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Tom Brokaw Defends War Coverage: The 'Coverup' Continues

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In the wake of the revelations in Scott McClellan's new book, What Happened, some leading TV pundits and reporters have taken to the airways to admit that there was some truth in his charge that they were "complicit enablers" in the march to war in Iraq. Many others have denied all that.

What is most appalling, however, is that it took McClellan's book to produce a debate about this tremendously vital subject at all. And that brings us to one of the most iconic figures of all, Tom Brokaw.

More than two months ago, I wrote here and elsewhere that I found it appalling that in the orgy of coverage of the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war back in March, the media reviewed every aspect of the war and pointed fingers everywhere, except at the media. There was almost no self-assessment, after five years of war. I observed then that this revealed a disturbing, and continuing, mode of denial or defensiveness -- or else a shocking failure to realize what the war has wrought as the greatest blunder and catastrophe in our recent history. I made this same point in the New York Times last Friday. And, naturally, before that, in my new book.

Now, post-McClellan, some top media figures are, at least, self-assessing - but in most cases have concluded that they performed quite adequately in the run-up to the war. So the "coverup" continues.

Rather than review all that has been said, and left unsaid, in the past few days, I will simply perform the service of providing the transcript of an interview that has gotten some attention via a video at the MSNBC site, but never quoted in full due to the lack of a transcript. It deserves full study.

It features current NBC anchor Brian Williams interviewing former anchor Tom Brokaw (he was still in that seat when we went to war) four nights ago. Brokaw's bankrupt arguments could stand as Exhibit A in the media's continuing failure to admit complicity in the human, financial, and moral disaster that is the Iraq war.

Consider just a few elements. Brokaw says, "But this president was determined to go to war. It was more theology than it was anything else. It was pretty hard to deal with." So "hard" that the media didn't even try hard to "deal" with the 'theology." NBC and others chose to focus on the "evidence" of WMD rather than the evidence that the administration was simply bent on going to war, WMD or not.

Brokaw, to make light of McClellan's charges, also declares that "all wars are based on propaganda." He even mentions World War II. For Brokaw, who has embraced the notion of that being the "good war," to put the Iraq invasion in the same class is outrageous. There is a huge difference between admitting that there is a propaganda element to every war - and pointing out that certain wars are mainly based on propaganda and that a country has been misled, or lied, into war. Surely, Brokaw doesn't think FDR hyped the Japanese and German threat -- or was hellbent on war.

As for mantra of "the context of the time": The context was that the attack on Iraq took place fully 18 months after 9/11. We had already blasted the forces who had actually hit us on 9/11, which should have taken care of the media's patriotic fervor. I lost a good friend on 9/11 here in New York City, but my patriotic fervor caused me to write numerous articles warning of an unnecessary war against those who had nothing to do with those terrorist attacks -- especially since United Nations inspectors, on the ground in Iraq, had found absolutely no evidence of WMD. That was the real "context" of the time.

Brokaw cites NBC putting war critic Brent Scowcroft on the air. Studies (cited in my book) have shown that such critics were vastly -- hideously -- outnumbered by war supporters who got face time.

He also blames the Democrats for not raising more of an antiwar cry. What kind of journalist explains a failure to probe the real reasons for a war on others who may not be doing their own due diligence? And as Media Matters pointed out this week, Brokaw's NBC devoted exactly 32 words to the key antiwar political speech in September 2002 by Sen. Ted Kennedy. The other networks did much the same.

Here is the Brokaw/Williams transcript.

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Williams: Are you confident, taking the coverage in toto -- that the right questions were asked, the right tone was employed - and should it be viewed in the context to that time?

Brokaw: It needs to be viewed in the context of that time. When a president says we're going to war, that there's a danger of the mushroom crowd. We know there had been experiments with Iraqi nuclear programs in the past. Honorable people believed he had weapons of mass destruction.

But there's always a drumbeat that happens at that time. And you can raise your hand and put on people like Brent Scowcroft, which we did, a very creditable man who said this was the wrong decision.

But there are other parts of America that also have a responsibility. How many senators voted against the war? I think 23 is all.

There was this feeling, that this was a bad man, he had weapons of mass destruction, we couldn't make the connection that he was sponsoring terrorists or harboring them, we raised that question day after day.

But this president was determined to go to war. It was more theology than it was anything else. That's pretty hard to deal with.

Look, I think all of us would like to go back and ask questions with the benefit of hindsight, but a lot of what was going on then was unknowable. The CIA insisted that he had weapons of mass destruction.

Now, when Scott says we were complicit enablers, two pages later he then says that in retrospect we went to military confrontation on weapons of mass destruction because we couldn't sell the real reason for it, which was an idealistic, democratic Iraq in the post-9/11 world.

So there is a fog of war, Brian, and also the fog in covering war.

Williams: Part of his allegation is that it was a war based on propaganda.

Brokaw: All wars are based on propaganda. John Kennedy launched the beginning of our war in Vietnam by talking about the domino theory and embracing the Green Berets. Lyndon Johnson kept it up and so did Richard Nixon. World War II--a lot of that was driven by propaganda, and suppressing things that people should have known at the time. So people should not be surprised by that.

In this business we often bump up against what I call the opaque world. The White House has an unbelievable ability to control the flow of information at any time but especially at a time when they are planning to go to war.
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Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq.