The American Conservative this month has more antiwar articles than any publication on the left. The cover piece is by Jordan Bloom, “When News Is Propaganda,” and its most disturbing section details the ways that the cable news networks folded in the runup to the Iraq war. Jeez, look at the memo about Phil Donahue– not a good face for the network at at time of war.
Since CNN broadcast some of the opening volleys in the first Gulf War, the history of cable news has been inextricably tied to foreign conflict. War is a godsend for the networks. The public sits at home in rapt patriotism while the network brings on experts who speculate about minute details and strategies in language with just enough jargon to sound convincing.
The elephant in the room—the advertising and viewership benefits of war—has never been acknowledged by any of the three networks. But they regularly censor antiwar voices.
“There is little room for an antiwar point of view, either from the left or right, on television today,” says [Bill] Press, whose show on MSNBC was cancelled because he and co-host [Pat] Buchanan were both against the Iraq War. He criticizes the media’s failure to question government assertions about military operations.
“It did not do so in Vietnam, the first Gulf War, nor the war in Iraq. For the most part, reporters just recycled propaganda coming out of the White House and helped the White House sell war after war to the American people. Also networks mainly book cheerleaders for the war—because they’re afraid of being dubbed ‘anti-American.’”
“That was clearly a show where there was debate,” says Jeff Cohen, founder of the liberal media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and a producer at MSNBC when “Buchanan & Press” was on the air. “It was often Buchanan and Press against two interventionists. That show didn’t last. One by one the voices of reason, the ones that turned out to be right on Iraq, were silenced.”
Uncritical coverage of the Iraq War was a product of either fear and cowardice or opportunism. At least in the case of MSNBC’s “Donahue,” where Cohen was senior producer, that’s perfectly clear. An internal NBC memo warned that antiwar host Phil Donahue might be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.”
“We were still the top-rated show” at the time, says Cohen, and “if we could have been the one show that allowed moderate voices and noninterventionist voices, we would have been huge.” But network executives “were less interested in ratings than in tamping down controversy.”
“As it got closer to the invasion day, they clamped down on our program more and more with edicts that came down from management that we had to have more pro-war views than anti-invasion views. What that resulted in—and I think management was happy about this—was that the hawks seemed to outshout the voices of reason that were arguing we should wait.”