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The Media’s Share of the Blame

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The New York Times published a fine obituary on U.S. diplomacy today.

But the New York Times, as well as the rest of the U.S. media, needs to shoulder a significant portion of the blame for this colossal failure. The Bush Administration succeeded in pulling off this war campaign with the help of the American public’s belief in “facts” for which there is no evidence, including that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9-11 and that there was a recent nuclear weapons program in Iraq.

It matters that the public believes these falsehoods. The media cannot escape culpability in the dissemination of these strategic lies–it’s their job to discover lies and point them out to us, even if that task is difficult, and even if the government stands in the way. In this country, they failed–at a fundamental level, at the level of simple facts–to present the truth to the American public. With their gullibility, they encouraged the Bush Administration to present one deception after another (9-11 connection, the scary drone plane made of balsa, the faked evidence of Iraq’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons), and those deceptions were instrumental in achieving what support there is in the U.S. for this unilateral war.

That American ignorance about basic facts was manufactured is clear. The Christian Science Monitor puts it succinctly:

Polling data show that right after Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans were asked open-ended questions about who was behind the attacks, only 3 percent mentioned Iraq or Hussein. But by January of this year, attitudes had been transformed. In a Knight Ridder poll, 44 percent of Americans reported that either “most” or “some” of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens. The answer is zero.

Lest you take refuge in the thought, “Well, at least 56 percent of the nation actually knows an important basic fact about 9-11,” the rest of the numbers provide only more reason for astonishment: Only 17 percent knew the correct answer. Six percent believed “one” hijacker was Iraqi, and 33 percent just didn’t know.

The most devastating proof of the U.S. media’s failure is the possession of basic knowledge by the rest of the world. Polls prove that average citizens around the globe, if asked simple and relevant questions–is there evidence of a Saddam/9-11 connection? is there proof of a nuclear-weapons program? did Iraq hide missiles from the inspectors?–by and large know the answers. The average American, by contrast, would reveal an embarrassing ignorance of the record. The citizens of the country perpetrating this war, with regard to basic facts that prop up their support for it, essentially believe that the sky is green.

There are people in Middle America right now–good, decent people who just happen to get their news in the most convenient way–who no doubt believe the rest of the world is insane for not helping us out in this war. I’m thinking of the guy–to be specific, let’s say a middle-class Dad in Nebraska–who was looking over the paper this morning at the breakfast table and said to his wife, “Honey, can you believe it? Iraq sends planes to destroy the Trade Center towers, and our allies won’t even help us fight back.”

“I know,” responded middle-class Mom. “And just recently Hussein tried to get nuclear weapons to use on us next. Doesn’t France understand this? What’s wrong with these people?”

What’s wrong with them? They’re informed. To some degree, it’s not middle-class Mom and Dad’s fault they’re ignorant. What were they supposed to do, seek out international papers at the newsstand? Go to my blog? All they did was trust the outlets that have been bringing them the news all their lives. They formed their impression–not an unreasonable one, really–from what they had to work with. They had what got through to them via the mainstream media.

I don’t claim to know what caused this failure of the U.S. media to deliver the truth to its audience. I know it was hard to make those decisions in the newsroom. There are tough questions to answer: Do we report what the government says, or do we report what we know to be the truth? Isn’t a claim “news” if the government makes it? Shouldn’t we let the people decide if they believe the government or not? I’m not claiming the media’s failure was due to a lack of thought or deliberation on these important issues.

But U.S. media, you failed. However hard it was, you were not up to the task. The evidence demonstrates it clearly. Condemn the Bush Administration’s deception all you want on your editorial pages. You failed in your basic obligation to the American people. You helped lead an ignorant nation into war.

Proof at any cost has made truth a casualty of the crisis

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About Brian Flemming

  • Marty Thau

    The bottom line is that too many Americans are just plain stupid. They’re interested in SURVIVOR, football games and lower car insurance rates. That’s about it. American kids have little knowledge of history. Ask them who someone like Jimmy Carter was and they’ll groan. Ask them J.Lo’s bra size and they’ll give you an acurate answer and the title of every song she recorded.

  • The Theory

    can i say yes and amen?


  • Actually Americans aren’t stupid. One of the good points Chomsky makes in the documentary Manufacturing Consent (from a jumbotron screen in a sports stadium) is that people know detailed complex information about sports, but most don’t know much about politics or international affairs.

