media matters

I've been accused of blaming the media for much of what's gone on in the US. They're surely not the only culprits, but their complicity in the Resident's agenda - no, their blind embrace and zealous salesmanship of it - cannot be overstated.

I often think Canadians don't, can't, fully appreciate what the US media is like. On our first trip to Toronto, we turned on the television in our hotel room and stared at CBC with our mouths hanging open. It's easy to bash Fox News, they're cartoons. But what of CNN, CBC, NBC, the supposedly liberal The New York Times and Washington Post?

If you have time and patience for a long, juicy article on Colin Powell, David Petraeus, the selling of war, the censure of MoveOn.org, and how the media keeps the ball rolling, I highly recommend spending some time at Media Matters: "Did that voice inside you say, 'I've heard it all before'?".
In August, Sidney Blumenthal noted similarities between Gen. David Petraeus and former Secretary of State Colin Powell:
As Gen. David Petraeus prepares to deliver his report in September on the "surge" in Iraq, he is elevated into the ultimate reliable source, just as former Secretary of State Colin Powell's sterling reputation was exploited for his delivery of the case for invasion before the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, a date that will live in mendacity, for every statement he made was later revealed to be false; Powell regretted publicly that it was an everlasting "blot" on his good name. ... He was Petraeus before Petraeus, the good soldier before the good soldier, window-dressing before window-dressing.

As Blumenthal observed, Powell, like Petraeus, enjoyed a "sterling reputation" that was used to enhance the credibility of his case and to discourage scrutiny.

It is impossible to overstate just how thoroughly the vast majority of the media bought what Powell was selling. Without pausing to examine his claims or the credibility of his evidence, they declared his U.N. address a home run. The media's swift and fawning reaction to Powell's speech is one of the true low points in their coverage of the Bush administration and the Iraq war -- and that is no small feat.

Eric Alterman, now a Media Matters Senior Fellow, explained in a September 22, 2003, column for The Nation:
When Powell went before the UN Security Council in February 2003, reporters treated his accusations against Saddam Hussein as if akin to tablets passed down by Moses from the mountaintop. A study by Gilbert Cranberg, former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, discovered a nearly perfect storm of wide-eyed credulity in coverage of the speech. We heard and read of "a massive array of evidence," "a detailed and persuasive case," "a powerful case," "a sober, factual case," "an overwhelming case," "a compelling case," "the strong, credible and persuasive case," "a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information," "a smoking fusillade ... a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable," "an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence," so that "only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction." "The skeptics asked for proof; they now have it." "Powell's evidence," we were told, was "overwhelming," "ironclad ... incontrovertible," "succinct and damning ... the case is closed." "Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein." "If there was any doubt that Hussein ... needs to be ... stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest."

Another Media Matters Senior Fellow, Paul Waldman, detailed more of that coverage in his 2004 book Fraud: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies and Why the Media Didn't Tell You:
[S]ince they regard him so highly, the press declined to investigate the charges Powell made before the UN too closely. Instead, they hailed his appearance as having settled once and for all the question of whether we should invade Iraq. The editorials the following day were nearly unanimous. Speaking for many liberal commentators, the Washington Post's Mary McGrory wrote, "I don't know how the United Nations felt about Colin Powell's 'J'accuse' speech against Saddam Hussein. I can only say that he persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince." "Secretary of State Colin Powell's strong, plain-spoken indictment of the Saddam Hussein regime before the UN Security Council Wednesday embodies something truly great about the United States," said the Chicago Sun-Times. "Those around the world who demanded proof must now be satisfied, or else admit that no satisfaction is possible for them." "In a brilliant presentation as riveting and as convincing as Adlai Stevenson's 1962 unmasking of Soviet missiles in Cuba, Powell proved beyond any doubt that Iraq still possesses and continues to develop illegal weapons of mass destruction," said the New York Daily News. "The case for war has been made. And it's irrefutable." The Hartford Courant said Powell's presentation was "masterful," while the Portland Oregonian found Powell's presentation "devastating" and "overwhelming ... We think he made his case." The headline in the Dallas Morning News read, "Only the Blind Could Ignore Powell's Evidence." The editors of the San Antonio Express-News, who also found his presentation "irrefutable," thought you didn't have to be blind to disagree, but you did have to be an Iraqi sympathizer. "Only those ready to believe Iraq and assume that the United States would manufacture false evidence against Saddam would not be persuaded by Powell's case," they said.

In Bill Moyers' Buying the War, former CBS anchor Dan Rather explained that he and his colleagues gave Powell's presentation to the United Nations extra weight not because of its content, but because of Powell himself:

RATHER: Colin Powell was trusted. Is trusted, I'd put it-in a sense. He, unlike many of the people who made the decisions to go to war, Colin Powell has seen war. He knows what a green jungle hell Vietnam was. He knows what the battlefield looks like. And when Colin Powell says to you, "I, Colin Powell, am putting my personal stamp on this information. It's my name, my face, and I'm putting it out there," that did make a difference.

MOYERS: And you were impressed.

RATHER: I was impressed. And who wouldn't be?

But journalists and pundits weren't just impressed with Powell. They uncritically treated what he said as gospel. They declared it "irrefutable." Not "un-refuted" -- irrefutable. Impossible to refute.

