AP Photo/Jerome Delay
Donald Trump isn’t the first president to obliterate the truth, and he won’t be the last.
In the prelude to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush and his administration unleashed a full-scale propaganda campaign, seeking to convince the American people that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that war was necessary.
The claims weren’t true. There were no WMDs. The U.S. had no evidence of them. The American press swallowed the lies, failed to ask tough questions and abrogated its duty to determine the truth, except for a few determined reporters at Knight Ridder Newspapers.
“Shock and Awe,” a movie that opened Friday, tells the story of those journalists — Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, Joe Galloway and John Walcott.
It dramatizes an ugly chapter in the history of journalism.
Voices lost in the tumult
It’s impossible to fully describe the herd mentality that gripped the media in the year and a half between the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.
I had a front-row seat to witness that history. I was a web editor for Knight Ridder Digital who was called to D.C. to manage the company’s online coverage of a war that seemed to be preordained.
President Bush had proclaimed to the world after Sept. 11, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” The leading newspapers and cable networks took that mantra to heart.
They breathlessly parroted every morsel and scrap of disinformation fed to them by the government spin masters. They jostled for seats in the administration’s coveted inner sanctum and served as dutiful stenographers for every dubious claim. Judith Miller of the New York Times was a notorious culprit. Vice President Dick Cheney and the other neoconservatives in the administration would spoon-feed her “scoops,” then cite her stories at press conferences and on the cable talk shows.
Those who questioned the administration’s WMD claims — as Landay, Strobel, Galloway and Walcott did — were branded as unpatriotic or worse, by both the public and their peers. Their voices were drowned out by a growing crescendo of war drums in newsprint and on the airwaves.
Some of Knight Ridder’s own newspapers refused to run their stories. When questioned, editors expressed disbelief in their reporting, often with some lame variation of “The New York Times isn’t saying that.” In one telling scene from the movie, Walcott asks one of those editors, “The truth doesn’t sell papers anymore?”
Fabricating the evidence
We knew that President Bush ordered the Pentagon to begin drawing up plans for the Iraq invasion in early 2001, shortly after he took office. The attacks later that year on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon provided a convenient pretext for toppling Saddam, who had remained in power despite his 1991 defeat in Operation Desert Storm by Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush.
We knew that professional government analysts saw no evidence of WMDs — our reporters, with decades of contacts in the intelligence community, were talking to them.
And we knew that officials in power were blatantly lying to the American people. Somewhere between the analysts and the White House, evidence was fabricated or cherry-picked to support the administration’s campaign, led by Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to oust Saddam and plant a democracy in the Middle East. To this day, Bush’s defenders insist he was the victim of bad intelligence. A more accurate description would be bad fiction.
The result? An unnecessary war that has killed more than 4,400 Americans and wounded almost 32,000. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and millions displaced. An entire region destabilized, with Iran and ISIS left free to run amok. And it’s not over — 11 U.S. soldiers have died there this year.
A hard lesson
In an historic mea culpa, the New York Times later apologized to readers for its prewar Iraq coverage and disavowed Miller’s reporting — much too late to avert the tragedy. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has said he was duped into making the case for the war in front of the United Nations.
But many Americans still believe that Saddam had nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs, though none has ever been found.
The movie underscores the importance of fearless journalists who are willing to tell truth to power. They are part of the checks and balances on which this country was built.
“Today the press is under attack like never before, and democracy cannot survive without a free and independent press,” said Rob Reiner, the movie’s director, who portrays Walcott. “I hope Shock and Awe can serve as a cautionary tale of what’s at stake for the survival of self-governance.”
Jim Van Nostrand is editor of The Daily Astorian.
Where to watch
“Shock and Awe” opened Friday in limited theaters nationwide. None is in Oregon.
The movie is available on demand through iTunes, DirecTV and most cable systems, including Charter here in Astoria.
Go to bit.ly/shock-and-awe-timeline for a multimedia timeline of events portrayed in the movie, and links to the original stories by Knight Ridder reporters.