Why NBC News' next documentary must examine the network's own failures in the run-up and aftermath of the Iraq invasion...
By Brad Friedman on 2/25/2013, 6:05am PT  

Last Friday night on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow proudly, and justifiably, crowed about the ratings success of last Monday new NBC News documentary, Hubris: Selling the Iraq War, as narrated by her and based on the 2007 book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff.

"First I want to say thank you, if you tuned in this past Monday to watch the new MSNBC documentary about how the last administration tricked the U.S. into the Iraq War," she said. The film garnered the highest ratings of any documentary in the history of the channel.

"The success is really exciting. It means there will be more of where that came from in coming months and years," Maddow explained before announcing that the film will re-air on Friday, March 15th at 9pm ET. (You can watch the entire documentary online before that right here, if you like.)

Congratulations are certainly due. While there were several new revelations in the film, much of the story of the string of blatant lies and scams culled together to hoax the country into war had already been known to those of us news geeks who follow this stuff too closely. Nonetheless, it was very helpful, and an excellent reminder, to see the entire case laid out in a single, simple, watchable presentation. We're delighted to hear it was a ratings success.

Revisiting that disaster also helped encourage The BRAD BLOG to examine several still-existing loose ends --- beyond the fact that, shamefully, nobody in the Bush Administration has ever been brought to account in any way for what happened, including what are clearly a series of very serious war crimes. Among the points we've been looking into, in the wake of the Hubris documentary, is the questions of whether or not Colin Powell "knowingly lied" in his presentation of what turned out to be blatantly false evidence for the case against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, when the then-Secretary of State spoke to the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003 and helped turn the tide of public opinion in favor of an invasion.

Powell's Chief of Staff at the time, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, admits during the film that he and Powell "did participate in a hoax." But, in a statement in response to our request for comment, Wilkerson vigorously denied that either he or his boss knowingly did so. He sent his statement after we'd published anti-war author and activist David Swanson's critique of the Hubris film, on the day after it initially aired. In the critique, Swanson cites his own 2011 essay which offers evidence to argue that Powell "knowingly lied" during his presentation to the U.N. (Both Swanson and 27-year Sr. CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who was cited in Wilkerson's response, each replied to him in turn. You can read all of their responses here.)

While Swanson "applauded" the MSNBC documentary for helping to "prolong Americans' awareness of the lies that destroyed Iraq," he also offered a number of pointed critiques for the cable news channel itself. His observations are on-point in both regards, and help to raise a suggestion for an important and necessary follow-up documentary that, we suspect, would likely garner ratings at least as high as those earned for Hubris.

After all, though Hubris:Selling the Iraq War focused on the lies told by the Bush Administration in the run-up to war, unfortunately, they were not the only ones "selling the Iraq War"...

MSNBC: Selling the Iraq War

"As our government was making a fraudulent case to attack Iraq in 2002-2003, the MSNBC television network was doing everything it could to help," Swanson alleged in his review last week, highlighting the infamous cancellation of Phil Donahue's show, even though it was said to have had the highest ratings on the nascent cable news channel at the time.

"The Donahue Show was deemed likely to be insufficiently war-boosting and was thus removed 10 years ago next week --- and 10 days after the largest antiwar (or anything else) demonstrations in the history of the world," wrote Swanson.

After his firing, he continued, "MSNBC proceeded to support the war with mild critiques around the edges, and to white-out the idea of impeachment or accountability."

Indeed, Donahue has famously charged (to Sean Hannity of Fox "News", ironically enough, but also to Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman and others) that, following 9/11 and during the march to war in Iraq a year and half later, he was forced by the network "to have two conservatives on for every liberal" voice he featured on the show.

An internal memo at the time claimed that Donahue is "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war...he seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives."

But being "skeptical of the administration's motives" should have earned Donahue a raise, not a pink slip. That was precisely what was lacking in almost every American newsroom at the time. Had there been any such skepticism on our airwaves, it might have helped to avert one of the deadliest and most expensive foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. In short, the corporate media failed what is supposed to be their role.

Of course, NBC and MSNBC were not alone in their lack of skepticism and subsequent failure to accurately report what was known about the fraudulent case for war against Iraq. The administration's persistently false drumbeat was being sold, unskeptically, to the American public with the compliance of nearly the entirety of the U.S. corporate mainstream media.

A March 2003 study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which examined coverage on the evening news broadcasts at ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS one week before and one week after Powell's U.N. presentation, found that "[o]f the U.S. guests" featured on the programs, "a striking 75 percent (199) were either current or former government or military officials. Only one of the official U.S. sources --- Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.) --- expressed skepticism or opposition to the war."