David Gergen, for example, declared on CNN that Powell had delivered "conclusive, compelling evidence" that "effectively destroyed" the arguments of "opponents of the president's policy." (If that sounds familiar, you may remember what Gergen said about his friend David Petraeus' testimony while serving as a CNN analyst last week: "[A]fter hearing him with that blizzard of facts and statistics and charts, it's going to be very hard for Democrats now to say, let's pull the plug.")

Worse, the media suggested that anyone who disagreed with Powell was a liar or a fool.

Powell's U.N. address occurred on February 5, 2003. A look at the editorials and columns that appeared in the next day's edition of The Washington Post makes clear how quickly the media ran to Powell's side.

The Post itself led things off with an editorial headlined -- what else? -- "Irrefutable" that declared, "AFTER SECRETARY OF STATE Colin L. Powell's presentation to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. ... Mr. Powell's evidence ... was overwhelming."

The Post's columnists took it from there. Four Washington Post columnists wrote on February 6 about Powell's presentation the day before. All four were positively glowing:

  • Richard Cohen, in a column headlined "A Winning Hand For Powell," declared that Powell's presentation "had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise." Cohen was careful to make clear that he based his own conclusion not upon an examination of Powell's arguments and evidence, but on Powell himself: "The clincher ... was the totality of the material and the fact that Powell himself had presented it. In this case, the messenger may have been more important than the message."

  • George Will, under the headline "Disregarding the Deniers," wrote that "Powell's presentation, its power enhanced by his avoidance of histrionics, will change all minds open to evidence. Thus it will justify disregarding the presumptively close-minded people who persist in denying ... what? What are people denying who still deny the need for force? That Iraq has weapons of mass destruction? Or that Iraq is resisting the inspections? No, they are denying only that force is needed." Will directly equated those who were not convinced by Powell's performance to "[p]eople determined to believe that a vast conspiracy assassinated President Kennedy." "People committed to a particular conclusion will get to it and will stay there," Will wrote -- and, hard as it is to believe now, he was referring to those who disagreed with the Bush administration.

  • Mary McGrory, in a column headlined "I'm Persuaded," insisted that she had been "as tough as France to convince" of the case against Saddam, but that Powell had done it. How had the great man won over this stalwart opponent of the war? "His voice was strong and unwavering. He made his case without histrionics of any kind, with no verbal embellishments." McGrory offered no critical assessment of the evidence Powell presented; she indicated instead that she was swayed by the performance.

  • Jim Hoagland, in a column headlined "An Old Trooper's Smoking Gun," lauded Powell's presentation as a "convincing and detailed X-ray of Iraq's secret weapons and terrorism programs" that "exposed the enduring bad faith of several key members of the U.N. Security Council." Hoagland wrote: "Speaking as 'an old trooper,' the ex-general showed, through technical detail, the illogic of Iraq's protestations that it has been importing aluminum tubing for short-range rockets and not for nuclear weapons. Nobody uses this kind of tubing for rockets, Powell said convincingly. ... To continue to say that the Bush administration has not made its case, you must now believe that Colin Powell lied in the most serious statement he will ever make, or was taken in by manufactured evidence. I don't believe that. Today, neither should you."

    Not only did all four buy what Powell was selling, they did so without an examination of the goods. The salesman's smile, his voice -- and his impeccable credentials as an "old trooper" -- were enough.

    Worse, three of the four directly attacked anyone who would dare disagree with Powell. You'd have to be a "fool" or a "Frenchman" to disagree with Powell's assertions, according to Cohen. Will added that such foolishness would require the closed mind of a conspiracy theorist. Hoagland concluded that skeptics were guilty of "enduring bad faith" and seemed to speak for the entire punditocracy when he observed that to remain skeptical of the Bush administration's case required the belief "that Colin Powell lied." And that, of course, was unthinkable.

    Even after it became clear that Powell's address was not only quite refutable, it relied on forgeries and supposed British intelligence dossiers that were in fact plagiarized from the Internet, many journalists steadfastly refused to criticize Powell. In his book Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, Eric Boehlert noted that ABC's Ted Koppel hosted Powell for three "in-depth interviews" on Nightline. In the first appearance, according to Boehlert, Powell "was not asked one question about his U.N. performance despite the fact that observers had already detailed the obvious errors in Powell's presentation. In fact it took the international press just one week to detail the holes in Powell's speech. But eight months later on Nightline, Koppel paid no attention to that fact." In what must surely be a coincidence, Koppel and Powell are, according to Boehlert, "good friends."

    Less than five years ago, America's news media enthusiastically embraced Powell's U.N. address -- an address that we now know was riddled with untruths and bogus "evidence." But the nation's leading journalists and commentators bought it and shouted down skeptics. They bought it not after examining and assessing the quality of Powell's evidence, but because "Powell himself had presented it." They shouted down skeptics not because of the quality of the evidence, but because of the quality of the man. To be a skeptic required believing "that Colin Powell lied"; thus, being a skeptic was unacceptable.

    Why dwell on that now? Because the media's coverage of David Petraeus in 2007 is depressingly similar to their treatment of Colin Powell in 2003.

  • Read more here. It's worth it.

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