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Selling Fear: From WMD to Extending Democracy How the media failed to cover the Bush Administration's shifting rationale for the war in Iraq.

By Edited May 10, 2015 0 0

There is an enormous amount of media out there these days. This plethora of national media networks that infiltrate the basic cable spectrum and the new surge in online journalism are constantly inundating us with stories and images from the Middle East. The mainstream liberal media in the United States, like the New York Times and CNN, has exhibited subtle nuances in story reporting but for the most part, has been covering the occupation of Iraq and the prospects of democracy for the Middle East, with essentially one voice. Even as the Bush Administration’s rationale for the war has shifted, the focus of the media has remained habitually the same: sell fear. Left wing groups have scathingly criticized the manner in which the Media reported this shifting rationale for war but, one element remains clear. The media helped create and fuel the notion that a terror threat is real and that the war on terror is being lost. In doing so, the Media created the market for war. While the media failed to effectively or accurately criticize the Bush Administrations shifting rationale for war, they instead continue to paint a grim picture of how the occupation is being run, propagating a climate of anxiety.                                                                                      

“You’re either with us or with the terrorists”                                                                                      9/11 set the tone for the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq. When President Bush walked out to a nationally televised press conference and said, 'You're either with us or with the terrorists,' criticism of him or the overall objectives of his administration placed any antagonist on the side of the terrorists. “This created an intimidating environment."[i] Instead of questioning the presidency, the media almost inadvertently echoed the political agenda of the bush administration, to protect us from another nightmare like 9/11. In doing so, Media focus quickly became absorbed in terrorist jingoism and attempted to find dangers that could not be seen and that they did not understand.                            

When the Bush Administration claimed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed nefarious weapons of mass destruction and that he must therefore be removed from power by unilateral U.S. military action, the US media near unanimously accepted this claim as fact. Almost without even investigating for themselves whether this claim was legitimized, the media propelled forward with selling the war to the public on these grounds.  In September of 2002, CNN aired a broadcast about arms intelligence where Condoleezza Rice, the presidents national security advisor explained “We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." [ii] The fear of attack was blinding to any balanced journalism. In the months leading up the invasion of Iraq, The New York Times coverage was focused primarily on support for the credibility of the WMD claim.          

“Much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines; and several fine articles by David Johnston, James Risen and others that provided perspective or challenged information in the faulty stories were played as quietly as a lullaby. Especially notable among these was Risen's ''C.I.A. Aides Feel Pressure Preparing Iraqi Reports,''  which was completed several days before the invasion and unaccountably held for a week. It didn't appear until three days after the war's start, and even then was interred on Page B10.”[iii]         

Reports like ''Intelligence Break Led U.S. to Tie Envoy Killing to Iraq Al Qaeda Cell,'' by Patrick E. Tyler (Feb. 6, 2003) “all but declared a direct link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.”[iv] Then on April 21, 2003, The New York Times published an article, by Judith Miller called “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, An Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert.” The feature article reported to have information obtained from a former Iraqi scientist who worked in a secret arms program that created “the building blocks” for WMD in Iraq.[v] The technology for these weapons was purportedly shared by Iraq with Syria and Miller even suggested Iraq was cooperating with Al Qaeda. Even whilst the facts of this article are shaky and the sources unmentioned, the story was picked up by every major news network the following day, which cited the times, a reputable and respected news publication, as their source. The story grew legs and headlines followed, ''U.S. Experts Find Radioactive Material in Iraq'' (May 4, 2003). The Times declared Saddam Hussein was concealing WMD that could pose a threat to the United States and its allies and even published articles that urged the United Nations Security council to join President Bush and force Iraq to disarm.                                                         

   Meanwhile, as the media played up the weapons of mass destruction story, they were also hyping up a story about a sinister terrorist network operating across the world and lurking within our own country. This story further cultivated the climate of anxiety, and “the media created the overwhelming impression that there is a hidden network of Al Qaeda sleeper cells waiting to attack”[vi] at any moment in cities like Buffalo, NY.  Headline in The Washington Times lik “Terrorist cells too close for comfort” (Dec 10, 2003), all supported this notion. On July 25th, 2002, ABC news aired a piece called “Preparing for Jihad….in Alabama”. The story alleged that the London police had arrested a man named Zain ul-Abedin, alias Frank Etin, for running an international Islamic Militant Training Camp right under our own noses in Alabama. The police later found that the man was merely running a self-defense course for bodyguards called “Ultimate Jihad Challenge”. He was cleared of all charges but this story never made headlines.                                                                                                    

