Five years ago: when the press helped Colin Powell sell the war

by Greg Mitchell, Editor and Publisher

On February 3, a New York Times story was topped with: “All Aboard: America’s War Train is Leaving the Station.” Naturally, the world—and the media commentators—anxiously awaited Secretary of State Colin Powell’s appearance at the United Nations on February 5, when he was expected to make the administration’s case for war before a skeptical body.

While most pundits were already sold on the invasion, polls showed that the public was divided—or simply misinformed or confused. So the performance of the much-respected and moderate Powell could go a long way to greasing the skids for war.

Afterward, few pundits felt that they needed to do much fact-checking before declaring that Powell had, indeed, made his case. The invasion came six weeks later. Several months after that, it became clear that much of Powell's presentation was based on wrong or cooked intelligence, and he and his aides have expressed varying degrees of regret about it since.

Looking back on that day, it only took hours after Powell’s speech before the U.N. Security Council for TV commentators and newspaper editorials, and even many liberal pundits, to declaredtheir support for the Bush administration’s hard-line stance on Iraq.

CNN’s Bill Schneider said that “no one” disputed Powell’s findings. Bob Woodward, asked by Larry King on CNN what happens if we go to war and don’t find any WMD, answered: “I think the chance of that happening is about zero. There’s just too much there.” George Will suggested that Powell’s speech would “change all minds open to evidence.”

The Washingotn Post's liberal columnist, Mary McGrory, wrote that Powell “persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince.” She even likened the Powell report to the day John Dean “unloaded” on Nixon in the Watergate hearings. Another liberal at that paper, Richard Cohen, declared that Powell’s testimony “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.”

As recently as a week earlier —following weapons inspector Hans Blix’s report to the United Nations and the president’s State of the Union address—more than two-thirds of the nation’s leading editorial pages, E&P had found, called for the release of more detailed evidence and increased diplomatic maneuvering. The 80-minute presentation by Powell seemed to have silenced most of the critics.

Consider the day-after editorial endorsements, all from sources not always on the side of the White House. As media writer Mark Jurkowitz put it in the Boston Globe, Powell’s speech may not have convinced France of the need to topple Saddam but “it seemed to work wonders on opinion makers and editorial shakers in the media universe.”

The San Francisco Chronicle called the speech “impressive in its breadth and eloquence.” The Denver Post likened Powell to “Marshal Dillon facing down a gunslinger in Dodge City,” adding that he had presented “not just one ‘smoking gun’ but a battery of them.” The Tampa Tribune called Powell’s case “overwhelming,” while The Oregonian in Portland found it “devastating.” To The Hartford Courant it was “masterful.”

The San Jose Mercury News asserted that Powell made his case “without resorting to exaggeration, a rhetorical tool he didn’t need.” The San Antonio Express-News called the speech “irrefutable,” adding, “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.”

And what of the two giants of the East? The Washington Post echoed others who found Powell’s evidence irrefutable. An editorial in the paper judged that “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. . . . Mr. Powell’s evidence, including satellite photographs, audio recordings and reports from detainees and other informants, was overwhelming.”

Here’s the Post’s Jim Hoagland: “Colin Powell did more than present the world with a convincing and detailed X-ray of Iraq’s secret weapons and terrorism programs yesterday. He also exposed the enduring bad faith of several key members of the U.N. Security Council when it comes to Iraq and its ‘web of lies,’ in Powell’s phrase. . . . 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.”

The New York Times, meanwhile, hailed Powell’s “powerful” and “sober, factual case.” Like many other papers, the Times, on its news pages—in separate stories by Steven Weisman, Michael Gordon, and Adam Clymer—also bent over backward to give Powell the benefit of nearly every doubt. Apparently in thrall to Powell’s moderate reputation, no one even mentioned that he was essentially acting as lead prosecutor with every reason to shape, or even create, facts to fit his brief.

Weisman called Powell’s evidence “a nearly encyclopedic catalog that reached further than many had expected.” He and Clymer both recalled Adlai Stevenson’s speech to the U.N. in 1962 exposing Soviet missiles in Cuba. Gordon closed his piece by asserting that “it will be difficult for skeptics to argue that Washington’s case against Iraq is based on groundless suspicions and not intelligence information.”

While newspapers unanimously praised Powell and criticized Saddam Hussein, they still disagreed over how to act, and when. A once-tiny hawkish faction had grown to include 15 major newspapers. The Dallas Morning News reflected the sentiment behind calls for quick force: “The U.S. Secretary of State did everything but perform cornea transplants on the countries that still claim to see no reason for forcibly disarming Iraq.”

Those in the more cautious, but still pro-war, camp generally advocate the forceful overthrow of Hussein while contending that broad international support still should be a prerequisite for any invasion. “The go-it-alone ultimatum is one the U.S. and the international community would do well to avoid—and one that Powell’s much-needed presentation should help head off,” USA Today wrote.
Others called for a second U.N. resolution to authorize the use of force.

Even the shrinking number of war skeptics seemed unsure of how to bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict. The Boston Globe still hoped for either a coup or Hussein’s exile. The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle urged the president to let diplomacy work. Others echoed France’s proposal—calling for the return of a beefed-up weapons-inspection team.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey