By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Perhaps the truth shall eventually set you free, but first it might make you very, very depressed. Tonight's edition of "Bill Moyers Journal" on PBS is one of the most gripping and important pieces of broadcast journalism so far this year, but it's as disheartening as it is compelling.
It's always depressing to learn that you've been had, but incalculably more so when the deception has resulted in thousands of Americans dying in the Iraq war effort.
In this 90-minute report, called "Buying the War," Moyers and producer Kathleen Hughes use alarming evidence and an array of respected journalists to make the case that, in the rage that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the media abandoned their role as watchdog and became a lapdog instead.
Exhibit A -- the first event recalled in this report -- is a news conference by President Bush on March 6, 2003, which Moyers says is two weeks before Bush "will order America to war." The press conference was a sham, with Bush calling only on "friendly" reporters who'd ask friendly questions. The corker was this scorching investigative query: "Mr. President, how is your faith guiding you?"
"At least a dozen times during this press conference," Moyers says, Bush would "invoke 9/11 and al-Qaeda to justify a preemptive attack on a country that has not attacked America." The link between al-Qaeda and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was never proved and had to be taken on faith, Moyers recalls, as did the administration claim that Hussein had developed, was developing, or might soon develop weapons of mass destruction.
Moyers does not set out to attack anyone himself; instead he tries to find out why journalists -- electronic and print -- behaved in ways that are supposed to be anathema to a free press in a free nation. The show asks: Did the Bush administration benefit from having an effective collection of accomplished dupers -- a contingent that Washington Post investigative reporter Walter Pincus calls "the marketing group" -- or did the outrage of 9/11 made the press more vulnerable to being duped?
Pressures subtle and blatant were brought to bear. Phil Donahue's nightly MSNBC talk show was virtually the only program of its type that gave antiwar voices a chance to be heard. Donahue was canceled 22 days before the invasion of Iraq, Moyers says. The reason was supposedly low ratings, but the New York Times intercepted an in-house memo in which a network executive complained: "Donahue represents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time, our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
Dissent was deemed not only unpatriotic, Donahue recalls, but -- perhaps even worse -- "not good for business." Most of Moyers's report involves serious, respected journalists who let themselves be swept up in war fever and who were manipulated by the administration sources who had cozied up to them. Instead of investigating administration claims about al-Qaeda and WMDs and such, cable news offered up hours and hours of talking-head television.
Former CNN president Walter Isaacson tells Moyers: "One of the great pressures we're facing in journalism now is, it's a lot cheaper to hire thumb-suckers and pundits and have talk shows on the air than actually have bureaus and reporters."
Dan Rather -- who has left his CBS anchor chair but continues with solid and superior reports on the high-definition cable and satellite channel HDNet -- tells Moyers: "The substitute for reporting far too often has become 'Let's just ring up an expert.' . . . This is journalism on the cheap, if it's journalism at all."
Rather is among a select group of working journalists who agreed to be interviewed for the Moyers report. Others include media critic and Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz, Bob Simon of "60 Minutes" and, formerly from Knight Ridder Newspapers, John Walcott, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel.
Moyers credits them with breaking from the pack and printing stories that looked deeply into administration claims. Because the Knight Ridder chain had no paper in Washington or New York, however, its stories didn't get the national exposure they deserved, and networks were skittish about following up on them.
Tim Russert, of NBC's "Meet the Press," looks intimidated by Moyers and somewhat unnerved by his questions, but at least he agreed to be interviewed. Among those who declined -- and thus became a part of the story more than they already were -- are Judith Miller of the New York Times, a reporter who became a relentless drumbeater for war; Times pundit William Safire, who'd predicted that Iraqis would welcome Americans as liberators when they marched into Baghdad; columnist Charles Krauthammer, another hawkish columnist who's usually anything but camera-shy; and Fox boss Roger Ailes.
William Kristol, a conservative columnist who, Moyers says, "led the march to Baghdad behind a battery of Washington microphones . . . has not responded to any of our requests for an interview, but he still shows up on TV as an expert, most often on Fox News."
Even if this Moyers report tells you some things you already knew, it puts the whole story of the media's role in the war into one convenient package -- a story of historical value that is also frighteningly rife with portents for the future and for what will pass as journalism in months and years to come.
Moyers's last words on the broadcast, at least according to a preliminary script, will be: "The country is in chaos," but the syntax is such that one can't be sure if by "the country" Moyers means Iraq or the United States. Maybe he meant both.
Bill Moyers Journal: Buying the War airs tonight at 9 on Channels 22 and 26.