"The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." -- Milan Kundera
Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, the former reigning kings of broadcast network news (along with the majority of their big media cohorts in cable and print) all contributed to the transaction that sold the war in Iraq. Their pre-invasion newscasts devoted, to only nominally varying degrees, overwhelming airtime not to questioning the grounds for invasion, but to how the U.S. military would execute the task.
While this is well documented by now, revisionist spin remains strong among some of those who are most responsible.
Peter Jennings, arguably the least hawkish of the Big Three anchors during the lead-up to the war, passed away from lung cancer in August 2005. Dan Rather has shown contrition for his role in the pre-war drumbeating; in Bill Moyers' documentary "Buying the War," for example, Rather conceded, "I don't think there is any excuse for, you know, my performance and the performance of the press in general in the roll up to the war. There were exceptions. There were some people, who, I think, did a better job than others. But overall and in the main there's no question that we didn't do a good job."
Yet Tom Brokaw, as evidenced in his appearance on CNN's Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz this past Sunday, holds a decidedly unrepentant view:
KURTZ: In terms of the coverage [of the Vietnam War], do you see certain parallels here to Iraq? Most people would say, and I would agree, the media did a pretty poor job during the run-up to the Iraq War in terms of the way that President Bush was selling it, and now, of course, the coverage in recent years has been more critical.
BROKAW: Yes. The one thing I would disagree with you about, a lot of what happened on the run-up was unknowable. People did believe he had weapons of mass destruction. People who were critical of the war and the idea of going to war did in fact think that he had weapons of mass destruction, which was one of the bases for...
Kurtz actually affords Brokaw three chances to accept a modicum of accountability, but to no avail. Here's chance number two:
KURTZ: But shouldn't journalists have been more skeptical toward the line the administration was selling, even if they couldn't disprove it and given it more...
BROKAW: I think on the execution...
BROKAW: I think on the war plan they should have been a lot more skeptical.
Yes, the war plan. Still, to this day, it's about the war plan. The same myopically deficient focus that helped to sell the invasion of a country that never attacked us.
And the kicker:
KURTZ: And given more space, more air time to opposition voices? There was a feeling...
BROKAW: Yes, but remember -- you have to remember, the opposition voices were not that many in this town, for example, in Washington. There just weren't that many. We put Brent Scowcroft on "Nightly News." I did a two-way with him. And I was one of the few places where he would go where he would do that. We did have Senator Bob Byrd on the air and Ted Kennedy on the air, but it passed by a pretty considerable margin.
KURTZ: Oh, within the Democratic Party there weren't that many anti-war voices.
BROKAW: Yes, that's right.
Brokaw's statement reveals not only a failure of journalistic execution, but a troubling dysfunction at the core of mainstream news during the Bush years, which (sorry, Howie) largely continues to this day: a near wholesale abdication of the media's role as the fourth estate, the last line of defense in our nation's checks and balances.
Of course, legions of other credible voices - from award-winning investigative journalists to members of our own intelligence agencies to current and former weapons inspectors to historians familiar with the region - questioned the pre-war WMD charges, the White House's rationale for war, and also realized any invasion of Iraq, especially with intent to occupy, would be a disaster regardless of the "war plan."
It's just that, yes, those voices weren't coming from the Democratic leadership. That's a fact, but not an excuse.
Nor were those other voices welcome on NBC Nightly News, of which Brokaw was the managing editor as well as anchor. And in that role, surely he was instrumental in who appeared on his broadcast, no matter how much the corporate brass may have been meddling in such decisions. Moreover, if that had been the case, it's incumbent upon Brokaw to inform American citizens now. Something Dan Rather, his competitor for over two decades, is in the process of doing.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius (as noted here recently) proffered a similar self-serving and inept defense back in 2004: "In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn't create a debate on our own."
Regardless of quality work that Tom Brokaw may have contributed to over the years, toeing the company line will not suffice if he hopes to repair some of the damage to his credibility burned in the memories of millions who witnessed his pre-invasion coverage.
He had a choice then, and he has a choice now.
UPDATE: Brilliant supplementary reading on this subject:
The bulk of our establishment journalists aren't merely stenographers. They're bad stenographers. [...] For that reason, when establishment journalists are called "stenographers," the real insult is to professional stenographers, who are scrupulous about recording what everyone says with equal weight. But our media class gives enormous weight to government sources and, correspondingly, GOP operatives.
1. Journalists must be completely objective. This is the most important rule of journalism. Objectivity means not having any opinion or feelings whatsoever no matter what the circumstances. This rule was best expressed in a line I recently quoted from Washington Post columnist David Broder, the dean of American journalism, about his response [sic] President Kennedy's assassination: "As an ordinary man, I wanted leave the scene, hide somewhere, and weep," Broder said. "But I managed to calm myself and to report the event in the most objective way." As I explained in my earlier piece, "Broder refused to take sides after the President was killed. Was he for the assassination or against it? It was impossible to tell from his reporting. No matter what his personal feelings might have been, as a reporter he had to be objective when it came to whether killing Kennedy was a good thing or a bad thing."
2. There are two sides to every story and a journalist must give both sides equal weight even if he or she knows one side is completely false. Weighing one side against the other violates a journalist's objectivity. (See Rule No. 1.)