The 20th Anniversary Of The Iraq Invasion: A Historic Failure Of Access Journalism

On March 20th, 2003, then-U.S. President George W. Bush and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair invaded Iraq on the pretext that Iraq was an “axis of evil,” with Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The invasion mobilized a devastating eight-year-long war, ending in 2011, that tore the fabric of normalcy for Iraqis. Parroting both administrations’ notion that Iraq posed an imminent threat to global communities, the press reiterated the need for war. However, as proven by the lack of discovered WMD, the media’s premise for provoking the war largely depended on several malpractices of access journalism — which resulted in an all-encompassing echo chamber supporting the war. The media abetted the narrative that Iraq was inherently deceptive; thus, when the war failed to produce findings of WMDs, the press reverted blame onto Iraq for secretly hiding weapons. The totalizing effect of the biased press coverage amplified pro-war propaganda, with the Iraqi civilians paying the ultimate price. 

On September 13th, 2002, the New York Times (NYT) published an opinion piece by Madeline Albright titled “Where Iraq Fits on the War on Terror.” At the time, Albright was a Western diplomat (64th U.S. Secretary of State until 2001) and was the previous U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In publishing Albright’s op-ed, the NYT succumbed to the appeal of authority and enabled the existing discourse that called for the invasion of Iraq. In her article, Albright stated:

 

“If United Nations inspectors are again rebuffed by Iraq, we should also give notice that we will destroy without warning any facilities in that country that we suspect are being used to develop prohibited arms. Even if those suspicions are later proved wrong, the blame should fall on Iraq for denying access, not on the United States for trying to enforce the Security Council’s will.”

 

Albright’s assertion affirmed that the invasion was based on “suspicions,” not concrete evidence. Hindsight, 20 years after the invasion, it is evident that NYT irresponsibly publicized an op-ed that attempted to preemptively distance the U.S. from any probable responsibility for the outcomes of the invasion. Albright’s claim inferred that even if the U.S. produced unfounded “suspicions,” they should be exonerated of any accountability. Considering the stakes at play—the death of civilians and soldiers—Albright’s logic (like other diplomats) was scant in justifying the invasion. Nonetheless, the NYT and other publications released similar content that engaged with diplomats’ pro-war beliefs during the pre-war news cycle.

The National Security Advisor from 2001-2005, Condoleezza Rice, told the media that Iraq warranted invasion, stating: “[I]t is not incumbent on the United States to prove that Saddam Hussein is trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. He’s already demonstrated that he’s trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. It is incumbent on Saddam Hussein, who, after all, signed on to an obligation to disarm, to convince the world that he is not trying to.” Once again, Rice (like other diplomats) shifted the burden of proof onto Saddam Hussein. Using Albright and Rice’s mental gymnastics, it would be Hussein’s responsibility if the war failed. Rice employed strategic language like “already demonstrated” and “trying” to communicate a sense of legitimacy and justification. The irony remains that Rice contradicted the implication of WMD evidence in claiming that Hussein must “convince” the world that he did not possess WMD. What is the need for convincing if evidence existed? Like Rice, pre-war journalism frequently employed terms like “could” and “trying” when describing Hussein’s hypothetical “attempt” to produce WMD. 

The pre-war press cycle up-held so-called non-negotiable “truths” that informed an echo chamber supporting the war. The “truths” were as follows: 1) Iraq previously produced and obtained chemical weapons; therefore, Iraq produced WMD 2) If Saddam Hussein denied the presence of WMD, then it was due to his deception 3) The West had evidence of Hussein’s WMD 4) Invasion was necessary to destroy WMD 5) If the U.S./Britain was incorrect in their declarations about Iraq’s WMD, it was because Hussein had misguided the West.

Using this rhetoric, news cycles and publications like The Guardian, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and others relied on the “truths” given by American and British administrations. The media depended on the notion that the U.S. and Britain obtained intelligence regarding Iraq’s WMDs. Both the British and American administrations aggrandized the impression that they had confidential data and proof of Iraq’s WMD. As a result, pre-war journalism reflected information that amplified hype for the war. 

In Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s “Justifying the War in Iraq: What the Bush Administration’s Uses of Evidence Reveal,” President Bush and other campaigners like Colin Powell misled public opinion via the press through insinuations that they obtained exclusive insider knowledge. For example, at the U.N. Security Council, Powell argued that the U.S. had uncovered 2,000 pages of documents from an Iraqi nuclear scientist that included “classified” material “related to Iraq’s nuclear program.” Powell’s statements were later disproven, but they had convinced the American press and public that WMD information was inaccessible to the layman—and that all trust should reside with government officials. Powell went so far as to bring a vial to the U.N. security council meeting, claiming that the vial “could” contain anthrax, a deadly chemical weapon. 