"Of all official sources," the study found, "75 percent (222 of 297) were associated with either the U.S. or with governments that support the Bush administration's position on Iraq; only four out of those 222, or 2 percent, of these sources were skeptics or opponents of war."

This was at the same time as historically large anti-war street protests were taking place in the U.S. and around the world. It was also when, as the report notes, "61 percent of respondents in a CBS poll (2/5-6/03) were saying that they felt the U.S. should 'wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time,' [and] only 16 of the 68 U.S. guests (24 percent) who were not officials represented such views."

"Half of the non-official U.S. skeptics were 'persons in the street'; five of them were not even identified by name. Only one U.S. source, Catherine Thomason of Physicians for Social Responsibility, represented an anti-war organization."

In the three weeks after the war was launched, according to a subsequent FAIR study from May of 2003 --- this one including evening news reports from CNN and Fox as well NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS --- the story was almost identical.

"Nearly two thirds of all sources, 64 percent, were pro-war, while 71 percent of U.S. guests favored the war. Anti-war voices were 10 percent of all sources, but just 6 percent of non-Iraqi sources and 3 percent of U.S. sources. Thus viewers were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war source as one who was anti-war; with U.S. guests alone, the ratio increases to 25 to 1."

In both reports, NBC's record was roughly as dismal as the other network news outlets. Though, FAIR notes, "the largest percentage of U.S. sources who were anti-war" was seen on NBC Nightly News, "despite the network's ownership by General Electric, a significant military contractor."

What was that percentage of U.S. anti-war sources featured on NBC's main evening news program in the three weeks after the launch of a war based on the knowing lies detailed by MSNBC in Hubris? Just 4 percent, according to FAIR.

They gave him a second term

The inaccurate coverage didn't only affect American's beliefs about the war. The wildly imbalanced coverage across all of the major television news outlets played a key roll in the subsequent Presidential election.

In March of 2004, exactly one year after the war was launched, a study [PDF] by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and Knowledge Networks, based on a nationwide sampling of 1,311 respondents, found: "A majority continues to believe that Iraq was giving substantial support to al Qaeda, while nearly half continue to believe that evidence of such support has been found. A majority believes that Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction or a major program for developing them."

None of those things were true.

"The majority of those who have such beliefs," the study notes, "approve of the decision to go to war, while the majority of those who do not have such beliefs disapprove of the war."

While there remain justifiable dispute around the accuracy of the results of the 2004 election, there can be little doubt that the corporate media's inaccuracies and related historic failures in their coverage of the war, both before and after it was launched, helped to inflate support for the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign.

But how did a majority of Americans come to believe, a full year after the war began, with no evidence of a WMD program discovered, "that Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction or a major program for developing them"?

Here, NBC played a key role. It was just one of many aspects of NBC and MSNBC's participation in misinforming America which begs examination in a new, follow-up MSNBC documentary, if we are ever to "come to terms with what happened, and how it happened," as Maddow (who was not at MSNBC at the time the Iraq War began) discussed in the week leading up to last week's documentary.

First, just three days after U.S. troops had begun rolling in to southern Iraq, questions began to arise in regard to the whereabouts of those vaunted WMD we had all been warned about by Powell and the rest of the Bush Administration.

"Bush administration officials were peppered yesterday with questions about why allied forces in Iraq have not found any of the chemical or biological weapons that were President Bush's central justification for forcibly disarming Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government," Washington Post reported on March 23, 2003. "Officials said they are certain such weapons of mass destruction will be located."

"Miraculously," Seth Ackerman wrote in July of 2003 in "The Great WMD Hunt", the weapons in Iraq were "found" by that very night! Or, at least, MSNBC reported as much.

"Bob, as you know, there's a lot of talk right now about a chemical cache that has been found at a chemical facility," MSNBC's then anchor, Forrest Sawyer told NBC's White House correspondent Bob Kur. "I underscore, we do not know what the chemicals are, but it sure has gotten spread around fast."

The next day, according to Ackerman, the real facts emerged. "U.S. officials had admitted that morning that the site contained no chemicals at all and had been abandoned long ago." But few heard about the quiet correction.

An even worse, and far more damning incident occurred, once again with the help of NBC, just two months later, as Ackerman explains:

Having suffered a series of public humiliations from the conspicuous absence of unconventional weapons, the administration made it known that it was pinning its hopes on two trailers found in northern Iraq, which they termed mobile biological weapons labs. On May 12, NBC News correspondent Jim Avila, reporting from Baghdad, declared that the labs "may be the most significant WMD findings of the war." Joining him was hawkish former U.N. nuclear inspector David Kay (now an "NBC News analyst"), who was flown to Iraq to perform an impromptu inspection for the cameras. Armed with a pointer, he rattled off the trailer 's parts: "This is a compressor. You want to keep the fermentation process under pressure so it goes faster. This vessel is the fermenter...." In his report, Avila didn't explain how and why Kay and the NBC crew obtained access to the trailers while the legally mandated U.N. inspection team, UNMOVIC, had been barred from looking at them.

