“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” — Viet Thanh Nguyen
As mainstream U.S. media outlets pause to remember the US invasion of Iraq, it’s clear that there’s a lot they hope we’ll forget – first and foremost, the media’s own active complicity in whipping up public support for the war.
But the more you dig into mainstream news coverage from that period, as our documentary team did last week when we put together this five-minute montage from our 2007 film War Made Easy, the harder it is to forget how flagrantly news networks across the broadcast and cable landscape uncritically spread the Bush administration’s propaganda and actively excluded dissenting voices.
The numbers don’t lie. A 2003 report by the media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) found that in the two weeks leading up to the invasion, ABC World News, NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, and the PBS Newshour featured a total of 267 American experts, analysts, and commentators on camera to supposedly help make sense of the march to war. Of these 267 guests, an astounding 75% were current or former government or military officials, and a grand total of one expressed any skepticism.
Meanwhile, in the fast-growing world of cable news, Fox News’s tough-talking, pro-war jingoism was setting the standard for ratings-wary executives at most of the more “liberal” cable networks. MSNBC and CNN, feeling the heat of what industry insiders were calling “the Fox effect,” were desperately trying to outflank their right-wing rival – and one another – by actively eliminating critical voices and seeing who could bang the war drums loudest.
At MSNBC, as the Iraq invasion approached in early 2003, network executives decided to fire Phil Donahue even though his show had the highest ratings on the channel. A leaked internal memo explained that top management saw Donahue as “a tired, left-wing liberal” who would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” Noting that Donahue “seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives,” the memo warned ominously that his show could end up being “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”