According to the Media, not only was the public to believe that these terrorist cells linked to Saddam Hussein were hidden all over world, they were also capable of causing serious destruction. Enter the Dirty Bomb story. The Story of the Dirty Bomb first surfaced in 2003 and created the idea that one person could walk through a metal detector with a bomb and cause serious radiological damage. With this deceptive capability, the media inflated the hidden enemy to an even more frightening status. CBS news ran an exclusive report by Dan Rather about a captured Al Qaeda leader who said his fellow terrorists had the know-how to build a very dangerous weapon and get it to the United States.[vii] The New York Times loved this story and ran a series of headlines by James Bone that asserted “New York on guard for 'dirty bomb'” and “New York on nuclear alert after blast”. Reading more often like dialogue out of an Ian Fleming novel, the articles had a sense that a dirty bomb explosion was real and that everyone must be individually prepared for the event of an explosion. In an excerpt from “New York on guard for dirty bomb”, “the Bush Administration reportedly rushed sophisticated neutron flux detectors and gamma ray sensors to “choke points” in Washington and New York and placed the Delta Force commando unit on standby to seize control of any nuclear material the devices identified. Members of the Government’s 750-strong Nuclear Emergency Support Team have helicopters and vans known as “Hot Spot Mobile Labs” to search cities for radioactive substances.” [viii] The story was just too glamorous to pass up.                                                                        

   A lie has short legs                                                                                                                                

Between September 2002 and June 2003, the Media indisputably projected the general impression that Saddam Hussein did indeed possess a frightening arsenal of WMD. When it was learned that these WMD could not be found, the media was forced to confront a harsh reality that they may have never existed in the first place and that their flawed reporting promoted a misleading belief to the American public. In a slew of editorials like “The New York Times whitewashes Bush’s lies on Iraq war”, the times made significant admissions of journalistic failings.  “The obvious question is why the Times, with its hundreds of reporters and annual revenues totaling over $3 billion, did not question the Bush administration’s official story. Why did it not use its considerable resources to conduct its own independent investigation and challenge the claims of the government?”[ix] In 2004, the times piece, “The failure to find Iraqi weapons,” admitted that the Times “never quarreled with one of [the Bush administration’s] basic premises” for launching the war with Iraq. Then, in a follow up editorial by Daniel Okrent, he went on to say that

"War requires an extra standard of care, not a lesser one. But in the Times's WMD coverage, readers encountered some rather breathless stories built on unsubstantiated 'revelations' that, in many instances, were the anonymity-cloaked assertions of people with vested interests. Times reporters broke many stories before and after the war - but when the stories themselves later broke apart, in many instances Times readers never found out. ... Other stories pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors. ... The aggressive journalism that I long for, and that the paper owes both its readers and its own self-respect, would reveal not just the tactics of those who promoted the WMD stories, but how the Times itself was used to further their cunning campaign."[x]

 In “A pause for Hindsight”, the Times admitted, once again, it had not questioned the existence of WMD in Iraq before the war strongly enough, partly because it

"did not listen carefully to those who raised those doubts…it should have been more aggressive in helping our readers understand that there was always a possibility that no large stockpiles existed…we regret now that we didn't do more to challenge the president's assumptions. ... Just as we cannot undo the invasion…If we want Mr. Bush to be candid about his mistakes, we should be equally open about our own…we do fault ourselves for failing to deconstruct the WMD issue with the kind of thoroughness we directed at the question of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda,…Saddam Hussein was indisputably a violent and vicious tyrant, but an unprovoked attack that antagonized the Muslim world and fractured the international community of peaceful nations was not the solution. There were, and are, equally brutal and potentially more dangerous dictators in power elsewhere. Saddam Hussein and his rotting army were not a threat even to the region, never mind to the United States.” [xi]

