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McClellan and His Media Collaborators

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Wolf Blitzer, whose persona on CNN is that of a carnival barker, defended his network’s coverage: “I think we were pretty strong. But certainly, with hindsight, we could have done an even better job.”  Coverage might have been better if CNN news chief Eason Jordan hadn’t gotten a Pentagon “thumbs-up” on the retired generals they featured. Or if Jordan hadn’t gone on the air to dismiss a dissenting WMD expert: “Scott Ritter's chameleon-like behavior has really bewildered a lot of people. . . . U.S. officials no longer give Scott Ritter much credibility.” 

 

ABC anchor Charlie Gibson, the closest thing to a Fox News anchor at a big three network, took offense at McClellan: “I think the media did a pretty good job.” With the “drumbeat” coming from the administration, “it was not our job to debate them,” said Gibson.  He claimed “there was a lot of skepticism raised” about Colin Powell’s pre-war U.N. speech.  Media critic Glenn Greenwald called Gibson’s claim “one of the falsest statements ever uttered on TV“ – and made his point using Gibson’s unskeptical Powell coverage at the time.

 

In February 2003, there was huge mainstream media skepticism about Powell’s U.N. speech . . . overseas.  But U.S. TV networks banished antiwar perspectives in the crucial two weeks surrounding that error-filled speech.  FAIR studied all on-camera sources on the nightly ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS newscasts: Less than 1 percent – 3 out of 393 sources – were antiwar.  Only 6 percent were skeptical sources. This at a time when 60 percent of Americans in polls wanted more time for diplomacy and inspections.

 

I worked 10-hour days inside MSNBC’s newsroom during this period as senior producer of Phil Donahue’s primetime show (cancelled three weeks before the war while the network’s most-watched program).  Trust me: too much skepticism over war claims was a punishable offense.  I and all other Donahue producers were repeatedly ordered by top management to book panels that favored the pro-invasion side.  I watched a fellow producer get chewed out for booking a 50-50 show.

 

At MSNBC, I heard Scott Ritter smeared – on-air and off – as a paid mouthpiece of Saddam Hussein.  After we had war skeptic and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark on the show, we learned he was on some sort of network blacklist.  

 

When MSNBC terminated Donahue, it was expected that we’d be replaced by a nightly show hosted by Jesse Ventura.  But that show never really launched.  Ventura says it was because he, like Donahue, opposed the Iraq invasion; he was paid millions for not appearing.  Another MSNBC star, Ashleigh Banfield, was demoted and then lost her job after criticizing the first weeks of “very sanitized” war coverage.  With every muzzling, self-censorship tended to proliferate. 

 

I’m no defender of Scott McClellan.  Some may say he has blood on his hands – and that he hasn’t earned any kind of redemption.

 

But as someone who still burns with anger over what I witnessed inside TV news during that crucial historical moment, I’m trying my best to enjoy this falling out among thieves and liars.

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Jeff Cohen was director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he was an associate professor of journalism. He founded the progressive media watch group FAIR.org in 1986.

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