The trailers quickly became the "centerpiece" (New York Times, 5/21/03) of the administration's argument that Iraq was indeed hiding a biowarfare program, and Bush himself used them to proclaim (5/31/03) that "for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong. We found them." No actual biological agents were found on the trucks, though; nor were any ingredients for biological weapons. In fact, no direct evidence linked the trailers to biological production at all.

It was eventually determined that the trailers in question had been used "to produce hydrogen for military weather balloons." But, again, that "disappointing" news didn't make quite the splash of the original, incorrect NBC News report.

That, of course, is just a tiny sampling of NBC/MSNBC failures and, as mentioned, they were by no means alone among media outlets in those, and similar, failures. But, Maddow's premise for presenting the Hubris documentary, as she offered in the week before its airing, was based on the importance of understanding exactly what happened to bring our nation into an unnecessary war built on lies, and whether the same thing could happen again today.

The answer to that question, at the moment, is an unequivocal, "yes!"

'Coming to terms with what happened'

"Until we come clean about this, until we get honest about it, until we can draw a line under it and say, 'You know what? That was a bad idea.' Until we are able to do that cleanly, this kind of stuff really is gonna drag around behind everybody who wants to be in public office in the future, who was in public office then, or was in a position to comment on it when it was all happening," Maddow, who was hired by MSNBC in 2008, said in promoting the new documentary on the Friday before its initial Monday airing last week.

"The Government perpetrated a massive deception campaign on us," she intoned, while sharing clips of Republicans such as war-supporter John McCain, then and now, attempting to justify the war, along with Mitt Romney and his 2012 senior campaign foreign policy advisers such as Bush Administration National Security Adviser Condoleezza "Mushroom Cloud" Rice and the administration's chief spokesman in Iraq, Dan Senor. Both played key roles in that known 2003 "deception campaign" which Maddow references, and yet they were both welcomed with open arms by the 2012 Romney campaign.

It's ironic to view Maddow's remarks, however, in light of NBC's own failures as highlighted above. And, of course, those examples are just "tip of the iceberg" stuff.

Maddow continued: "As long as those who were wrong about the Iraq War, as long as those who did it can count on us not being blunt about that, as long as we, as a country, avoid coming to terms with what happened then," it will all likely happen again.

Good point. So, let's be "blunt about that". In fact, it is already happening again. And, once again, along with the rest of the corporate media, NBC News is playing its part.

Just one example, once again courtesy of FAIR, where Peter Hart reported earlier this month on the "familiar script" played out briefly late last year concerning reports of chemical weapons being deployed in civil war-torn Syria.

Hart notes that, as in the run-up to the Iraq War, the New York Times once again "drove the initial storyline." But NBC (along with other news outlets) jumped onto the very same bandwagon:

On the NBC Nightly News (12/5/12), anchor Brian Williams led the newscast: "Chemical weapons in Syria. Suddenly, the world has an urgent situation on its hands. The fear is Syria is preparing to use them against its own people." Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski went on: "U.S. officials tell us that the Syrian military is poised tonight to use chemical weapons against its own people. And all it would take is the final order from Syrian President Assad." He added that "this week, U.S. intelligence detected a flurry of activity at chemical weapons sites.... The alarming developments shook the world."

Miklaszewski reported, "Today, while U.S. officials confirm the precursor chemicals are loaded, they must still be mixed together to create the deadly gas." Of course, it is highly unlikely that U.S. officials can "confirm" any such thing.

Did NBC learn anything from what happened ten years ago? It's difficult to say. Though MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell expressed some skepticism that night during her own discussion with Williams, she still managed to defer to what she described, generically, as "specific intelligence" from U.S. officials about the threat of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

By the following Sunday, 12/9/12, Hart notes, "When NBC's Meet the Press needed a guest to weigh in on Syria's WMDs, it chose Jeffrey Goldberg-the former New Yorker reporter who authored alarmist reports about Iraq's WMDs."

'Ought to scar everybody associated with it'

Though Maddow had noted during her Friday promo that being wrong about Iraq during the run-up to war "ought to scar everybody in American politics associated with it for the rest of their careers," NBC News was more than happy to invite Goldberg, one of the most wrong journalists from the Iraq War period, back on to their premiere Sunday news show to offer analysis about the latest Middle-East dictator said to possess weapons of mass destruction which could ultimately result in the U.S. joining yet another war in the region.

