Moyers' admirable journalism/war documentary gave Lehrer a pass

by Ken A. Bode, CPB Ombudsman

"Four years ago this spring," begins the Bill Moyers documentary Buying the War, "the Bush Administration took leave of reality and plunged our country into a war so poorly planned it soon turned into a disaster. The story of how high officials misled the country has been told. But they couldn't have done it on their own; they needed a compliant press to pass on their propaganda as news and cheer them on."

In 90-minutes, Moyers and his producer, Kathleen Hughes, cover the run-up to the invasions of Iraq, reviewing again the words of President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condolezza Rice, Colin Powell, and many others as they used the media, print and television, to persuade the American people that there was a connection between Iraq and 9/11 and that Saddam Hussein had and would use weapons of mass destruction. Moyers is right. Books have been written on the subject, but to see it all unfold before us on television was Mr. Moyers' purpose. It is an important contribution, and Buying the War does it well. To a point.

Bill Moyers is a journalist of influence and stature, a fact that enables him to bring an impressive array of first-person interviews to the program, including Dan Rather, who was still anchor of CBS news during the selling of the war, Tim Russert of Meet The Press, Bob Simon of 60 Minutes, Walter Isaacson, then president of CNN, and Phil Donahue, whose MSNBC show was cancelled, he believes, because of his persistent questioning of the need to rush to war.

Buying the War pretty much covers the very wide waterfront of compliant media, using clips from Oprah, 60 Minutes, and the Sunday talk shows. Fox News, of course, comes up as the amen corner for the Bush Administration's case, with Charles Krauthammer, Fred Barnes, William Kristol and Bill O'Reilly as relentless promoters of Saddam's perfidy. These clips recall the parade of media cheerleading, massaging into the public psyche the essential case for going to war. It is a powerful lesson, and, as Moyers says, it has never before been produced for television.

Moyers makes the point that there was an alternative course for the press, one that required simple journalistic skepticism and a persistent determination to probe behind the official spin. The heroes of this tale are the reporting team of Knight-Ridder News Service, Washington bureau chief John Wolcott and reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay. These three explain in elegant detail how easy it was to find official sources to question the claims being promoted by Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Wolfowitz, etc. Because Knight-Ridder has no Washington outlet, their reporting was never recognized and had no influence in the Beltway echo chamber where the case for war was being sold and bought.

A host of professional media critics, along with working journalists like Walter Pincus and Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, describe how and why the mainstream press was compliant during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. With the biggest names in journalism, Moyers interviewing is strong and persistent. To Meet The Press host Tim Russert, he says: "Critics point to September 8, 2002, and to your show in particular as the classic case for how the press and the government became inseparable."

In The New York Times on that day was a front page story reporting that Saddam Hussein had launched a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb using specially designed aluminum tubes. On the Sunday talk shows that day, including Meet The Press, Vice President Cheney, Condelezza Rice and other Bush officials fanned-out to promote the Times story, which, in circular fashion, was anonymously sourced from leaks within the Administration.

All in all, this documentary teaches important lessons about the culture of American journalism. It has a powerful, cumulative impact, and should be used in the communications, journalism and political science classrooms of America's universities and colleges. The Moyers team deserves a great deal of credit. To a point.

The reason this examination of the failings of the mainstream press is a flawed effort is simply that Mr. Moyers did not examine his own network, PBS, and particularly its flagship news show, The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer with the same scrutiny as the rest of the media, In an otherwise admirable and courageous documentary, how would Moyers have judged The NewsHour's coverage of the run-up to the war? Would he have found the same penetrating courage of the Knight-Ridder reporting, or the compliant complicity of the majority of the mainstream media? More important: Why was The NewsHour left out of his analysis?

I have dealt with this issue in a previous posting on the CPB Ombudsman's website. This is what I wrote at the time:

"It is pretty commonly accepted that in the run-up to the Iraq war, the press was soft on the Bush Administration, failing or unable to dig beneath the intelligence estimates used to justify the war and too willingly accepting, even promoting, the Administration's arguments on the necessity of going to war. The New York Times and The Washington Post both examined their news and editorial coverage leading to the Congressional vote on the war. Each concluded systematic shortcomings. How would The NewsHour's coverage stand up to a similar examination?"

I had hoped, indeed expected, that in Buying the War, the Moyers team would answer that question. However, PBS programming got a single scant mention in the Moyers documentary, a few words about a Frontline and NewsHour collaboration with New York Times Television, a few seconds in a 90-minute broadcast.

At its essence, The NewsHour's niche is that it allows America to hear from inside the innermost circles of influence. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) is a progressive media watchdog organization that regularly releases reports on the media, both corporate and public. At the beginning of the Iraq war, a FAIR study examined six national news shows including The NewsHour and found that they featured war supporters almost 24 times as often as war critics. 71 percent of sources took an explicit pro-war stance versus 3 percent expressing opposition. The FAIR study concluded, "Despite PBS's mandate to offer an alternative to commercial media, The NewsHour . . . fell closely in line with its commercial competition, with 66 percent pro-war sources vs. 3 percent antiwar."

In other words, watching The NewsHour during the period examined in Mr. Moyers' documentary, one might conclude that there was no serious counter-argument to the case being offered by the Bush Administration. If the mainstream media -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, Meet The Press, and the network news programs -- were held up to scrutiny in Buying the War, why not The NewsHour? Moyers had tough, even embarrassing questions for Dan Rather, Tim Russert, Walter Isaacson, and Peter Beinart of The New Republic. What might he have asked Jim Lehrer?

Moyers queries Tim Russert, Washington Bureau Chief and Vice President of NBC News: "What do you make of the fact that of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC and CBS nightly news, from September 2002 until February 2003, almost all the stories could be traced back to sources from the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department?" One must wonder what a similar analysis of the guests on The NewsHour might show.

Last year, Jim Lehrer was quoted in CJR Daily (6/2/06) giving this job description: "My part of journalism is to present what various people say . . . I'm not in the judgment part of journalism. I'm in the reporting part of journalism." At The NewsHour Lehrer carries the title of anchor and executive editor. Normally in network news these indicate authority. Surely, Mr. Lehrer has some say in which experts are invited to be on The NewsHour, which is an important judgment call. I wonder why Lehrer and the now retired executive producer, Lester Crystal, were not included in the large cast of journalists interviewed for this documentary.

The NewsHour ratio of war supporters to opponents (66%-to-3%) is a pretty compelling statistic, if accurate, and I have not seen anyone question FAIR's methodology. There were plenty of people in think tanks, universities, and Congress who were skeptical about the Administration's message in the run-up to Iraq. In the House of Representatives, 133 members voted against the resolution authorizing the war. Why wasn't there a more representative balance of pro- and anti-war opinion?

PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler discussed the Moyers program, saying, "The failure of much of the American press to uncover -- and provide some prominence to -- the private doubts and even the public case against the war was, in my view, its most egregious failure in my 50 years in journalism." Later Mr. Getler adds, "It seems to me that all news organizations need to take a no-holds-barred look at how they performed . . . and where, specifically, they fell short." Presumably, Mr. Getler would apply that recommendation to The NewsHour. I certainly would.

In the past, I have urged that CPB commission a journalism school to undertake a systematic study of balance in the coverage by The NewsHour of the war in Iraq, especially in the run-up period covered by Mr. Moyers. I do so again.

Bill Moyers has a reputation for speaking truth to power and to aiming high in his journalistic undertakings. In failing to hold the most prominent PBS news program to the same standards as the rest of the mainstream media, Buying the War must be judged as embarrassingly flawed.

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