as being antiwar now, but he was a cheerleader as much as anyone back then, and that might surprise a few people.

AMY GOODMAN: But there was someone else at MSNBC: Phil Donahue.

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, yeah, Phil was really their star before the war. And he actually took the radical position of occasionally having antiwar people on, maybe even yourself, occasionally. And because of that, he was accused of being insufficiently patriotic, and so he was, shortly thereafter, was let go at the network, even though his ratings were higher than anyone else.

AMY GOODMAN: Right before the invasion, he’s fired and that secret NBC memo comes out —-

GREG MITCHELL: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —- that says we can’t have our flagship show having these antiwar voices —-

GREG MITCHELL: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —- when other networks are waving the American flag. Then you have, the same day as the fall of Baghdad, Joe Scarborough, also on MSNBC, saying, “I’m waiting to hear the words ‘I was wrong’ from some of the world’s most elite journalists, politicians, and Hollywood types.”

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, I mean, Joe is someone else, again, today, who thinks of himself as being critical of the war and how it was conducted and so forth, but it really is — I think one of the values of the book is that it really does allow you to go back and relive these — it may not be a happy experience, but it really lets you relive the experience as it happened. You know, it’s not just a looking back, and I’m looking back today and saying, you know, it was really screwed up, and here’s how people messed up. It really is chronicles as it happened. So you get a much better sense of how — what was being said at the time and the failures at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Greg Mitchell. He is editor of Editor & Publisher and has just published the book So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq. We’ll come back and talk about that White House Correspondents Dinner with Stephen Colbert and his significance in all of this in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Greg Mitchell, he’s editor of Editor & Publisher. Explain what Editor & Publisher is.

GREG MITCHELL: It’s one of the oldest magazines in the country. It’s the journal of the newspaper industry. It goes back 125 years ago. So it’s a longstanding venerable publication and, of course, now a very active website.

AMY GOODMAN: His book is called So Wrong for So Long. Now, the White House Correspondents Dinner each year, you talk about one of them right at the time of the invasion.

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, it was actually a similar dinner, Radio and TV Correspondents, same idea. But, you know, the usual thing is for the — they poke fun at the President, and sometimes the President shows up and pokes fun at himself. And this was, you know, three or four years ago, and it was really one of the — I would call it one of the worst, disgraceful moments in the history of the presidency, where President Bush appeared and showed a video, or actually a slide show, of him sort of looking around the White House and looking under desks and looking under chairs, and he kept saying, “Where are those missing WMDs? I can’t find those missing WMDs. Are they over here? Or are they over there?” And the media laughed like crazy about it. They thought it was one of the funniest things they’d seen. And even afterwards, there was very few — very little criticism. David Corn was one who did raise some criticism, but there was very little criticism from the media. And I don’t know which was more disgraceful, the President’s actions or the media’s lack of response.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to Stephen Colbert. This was later. This was April 2006. Of course, Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s fake news program, The Colbert Report, mocking the press for its failings in a blistering routine at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner in May of 2006. He was the featured speaker of the night. He addressed a packed crowd that very significantly included President Bush, also a number of cabinet members, most of the country’s most recognizable TV anchors and correspondents. This is some of what Stephen Colbert had to say.

    STEPHEN COLBERT: And as excited as I am to be here with the President, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News. Fox News gives you both sides of every story: the President’s side, and the Vice President’s side.

    But the rest of you, what are you thinking? Reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in Eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they’re super-depressing. And if that’s your goal, well, misery accomplished.

    Over the last five years you people were so good, over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

    But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Colbert, speaking at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, May 2006. His performance was one of the most talked-about topics on the internet the next day. But the corporate media? Ignored him. According to the media watch group Media Matters, subsequent press coverage focused only on President Bush’s short speech, while omitting mention of Stephen Colbert. All three major TV networks played clips of Bush’s routine on their morning shows but ignored Colbert entirely. CNN’s American Morning did the same. New York Times’s initial coverage of the night omitted any reference to Colbert. Greg Mitchell?

GREG MITCHELL: Well, I’m proud to say that Editor & Publisher was the first to cover it widely, and it was our internet report that was picked up by most of the internet to get the ball rolling. So —-

AMY GOODMAN: And we broadcast the whole thing.

