NYT’s ‘Journalistic Detachment’ Before Iraq War Is Detached From Reality

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New York Times "Mission Accomplished" front page

The New York Times (5/2/03) allows George W. Bush to declare “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq on its front page.

Longtime New York Times media reporter Jim Rutenberg (7/19/16), in his recap of Roger Ailes’ career, seems to have suffered a severe case of Bush Era amnesia. Buried in his eulogy of the outgoing Fox News kingpin is this entirely untrue section:

It was Mr. Ailes who, after the September 11 attacks, directed his network to break with classic journalistic detachment to get fully behind the war efforts of the George W. Bush White House, which jarred the rest of his industry. During the Bush years, Fox News was a staunch defender of presidential power, and most of its hosts spoke out against a “liberal media” that, in their view, was unfairly questioning its president.

“Journalistic detachment” in regards to the Iraq War? Did Rutenberg experience the year 2003 in a parallel dimension? His own paper had quite a hand in getting “fully behind the war.”

Let’s recap, courtesy of FAIR’s breakdown (3/19/07) of the media’s virtually uniform failure in challenging Bush’s invasion of Iraq:

  • The editorial board of The New York Times (2/15/03) backed the war.
  • Major op-ed columnists like Thomas Friedman (1/22/03) endorsed the war, often becoming major cheerleaders of it. (One notable exception was Paul Krugman).
  • Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller co-authored the article “US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts” on the front page of the New York Times (9/8/02). Vice President Dick Cheney cited this largely false report later that day on Meet the Press.
  • A New York Times “Week in Review” article (9/15/02) by Elaine Sciolino derided French opposition to the Iraq War as evidence of lingering “old French attitudes.” President Jacques Chirac “made it clear that he doesn’t think it is the business of the world’s powers to oust leaders simply because they are dictators who repress their people.”
  • Discussing Iraqi public opinion, John Burns of the New York Times (10/15/02) wrote that by listening to Voice of America and the BBC, many Iraqis “have learned that 90 percent of the ordnance dropped by American aircraft in Afghanistan consisted of ‘smart bombs,’ with a high degree of accuracy, compared with a figure of only 10 percent in Iraq in 1991.”
  • The New York Times’ Judith Miller (1/24/03) published an article entitled “Defectors Bolster US Case Against Iraq, Officials Say.” Miller wrote that many Iraqi ex-pats had offered information on Hussein’s weapons program, but that, according to the Bush administration, only “a dozen or so” were credible. One defector, reported Miller, “told American officials that chemical and biological weapons laboratories were hidden beneath hospitals and inside presidential palaces.” None of these claims were true.
  • In “All Aboard: America’s War Train Is Leaving the Station” (2/2/03), the New York Times’ Serge Schmemann stated that “nobody seriously expected Mr. Hussein to lead inspectors to his stash of illegal poisons or rockets, or let his scientists tell all,” intimating that the weapons inspectors’ lack of findings should not stop the US from assuming Iraq had weapons. Schmemann also wrote: “In challenging the United Nations last fall to join in the attack on Saddam Hussein, President Bush did not say, You’re with us or against us. He said something far more shrewd: Either you’re with us, or you’re irrelevant.”
  • The New York Times’ James Dao, in “US Plan: Spare Iraq’s Civilians” (2/23/03), contended that “American wartime leaders have struggled to balance the need to win wars with the moral imperative to avoid civilian casualties.”
  • A New York Times article by Kate Zernike headlined “Liberals for War: Some of Intellectual Left’s Longtime Doves Taking on Role of Hawks” (3/14/03) claimed that “as the nation stands on the brink of war, reluctant hawks are declining to join their usual soulmates in marching against war.” The seven “somewhat hesitant backers of military might” cited by the Times actually all supported the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 (Extra! Update, 4/03).

One has to ask where the New York Times’ “journalistic detachment” was in 2002 and 2003.  Rutenberg himself (2/18/03) in the lead up to the invasion reported on the use of “embedded journalists” for the first time since World War II. How “detached” from a war effort can journalists be if they are literally attached to an invading army?

It’s a subtle piece of revisionism, but an important one: For those in center-left media, the impulse to rewrite their own role in selling the Iraq War is all too tempting–to turn Fox News into a cartoon propaganda outlet, and their own editorial drum-beating, war protester-mocking, aluminum tube-peddling and Dick Cheney water-carrying as “detached” journalism, simply calling balls and strikes. Certainly Ailes’ Fox News was more naked in its war promotion, but the New York Times, with its nominal liberal reputation and air of objectivity, was almost certainly more effective.


Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.

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This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.