    And part of it is the fault of the media which underestimates people. People would be interested in politics and international news if it was presented in an interesting way and in a way that shows they can do things to bring about change.

  • Eric Olsen

    Brian, your well-written and passionate analysis is based upon some assumptions of course: that the outcome is bad, that diplomacy was the appropriate course of action, that war is failure, that the public has been misled. I disagree – I think the American public may not have an exact grasp of all the facts, but that they comprehend the basics and agree with Bush’s course of action.

    The majority doesn’t feel it hasn’t received the truth, it just disagrees with your view of the outcome.

  • NC

    I’m thinking of the guy–to be specific, let’s say a middle-class Dad in Nebraska–who was looking over the paper this morning at the breakfast table and said to his wife, “Honey, can you believe it? Iraq sends planes to destroy the Trade Center towers, and our allies won’t even help us fight back.”

    And to think that some people find liberals condescending. Them Nuh-braskin’s sure is ignant!

  • Eric–

    Actually, I would say that these three assumptions are inarguable: “that the outcome is bad, that diplomacy was the appropriate course of action, that war is failure.” Who doesn’t think war is a “bad” outcome? Who doesn’t prefer a diplomatic solution to war? And, above all, who doesn’t think war is “failure”?

    I disagree that my analysis is based on the assumption that “the public has been misled.” I think the facts I cite demonstrate that the public possesses inaccurate information. That the nation is going to war, and that the nation believes “facts” that are not true is, I think, inarguable. Where’s the evidence against this second proposition?

    I agree with you that “the majority doesn’t feel it hasn’t received the truth.” That’s the problem. Because objectively, empirically, it can be demonstrated that they haven’t received the truth.

    I was careful in my analysis to stick to issues of fact, not opinion. I’m against the war, true. But I’m not saying everyone who is for it is only for it because they are misinformed. I’m saying it’s undeniable that a significant number of Americans are misinformed. What would they decide if they knew the facts? I don’t know, but it might tip the scales.

    Let’s talk about the Knight-Ridder poll. Forty-four percent of the nation believes “most” or “some” of the hijackers were Iraqi, when it is an objective, undisputed fact that none of them were.

    Is this insignificant? If the number of the misinformed were “zero” instead of “44” do you think support for the war would remain roughly the same? Don’t you think that the Saddam/9-11 connection in general was instrumental in creating support for the war? And don’t you agree that there is no credible support for that connection? (If not, I’m open to the evidence, if you can point me to it.)

    I’m putting aside any issue of whether the war is right or wrong, avoidable or inevitable. Put aside even the question of whether support is based on misinformation.

    Let’s just talk about those 44. Does it not matter that those 44 have the impressions they do, and don’t you wonder how it happened? Doesn’t it matter how it happened?


    I’ve always had a slight problem with that assertion by Chomsky that Americans are interested in sports and not politics. I get the overall point, but the assertion ignores all of the TV shows and channels that do treat issues of the day like sport–a contest between two sides. A whole lot of people watch MSNBC, Fox, etc. (although I do recognize that many of the current pundit contests didn’t exist at the time “Manufacturing Consent” was made). It seems to me that people are interested–it’s just that their sources of information are not as accurate as, say, the NBA is with the box scores.

    I think it’s more a question of the media’s approach to sports vs. politics. American journalists believe it is impolite or a display of bias if they point out lies told by the government and simply call them what they are. If the NBA were to claim a game resulted in one team winning, when really another team won, it would be a scandal, and journalists would have no problem pointing out the inaccuracy of the NBA’s claim. It wouldn’t be “he said/she said” story.

    But when the government makes a claim that the reporter knows is demonstrably untrue, the reporter treats this matter delicately, so as not to offend. The government knows that the media will convert a blatant lie into a “fact in dispute.” I can’t blame a pressed-for-time average American for getting lost in this noise.


    I disagree that Americans are stupid. I’m not excusing their complacency as a small band of neoconservatives and born-again Christians lead us into worldwide conflict based on the discredited notion of “preventive war,” but they’re not unintelligent. And if the media reported what reporters know to be the truth (and reporters insisted on discovering the truth) instead of treating facts as “the other side of the argument,” the U.S. might not be so complacent.


    I admit my Nebraskan dialogue is crude and portrays ignorant characters. But do you deny that a significant number of Americans hold precisely those views?

  • Eric Olsen

    Brian taking on all comers in a single comment!

    Seriously, good answers.

    Opinion polls always show a shocking lack of detailed knowledge ABOUT everything. Have you ever watched Jay talk to people on Hollywood Blvd? Many don’t know what kind of genitals they have.

