03/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

John R. MacArthur On Iraq: "We're Seeing a Lot of Self-Censorship"

As the war in Iraq completes its fifth year this week, The Huffington Post is featuring interviews with and essays by those journalists, elected officials, policymakers and former military officials who spoke out early and boldly against what they saw as an inevitable disaster. They join our Iraq Honor Roll.

John R. MacArthur: "We're Seeing a Lot of Self-Censorship"
Harper's Publisher Says Media as Timid as Democrats On Iraq

By Marc Cooper

John "Rick" MacArthur, publisher and president of Harper's magazine, was an early critic of the drive to invade Iraq, arguing on the eve of war that the White House was engaging in "Orwellian" manipulation of public opinion. Indeed, MacArthur, back in 1992, had penned a scathing critique of the media's lack of skepticism regarding the first war in Iraq, titled Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War. He's also the author of The Selling of "Free Trade": NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy (2000) and his forthcoming book on the decline of American democracy is titled You Can't Be President.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, MacArthur argued that the truth about the disaster-in-waiting in Iraq was always plain to see, so long as the will existed to search it out.

Are there media heroes and villains in recounting the run-up to the war in Iraq?

The journalistic heroes here are not the journalists. It's people like (former U.N. weapons inspector) Scott Ritter. And Ritter was the easiest source to quote at the time. What I kept saying to people at the time was if there's one Scott Ritter out there screaming his head off on talk radio and cable TV, then there are twenty other Scott Ritters types who are afraid to talk on the record but you can still talk to. If you were a Nervous Nelly sort of reporter and you wanted more official types to back up the sort of things he was saying, all you had to look was for them. I'm thinking of sources like [former U.S. weapons inspector] David Albright who had plenty to say.

The two great reporters for Knight-Ridder, Jonathan Landy and Warren Strobel, were getting it right but nobody was paying attention. I mean, all the editorials in the papers these guys were working for weren't paying any attention to what their own reporters were saying. Whoever wrote the editorials looked like they weren't reading their own newspapers. Everything those two reporters had been publishing up to then was contradicting everything Bush had been saying.

How easy or difficult was it, in your view, for the average interested citizen in 2002 to find out what was going on in Iraq by reading the press?

It was easy to follow if you paid attention to what people like those at Knight-Ridder were saying. The stuff I was saying was a little harder to find. I was on some cable TV shows and wrote some opinion pieces early on. A piece I wrote for the Providence Journal was, I think, the first longish piece calling Bush a liar on this issue.

But you also had the Bush family track record of making stuff up about the first Gulf War, which I reported on in my book, The Second Front. You knew there was a history of making things up and the Bushes were not reliable on this and neither was the reporting on what they said. There was a whole history of propaganda with them.

You might then also have looked at what UNCSOM had done officially in Iraq. Or you could have dropped a dime and called (UN Chief Weapons Inspector) Mohamed ElBaradei in Geneva and he could have told you.

Let me tell you how bad this all was. When (former New York Times reporter) Judith Miller was really on her rampage with the (U.S. Army) Special Unit trying to find weapons of mass destruction in May 2003, right after the invasion, I go on a show with former CIA Director James Woolsey. They put me on a show on CNN International, by the way, because they won't let me on CNN domestic. So we're debating what they're going to find and what they're not going to find. And Woolsey says, "Don't worry. The New York Times isn't done reporting yet. There's a lot more stuff coming out." (Laughs). I do chapter and verse on everything they hadn't found, all from the public record and I say The New York Times is not a credible source on this and that Judith Miller is not an honest reporter.

A couple of weeks later I get a letter. This is dated May 26th 2003.

(Reading) "Dear Mr. MacArthur: I had the pleasure to watch CNN's Q&A program on Friday, 23 May, and I wish to thank you sincerely for setting the record straight. Your intervention was courageous and forthright. Yours Sincerely, Mohamed ElBaradei."

This guy's got to be pretty desperate! (Laughs) He happens to catch me on CNN International saying the obvious. And this is May 2003! The case was already falling apart.

The institutional tenor of the conversation was so crazy that maybe it was, in fact, impossible to get the truth. I mean look at Colin Powell. I have great respect for her and now she's dead. But go back and look at (long-time liberal Washington Post) columnist Mary McGrory and after Powell's testimony before the UN she was exclaiming, "I believe! I believe him!"

When you talk about the institutional tenor of the time, I take it you are referring to not just the White House, but also to the echoes in the media. Does the media have that sort of responsibility that you are implying?

The media bears enormous responsibility because they were proactive. The New York Times and The Washington Post were pro-active, they were trying to advance the administration story. Clearly, Judith Miller had an ideological agenda. I think Michael Gordon probably had one too. Now that I have seen his awful reporting on Iran and the IED's which, by the way, has been contradicted again and again and he's not being held accountable. You figure those two guys were trying to advance the arguments of the Bush administration because they wanted to start a war.

But they weren't running the Times. Arthur Sulzberger and Howell Raines were running the paper.

Right. The only good reporting we've seen on Raines tell us his mindset was 'we have to prove to the administration that we're not liberals, that we're not anti-war. That we have to overcompensate for a reputation for being a liberal.' It's probably more complicated than that, but that still gets you pretty close.

How would you compare the level of media skepticism and the caliber of reporting today on Iraq against five years ago? Has there been a shift?

I don't think there's been much of a change. There was a sort of incredulity when the whole story fell apart. And then a kind of a silence. Then some recriminations. But what's the result? The first thing you see is The New York Times sitting on their NSA wiretap story for a year, not publishing it. Why wasn't it published before the 2004 election? The Washington Post not naming the countries where the CIA secret prisons were. Like, we wouldn't really want to know where all this stuff is actually happening? What we're seeing is a lot of self-censorship, not aggressively wrong reporting.

I don't see any big institutional shift. There was Michael Gordon, Judith Miller's partner-in-crime, right out there on the front page recently with those stories about the Iranian government providing roadside bombs in Iraq to kill American soldiers though no one could prove it.

But there's been an enormous political shift in the last five years. The Bush administration and the war itself have declined enormously in popularity since then. Why are you arguing it isn't reflected in the tone of the media?

You'd think it would be safer now to be more aggressive, you're right. What I suspect is that half the Democratic Party is still telling the bigwigs in the media is that we can't pull out of Iraq. And, remember, to pull out of Iraq is to undermine our entire foreign policy since 9/11. I've always followed Walter Karp's dictum that the press does not act, rather it is acted upon. There's always this relationship between the big media and the national political leadership. The first doesn't move much without the latter. And, really, the political shift hasn't been as great as some would think.

You don't consider the midterm elections of 2006 and the taking of Congress by the Democrats to be significant?

If the shift had been as big as I would have liked and in the direction I would have liked, (Pennsylvania Democrat) John Murtha would be House Majority Leader now. Murtha is key and not being named Majority Leader tells you everything about where the party is now. Here's a guy who's got seniority, he's a pork-barrel guy, he knows how to deliver, he's close to the Pentagon, he's got impeccable party credentials and a Marine Corps background, but they wouldn't make him party leader. He's too anti-war. The party, right away, said no-no, we're not getting out of Iraq, we're not going to force the issue with Bush even after the 2006 elections. Rahm Emanuel slated a lot of pro-war candidates for the Democrats and they won.

So the reporters aren't hearing any sort of unified voice of skepticism and opposition from the Democratic leadership. Until that happens, you're not going to see the press shift,