GREG MITCHELL: Right. So it -— but it was —-

AMY GOODMAN: What about that?

GREG MITCHELL: Well, I mean, it was obvious that the media -— if he had just poked fun at the President, he might have gotten away with it. But the fact that he was just as critical of the media is — the clip you just showed is actually included in my book. They kind of kicked back. I remember Dana Milbank and other people appearing on TV and saying, “Oh, it wasn’t that funny,” or, you know, and so forth. But really, they were kind of reeling. They’re not used to getting that kind of mockery to their faces.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about right through to this day? I mean, the fifth anniversary did get coverage on all of the major networks.

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, the problem was, asking viewers and listeners to just think, did you see any media self-assessment in all the finger-pointing that went on and all the analysis and all the review of the war and what went right and what went wrong and who did a good job and who didn’t? Did you see much or any of the media reviewing its own performance? I thought it was shocking. I saw hardly anything in any of the newspapers or in the mainstream looking at their own performance. And obviously, from the fact I’ve written this book, I think there’s much reason for criticism. And the fact there was, again, no self-assessment is revealing, the fact that they — maybe it’s guilt or it’s shame or whatever it is, but certainly badly needed.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, it’s not just about history; it’s about the future. It’s, for example, about bombing Iran.

GREG MITCHELL: Well, and, you know, again, I hope the book lays out lessons to report. I think, in general, to speak broadly, I think there are more — there has been in the past few years more mainstream reporters who are a little quicker to be suspicious of the administration line. And, you know, again, I hope that continues, but, you know, there was a story in the New York Times today about, where is the media in the war? Where did everybody go? Why are there so few reporters left in Iraq? You know, so that’s another important factor.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back in time to this excerpt of the documentary War Made Easy that features the mediate critic Norman Solomon. It relates to the media’s response to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech at the United Nations, making the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

    COLIN POWELL: Saddam Hussein’s intentions have never changed. He is not developing the missiles for self-defense. These are missiles that Iraq wants in order to project power, to threaten and to deliver chemical, biological and, if we let him, nuclear warheads.

    AARON BROWN: Today, Secretary of State Powell brought the United Nations Security Council, the administration’s best evidence so far.

    NORMAN SOLOMON: After Colin Powell’s speech to the UN, immediately the US press applauded with great enthusiasm.

    AARON BROWN: Did Colin Powell close the deal today, in your mind, for anyone who has yet objectively to make up their mind?

    HENRY KISSINGER: I think for anybody who analyzes the situation, he has closed the deal.

    SEAN HANNITY: This irrefutable, undeniable, incontrovertible evidence today, Colin Powell brilliantly delivered that smoking gun today. Colin Powell was outstanding today. I mean, it was lockstep — it was so compelling, I don’t see how anybody, at this point, cannot support this effort.

    ALAN COLMES: He made a wonderful presentation. I thought he made a great case for the purpose of disarmament.

    MORT KONDRACKE: It was devastating, I mean, and overwhelming. Overwhelming abundance of the evidence. Point after point after point with — he just flooded the terrain with data.

    CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: It’s the end of the argument phase. America has made its case.

    FOX NEWS: The Powell speech has moved the ball.

    CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: I think the case is closed.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, an excerpt of War Made Easy, produced by the Media Education Foundation. Greg Mitchell, the significance of that moment? February 5, 2003 is, what, just over a month before the invasion.

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, actually, that clip is a little misleading, in that all the people in it — you had Henry Kissinger speaking, and you had Fox News people. That wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that the Washington Post and the New York Times and all the other real moderate, or some say liberal, publications all bought into it. So, I mean, Fox News wouldn’t particularly bother me.

AMY GOODMAN: And you had Aaron Brown there. It’s from CNN.

GREG MITCHELL: Yeah, but he was interviewing Kissinger. So, I mean, the real problem was the real influence of the people in the middle. The Washington Post, the New York Times and those people just bought into it, just as much as you saw on Fox News.

AMY GOODMAN: And the people who aren’t interviewed — I mean, you begin your book — one of the people you start with is Daniel Ellsberg.