The Bush administration further insinuated that Saddam Hussein had links to the September 11th attacks, fabricating falsehoods that Hussein had relations with Al Qaeda. In 2005, the CIA discredited the idea when their findings stated that Hussein’s “regime did not have a relationship, harbour, or turn a blind eye towards Zarqawi (an operative of Al Qaeda) and his associates.” However, the press continued to validate unproven claims made by government officials.

On September 3rd, 2002, Judy Miller and Michael Gordon published “Threats and Response: The Iraqis; the U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” Miller and Gordon claimed that Iraq used aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons. The report suggested that Iraq intended to misguide the West. The article manipulated a quote from Saddam Hussein to allege his possession of nuclear power. Hussein said, “[T]he importance of collective work in enabling the individual to overcome any trouble and achieve what is beyond his capabilities and energy.” Despite the vague nature of his statement, Miller and Gordon argued that Hussein was discussing WMD. The journalists claimed that the existence of WMD was contingent on Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War and the Persian Gulf War. The article employed limited sources— primarily from the government and the administration—that explicitly declared the existence of WMD. Gary Samore, liberally referred to throughout the story, was a staff member on President Clinton’s National Security Council and was working on the British International Institute for Strategic Studies of Iraq’s WMD. Miller and Gordon’s selection of sources crystallized their inherent bias, further contributing to propaganda. Ultimately, Miller and Gordon’s work spewed false truths, mirroring the majority of pre-war journalism at the time. 

As described by reporter Max Follmer (HuffPost) in “The Reporting Team That Got Iraq Right,” the journalistic community formed a “groupthink” that mirrored the “groupthink” of intelligence and policymaking communities. In the March 28th, 2008, interview, Follmer found that the average American citizen — during the pre-war period — was bombarded with information that swayed public opinion towards support for the war. The major pitfall that Follmer brings up is the press’ lack of skepticism in pre-war journalism. The press did not analyze or critique the information the government asserted but instead mindlessly reimagined the government’s claims.

In a March 2013 CNN article, “Media’s failure on Iraq still stings,” Howard Kurtz further reflected on the failure of pre-war coverage. Kurtz found 140 front-page articles that played into the campaign for the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq. The media “overplayed” propaganda and muffled contrary reports invoked skepticism. Kurtz argues that the most significant obstacle for journalists was that they “couldn’t go to Iraq to investigate for themselves” and instead “echo[ed] the administration’s line about WMDs.” 

The Duelfer report and the war proved impotent in producing evidence of WMD. Unfortunately, the war had already developed a series of destructive patterns that threatened Iraq. In a Frontline PBS documentary, “Once Upon a Time in Iraq,” Iraqi civilians describe the experience of living in “post-invasion” Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein produced a power vacuum that inflicted further violence onto Iraqis, who suffered through the insurgency of Al-Qaeda and then later ISIS. Although “pre-invasion” Iraq faced the violent authoritative power of Saddam Hussein’s governance, religious sects were unified in their shared fear of the regime. However, in “post-invasion” Iraq, sectarian violence ensued with increased hostility. ISIS brutalized Shiites and performed mass executions (most notably Camp Speicher). All this to say that the ultimate victims of the American/British invasion of Iraq are, were, and continue to be Iraqis. Brown University claims that between 180,000 to 200,000 Iraqi civilian deaths have occurred due to direct violence since the U.S. invasion; however, estimates may not include indirect deaths and displacements.

The result of the war in Iraq calls for reformed practices for journalism and a deeper introspection into the relationship between the press and public opinion. The media and administrations that prompted the war are culpable for their influence on public opinion. The responsibility towards public engagement should not be determined by sensationalism and groupthink but rather by neutral skepticism and investigation. Poor journalism results in distortion of truth. The pre-war coverage indicates the press’ neglect of the impact of their influence on lives beyond their borders.

Jonathan Landay, John Walcott, and Warren Strobel proved that ethical journalism was possible in the run-up coverage of the war. The range from Knight Ridder was overlooked at the time but provided a valuable template for conflict-related journalism. Despite informational access constraints, the journalists took an approach that distanced itself from the spin and propaganda; for example, choosing to avoid biased sources like politicians and diplomats that campaigned for the war. Furthermore, the journalists asked questions and emphasized inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and other inflammatory statements that other press members widely circulated. In a 2019 CBS interview, the journalists stated they sought to convey and find the truth when covering the war, even when it negated the dominant paradigm. 

The production of information created by the press can veer public opinion towards peace or conflict. Journalists must reconsider their commitment to truth, understand the consequences of their work, acknowledge the subjects of their work (both within and outside their national borders), and resist passive forms of journalism (access journalism). Whether intentional or not, the press failed to apprehend the failed logic of the British and American administrations. As a result, the U.S. press catalyzed the destruction of Iraq.

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