    I don’t think the Bushies have purposely misled people on a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, which appears to be tenuous, I agree. BUT, people – displaying dumbass native wisdom – have linked them together in their minds because they are virtually the same in relation to the US.

    I don’t think the number 44 is all that important from the standpoint of how they would feel if they knew the facts: I think they have made a subconscious decision that these are the same wars and that is that. I think you have the cause and effect flipped around. The collective subconscious is at work.

  • Eric,

    You’re right that opinion polls generally show shocking ignorance. But I’m willing to let that 80% who think there was a conspiracy to assassinate JFK (don’t get me started) take a pass. When it comes to war, how informed the populace is matters deeply. If the Pentagon Papers prove anything, it’s that.

    Re: Source of the ignorance. I gues we’ll have to disagree about this one, but I think it is naive, at the least, to believe that the Bush Administration has not “purposely misled people on a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda.” I think there’s no question that there was an active campaign by the White House to get people to think about al Qaeda and Iraq together. (As a friend puts it: “Saddam, Osama; Uma, Oprah.”) The only purpose: gain support for the war.

    As far as the cause and effect, yeah, I don’t know. How much the American people want to believe things so that they can go to war is an open question. While it’s true that people don’t want war, it’s also true that people love war. People may have wanted to be deceived as much as our leaders wanted to deceive them.

  • san

    “that the outcome is bad, that diplomacy was the appropriate course of action, that war is failure.” yes, yes and YES. You are three for three; right on all counts, Brian.

  • I have been skeptical of this poll since the day it came out. And I remain skeptical. It just doesn’t gibe with the world I live in, which is hardly an ivory tower world.

    The fact is, there is a greater degree of knowledge about this war than any war ever fought in history. There’s more TV coverage thany any war (or its debate), more newspaper and radio coverage, and an explosion of debate and information on the Internet.

    And even if 6-10 Americans believe Iraqis were on the planes, would that really change the outcome of whether they support the war?

    There are literally hundreds of thousands of Americans who support the war — my self included — who are completely informed, who have heard all sides of the debate, who have watched the UN sessions, who have read Hans Blix in the newspapers, who have seen the protestors in the street, who have read the multitude of letters to the editor … and the blogs, always the blogs … never has American foriegn policy been so vigerously debated … you know what … hundreds of thousands of these very informed Americans still support the war.

    So your poll numbers really become a straw man, because they do not prove that IF those same Americans KNEW that there were no Iraqis on the plane, they would suddenly oppose the war. The fact is, a good portion, probably even exceeding 50 percent, would still support the war.

    And Bush would still do what he’s going to do because it is the right thing morally, logically and legally.

    Your whole piece is based on a faulty premise.

  • Ivo S

    Dear Brian,

    I’m writing from Sweden and I would like to express a sincere “thank you” for your article.

    It is all too clear that the American public has been subject to a massive campaign of “selective information” and been exposed to innuendos connecting Saddam to 9/11 events. Here in Europe we are of the opinion that you almost see the strings that Bush is hanging from, controlling his every move. These strings are manouvered by oil tycoons, the representatives of the war industry and the fraction of war-mongering republicans in the administration such as Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz.

    Let’s face it, if Iraq didn’t have any oil it would be of no interest to the US and Saddam would rule his country without US warfare being brought upon him, just like other tyrants in medieval, totalitarian and/or WoMD-empowered countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, various African states, etc.

    And then, let’s not forget how the US have sponsored and helped dictators to power, like in Chile, my native country. In Afghanistan, the US trained Bin Laden, and in the early 80’s Rumsfeld visited and supported Iraq in the Iraq-Iran war. You’d thing US govt would have burnt themselves on these past events that have backlashed on them.

    My concern is for the war’s effects on an international level. Russia has already halted its nuclear disarmament, and other Arab countries will top it’s military in case they will be the next US targets. For every Iraqi killed by US attacks there will be others ready to vendicate them, i.e. perfect recruiting material for Al-Quaeda and other terrorist organisations.

    The only reason Bush asked for UN:s permission was to look good in the history books. But now Bush is taking the US to war knowing it is the victor that writes the history. That is, *if* he wins. The UN needed more time with their inspections. The diplomatical ways of solving this matter are But Bush’s trigger finger is all too eager to fire.

    My heart goes out to the families of the ones who will be innocent victims of the recklessness of the Bush administration.