As we pass the 14th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, its chief progenitor is suddenly beloved by the mainstream media again.
Every time former President George W. Bush pops up somewhere these days, media pundits gush about how good he looks now, compared to Donald Trump. Recently, for instance, he described himself — and was dutifully portrayed as — a great supporter of the free press.
“I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy,” he told NBC’s Matt Lauer in early March. “That we need the media to hold people like me to account. I mean, power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.”
The same week, he similarly assured a gushing daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres that “I’m a big believer in free press.”
But in reality, Bush was anything but a friend of the press during his presidency. Maybe he didn’t demonize it as much as Trump does — but he actively manipulated it and bullied it far worse and far more effectively than Trump has, much of it in the service of selling his marquee policy: the war in Iraq.
That illegal war destabilized Iraq and took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the lives of over 4,000 American soldiers — many more in both countries continue to live with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, among other war wounds. Over the course of the conflict, the United States has spent over $2 trillion.
And although Trump is trying hard to delegitimize the press, which is highly dangerous and not to be underestimated, there’s little evidence his behavior is getting the press to back away from its accountability mission — like Bush did.
The Run-Up to War
By far the biggest and most tragic example of Bush making of mockery of the free press was the cascade of lies he and Dick Cheney told — and got away with — in the run-up to war in Iraq.
Almost all of the American mainstream media was cowed by the nationalistic fervor expressed by Bush in his November 2001 invocation that the nations of the world are “either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” The White House attacked those who raised too many questions as unpatriotic; newsroom leaders and their corporate masters were afraid of appearing out of step with the country.
Among major print outlets, only Knight Ridder Newspapers, which today is part of McClatchy, aggressively challenged the case for war. “There wasn’t any reporting in the rest of the press corps, there was stenography,” John Walcott, who worked with Knight Ridder at the time, would later say. “The administration would make an assertion, people would make an assertion, people would write it down as if it were true, and put it in the newspaper or on television.”
Bush White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan would himself later write that the war was sold with a “political propaganda campaign.” McClellan said the push to war was “all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president’s advantage,” which is something the administration used the news media to do. “Through it all, the media would serve as complicit enablers,” he wrote of the press’s role in the debacle. “Their primary focus would be on covering the campaign to sell the war, rather than aggressively questioning the rationale for war or pursuing the truth behind it.”
“Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge,” the New York Times’ editors wrote in May 2004.
Demonizing Al Jazeera
President Trump has referred to mainstream television networks like CNN as the “enemy of the American people.”
But those are just words. By contrast, the Bush administration actively suppressed the one television network that was a thorn in its side during the initial phase of the war in Iraq.
Qatar-based Al Jazeera’s critical coverage of the invasions of Afghanistan and particularly of Iraq — featured in the documentary Control Room — set off a viperous reaction from the Bush administration. Trump complains of “fake news,” but Bush’s Pentagon falsely accused Al Jazeera of purposely staging scenes of civilian casualties in Iraq.
When the network obtained exclusive footage of videotaped addresses by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice asked five major U.S. television networks to limit their coverage of the tapes. The New York Times called it “the first time in memory that the networks had agreed to a joint arrangement to limit their prospective news coverage.”
The administration also imprisoned an Al Jazeera journalist in Guantánamo Bay for several years, one of many innocent people who ended up at the camp.
Alongside this campaign of demonization and attempted suppression, the Bush administration bombed the network’s offices twice — ostensibly by accident. First, they struck the network’s bureau in Kabul in 2001, which destroyed the office but left the staff unharmed. In April 2003, a U.S. missile struck the Baghdad office, killing Al Jazeera cameraman Tarek Ayoub.
Author Ron Suskind, in his book “The One Percent Doctrine,” suggests the Bush administration was not too upset following the bombing in Kabul. “Inside the CIA and White House,” he writes, “there was satisfaction that a message had been sent to Al Jazeera.”
In 2005, the Daily Mirror published the minutes of a 2004 meeting between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, describing how the American president suggested bombing Al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar.
The memo suggests that Blair talked Bush out of it. But the Bush White House never directly denied the story.
Cowing the Press About Torture
When the American people learned that the U.S. government had set up a global network of secret prisons where it tortured detainees, the Bush administration set out to manage the media fallout by insisting that the brutal techniques that it had authorized — including waterboarding — were not torture.
“I’ve said to the people that we don’t torture, and we don’t,” Bush told interviewer Katie Couric in 2006. Vice President Dick Cheney referred to the torture techniques as an “alternative” form of interrogation, and Attorney General John Ashcroft also insisted that waterboarding isn’t torture.
The media went along with it. Mainstream outlets instead used the government’s euphemism, “enhanced interrogation,” or other more polite phrases rather than using the word torture.
New York Times Washington editor Doug Jehl in 2009 explained that because Bush didn’t call it torture, that made it a “matter of debate.” In 2011, executive editor Bill Keller said that referring to the CIA techniques as torture would be “polemical.” In 2014, the Times finally decided to finally call it torture — eight years after it let Bush tell the nation it wasn’t.
Punishing Skeptics and Leakers
The administration also took harsh steps to punish those who challenged its official narratives.
Recall the 2003 outing of CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame after her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, wrote a New York Times op-ed contradicting a false claim the Bush administration made about Iraq’s acquisition of uranium from Niger. The administration’s leak of her name to columnist Robert Novak was largely seen as payback for Wilson’s defiance.
There’s also the example of the groundbreaking New York Times story about Bush’s warrantless surveillance program. It was published in late 2005, even though it was ready for publication in the fall of 2004.
“We had the White House, at the highest levels, insisting that this program would harm national security were we to write about it,” the Times reporter who broke the story, Eric Lichtblau, later explained. “The concern from the editors was would we be … outing an operational program that was on a firm legal foundation, and they made the decision that we could not do that at that point.”
This successful intimidation removed a key scandal from the playing field right before an election that Bush only narrowly won.
The administration also pursued numerous cases against leakers under the Espionage Act. Although the prosecution was not completed until the Obama administration, it was the Bush administration that began the investigation into NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, a military veteran whose career prospects were ruined even though the espionage charges against him were eventually dropped.
A Healthier Media Under Trump?
And White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held one press gaggle where he disinvited CNN and a few other outlets that have reported critically on the administration.
But the name-calling and other petty tactics have hardly cowed the American press. Unlike during the Bush years, the media has not been intimidated by the president’s outbursts. Instead — with a few exceptions, such as when the administration deploys anonymous sources to make terrorism-related claims — it has been emboldened. By being so adversarial to the press, Trump has made them more adversarial.
And while the news media compliantly repeated the Bush administration’s lies used to take the country to war in Iraq, Trump’s lies are more aggressively challenged, as the media has started to make fact-checking the president a major part of its operations.
The difference between how the two administrations dealt with the media is also illustrated in how they approached the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, a long-time D.C. tradition where the president, other political elite and the press corps and celebrity guests revel in each others’ company.
In late February, President Trump announced that he will not be attending.
Many interpreted the move as an attempt by Trump to further antagonize the media outlets who attend the event — which is very different than Bush’s approach, which was to cozy up to journalists.
But consider how in 2004, Bush narrated a series of pictures of him at the White House looking for the weapons of mass destruction he falsely claimed Iraq had — as the crowd of journalists and politicos laughed with him:
It’s much healthier for American journalism when the president is insulting journalists and refusing to play nice than making them laugh with him about a war based on lies.