AMY GOODMAN: But there were so many. This wasn’t just a tiny quiet minority. I mean, if you think of February 15, the massive protests in the streets —


AMY GOODMAN: — millions rocked the world in protest. Where were those people in these corporate network studios?

GREG MITCHELL: It’s — again, it’s incredible. You look at the numbers, they just weren’t there, you know. I mean, we interviewed Daniel Ellsberg, and we interviewed Norman Solomon, and we interviewed Arianna Huffington and people like that. They were certainly available. And it really is shocking if you look back. I mean, you know, Wesley Clark was sort of the — I don’t know what. He was seen as the person who gave more of a balanced talk, but that was about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Moving forward, you say, “When Valerie Plame finally testified before Congress in March 2007, much of the media coverage focused on her appearance.” Mary Ann Akers wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled “Hearing Room Chic,” noting Plame wore a fetching jacket and pants and should be played by Katie Holmes in the movie version of her story, because they both favor Armani.

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, that was, again, typical of the — when Valerie Plame finally testified and the CIA completely vouched for her as a covert agent, all this evidence came out, and the media still downplayed it. It was almost as if it wasn’t even happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go right through now, I mean, 2007, 2008. You have David Brooks on Meet the Press declaring 10,000 Iraqis a month would perish if the US pulls out. Bob Woodward, also on the show, challenged him, asking for a source. Brooks admitted, “I just picked that 10,000 out of the air.”

GREG MITCHELL: Well, that’s David Brooks, I guess. I mean, we’ve seen that continually, the warnings about what would happen if we leave. And again, looking at the whole five-year period, what is tremendously depressing is that a lot of these things have been said throughout this whole period, and you go back and the warnings about what would happen if we leave. Meanwhile, we’ve stayed, and we have thousands dying every month and a tremendous effect on our own — you know, even on the United States economy. And this has gone on year after year now.

AMY GOODMAN: The media coverage, Greg Mitchell, of the campaigns? You’ve been covering the presidential campaign.

GREG MITCHELL: Well, yeah. Well, I mean, again, we’ve so often seen the media declare that the war has receded as an issue, that the public does not care that much about it anymore. And, of course, this is deceptive, because you have Democrats in their debates pretty much agreeing and the Republicans in their debates pretty much agreeing. Now, you can imagine if there was a debate next week between one of the two Democrats and John McCain what a hot topic the war would be. Even if you don’t necessarily completely agree with the Democrats’ position, it would be a very extremely hot topic. And I don’t think the war has receded at all, when it’s brought — when a choice is brought up.

AMY GOODMAN: You most recently wrote about the mother of a US soldier killed in Iraq filing a lawsuit in Pennsylvania court.

GREG MITCHELL: Well, one of the continuing themes in my book is the effect on the soldiers, going back to years ago and the fact that it took a long time for the media to begin to pay attention to the ill-treatment of the soldiers and also the surprising number of suicides. I have written continually about the suicides for soldiers both in Iraq and here at home. And, you know, just now, we’re starting to get families who are questioning the investigations by the military, by the way these things have been handled, launching lawsuits. And so, I think we’re going to see a lot more of that in the future as the protest grows.

AMY GOODMAN: And most recently, last weekend, Winter Soldier, this gathering of hundreds of active-duty and Iraq and Afghanistan war vets in Silver Spring, Maryland, talking about their own experiences in war. Corporate media did not show up.

GREG MITCHELL: Very little mainstream coverage, right. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: The networks did not show up to cover these hearings. Washington Post had a day — had a piece in the metro section; New York Times, nothing; Los Angeles Times, nothing.

GREG MITCHELL: Well, again, I think there’s a sense — a false sense among the mainstream that this issue is fading, that people are waiting for the election to be over and having a new president. And I think it’s completely false. I mean, again, what I show in the book is that public opinion polls going back now four years have shown that most people in the country feel that the war (a) was a mistake, (b) is not worth fighting, and (c) we should start withdrawing. And this has gone on for three or four years now. So it’s not like the public opinion is in doubt. So, I think that to sort of say, let’s not cover this kind of stuff because we really don’t know if people care about it, is completely false.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg Mitchell, I want to thank you for being with us, editor of Editor & Publisher. His new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.

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