Of course, that was the same NBC news program where, in their exclusive September 8th, 2002 interview with then Vice-President Dick Cheney, he was allowed to trumpet an array of blatantly false information about a 9/11 hijacker having met "in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the the attack on the World Trade Center"; that "we've seen al-Qaeda members operating physically in Iraq"; that the U.S. had intercepted an Iraqi order of "aluminum tubes" said to be for use in enriching uranium; that Saddam Hussein might have been responsible for the anthrax attacks in the U.S.; and the chilling charge that Iraq was "in fact, actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons."

"We do know, with absolute certainty," Cheney told NBC's Tim Russert and the world, "that [Saddam] is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon."

All of those charges, as aired to the world on NBC's Meet the Press, were false.

During her promo for Hubris, Maddow highlighted the fact that "not everybody was wrong about this." There were, as her footage showed, mass street protests against the war in February of 2003, the very month before the war began. Those anti-war rallies were the largest in the history of the planet, in fact. "We didn't all blunder into this together because 'we all believed what that lousy intelligence turned up'," she said.

She is right again. And yet, a week ago Sunday, in hopes of avoiding yet another catastrophe that many of us can see coming, the largest climate rally in the history of our country took place on the streets of Washington D.C. Although 35,000-50,000 people braved bitter cold to protest against the Keystone XL pipeline and other menacing dangers related to climate change, not one of the Sunday network news shows bothered to even mention the rally. That includes NBC's Meet the Press which, like most of the other Sunday shows, actually broadcasts from the nation's capital, where the protests where ongoing that very day.

As with the massive protests before the Iraq catastrophe, which were all but ignored by the mainstream corporate media at the time, it was as if Sunday's climate rally --- following a year of record heat, record drought and record billion-dollar weather disasters, to boot --- never even occurred on NBC News' long-running Sunday broadcast.

The next night, on NBC Nightly News, the largest climate rally in U.S. history garnered just 63 words. On the bright side, that was more than the protest received on CBS Evening News, which devoted only 49 words, or ABC World News, which managed to cobble together just 43.

'Hubris' in the mirror

And yet, NBC deserves great praise, even ten years late, for daring to begin an examination of how we ended up in one of the --- if not the --- greatest foreign policy disasters in our nation's history.

We were led into an unnecessary war and, as MSNBC's own documentary details, it was done knowingly. It should have never happened. The media's job at the time should have been to warn the public about that threat. Instead, they largely played the role of stenographers for the Bush Administration's con-game about Iraq's non-existent threat. The result: almost 3,500 dead U.S. troops, more than 32,000 of them injured, well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians murdered (the low-ball figured offered by Hubris itself), and some $3 trillion robbed from the coffers of the American people for the effort.

Hubris: Selling the Iraq War, as laudable as it is, ought to be just the beginning of examining and reporting the full story of how the war was really sold to the American people.

"You could not criticize this war four months before the invasion," the fired MSNBC host Phil Donahue said during an interview last year on CNN. "It was not good for business. General Electric [the parent company of NBC and MSNBC at the time] had no interest in featuring an old talk show host who was against the President's war."

"This is what you get with corporate media. It's gonna happen again!," he warned.

If Maddow is serious about her own network's willingness to produce more such important documentaries following on the success of last week's --- and if she's serious about what she said during the promotional run-up to that broadcast about the necessity of understanding what really happened in order to prevent it from happening again --- then a helpful and absolutely necessary place to start would be with the difficult, and undoubtedly incredibly uncomfortable, mea culpa examination of her own network's complicity in that historic and massive failure. It won't be easy. But nothing of this much gravity ever is.

Every corporate media outlet in the nation ought to do the same, of course, as an initial step towards the accountability that never came, for anybody, after the deadly scam perpetrated by the Bush Administration and the huge helping hand it received from NBC and every other major news outlet (with a very few, if notable, exceptions). NBC must set the example for all the others, if Maddow's words are to serve anything more than promotion for the next airing of Hubris.

"If the revisionism that we are experiencing right now, ten years later, is able to succeed," Maddow said a week ago Friday, "then we are doomed to repeat this again as a country some day. If we do not come to terms with what happened, and how it happened, if we do not learn the lessons of that disaster as a country, and how we were duped, how it worked, then history says we are doomed to repeat it."

She's absolutely right. And hopefully she'll consider doing her part to hold her own news organization accountable in a follow-up documentary, to help ensure that they "learn the lessons of that disaster," or else, as she correctly echoes Donahue in her own warning, we are absolutely "doomed to repeat it."

Watch NBC's entire Hubris: Selling the Iraq War documentary now online here.