The overall feeling now is that this threat from sleeper cells was partly fantasy as well. “Even the most frightening and high profile of the plots uncovered turned out to be without foundation. No one was ever arrested for planning gas attacks on the London tube; it was a fantasy that swept through the media. Just as in America, there is no evidence yet of the terrifying and sinister network lurking under the surface of our society which both government and the media continually tell us is there.”[xii] The US media exaggerated and distorted facts and created a sensationalized story that the invisible enemy was growing in strength and numbers. But, there is still very little evidence to support this design. “Of the 664 people arrested under the Terrorism Act since September the 11th, none of them have been convicted of belonging to Al Qaeda. Only 3 people have so far been convicted of having any association with any Islamist groups, and none of those convictions were for being involved in a terror plot; they were for fundraising, or possessing Islamist literature.” [xiii]                                                        

  In reality, the dirty bomb became another journalistic myth that was perpetuated for some reason as well. People were genuinely frightened and remain frightened that “someone will put an A-bomb in a suitcase and throw it on the subway. But then again, you have credulous—not even credulous, but enthusiastic—support of this notion. Based on no evidence. No reporting.” [xiv] Through out the initial stages of the conflict in Iraq,

“the media portrayed the dirty bomb as an extraordinary weapon that would kill thousands of people, and, in the process, they made the hidden enemy even more terrifying. But, in reality, the threat of a dirty bomb is yet another illusion. Its aim is to spread radioactive material through a conventional explosion, but almost all studies of such a possible weapon have concluded that the radiation spread in this way would not kill anybody because the radioactive material would be so dispersed, and, providing the area was cleaned promptly, the long-term effects would be negligible.” [xv]

As a result of the media, “we have an exaggerated perception of the possibility of terrorism that is quite disabling, and we only need to look at the evidence to understand that the figures simply don’t bear out the way that we have responded as a society.”[xvi]                                                                           

   If it bleeds it leads                                                                                                                                  While the media managed to botch the Iraq story, the media is still disseminating this climate of fear. Almost completely ignoring the Bush administrations shifting rationale for war, the media has chosen to focus on how the occupation is being run. The American Author Brent Silas once said, “Harmony seldom makes a headline.” If you pick up the Times or turn on CNN, you will undoubtedly be alarmed by stories of rising death counts in Iraq and rising insurgents around the world. While there was an ephemeral shift to positive coverage regarding the elections in Baghdad, the most recent trend shows tragedy after tragedy. Stories like “At least 19 killed in String of Suicide Attacks Across Iraq” (April 14, 2005) by Robert Worth paints a grim picture of the US efforts in Iraq.

“The range of the recent violence has echoed the darker days of the insurgency last year, and made clear that the extraordinary challenges facing the newly-elected government - which could assume power as soon as Sunday - have not subsided. The worst attacks came in Baghdad, where two suicide bombers detonated their vehicles in quick succession near a police convoy as it passed an Interior Ministry building just before 10 a.m. The massive twin explosions, which had all the marks of a coordinated effort, left at least 14 people dead - all but one of them civilians - and 38 wounded, Interior Ministry officials said. Television footage taken in the wake of the incident showed cars reduced to blackened rubble and bloodied children being lifted into ambulances. It was a terrible scene of burning cars, body parts scattered all over the place, with blood puddles in the street and fire engines trying to put out the fires,"[xvii]

  In the past month, there has been a concentration of stories reporting attacks against Iraqi police and coalition forces. The fear is that, as American casualties of war rise, the insurgents and terrorists are winning the War on Terror. The Times and  CNN online consistently cover stories that present the occupation in Iraq in a ghastly light, using the violence to instill their own shock and awe among readers. In  “Nine die in Commercial helicopter crash: Terror Group claims attempt to Kill Iraqi PM” CNN reported that the “Insurgents had vowed to wash the streets with "voters' blood" and more than a dozen attacks Sunday killed at least 28 people and wounded 71 others”[xviii] . In “Talabani: More than 50 bodies pulled from Tigris Twenty Iraqi soldiers killed in stadium, official says” (April 20, 2005), “the U.S. death toll in the war passed 1,500, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi extended a state of emergency throughout the country for 30 days,” [xix] In the past week alone, CNN’s headlines on Iraq have not only been unanimously negative but alarming. “Islamic group claims Cairo bombing”, “Iraqi protesters: 'No, no to America'” , “American hostage pleads for negotiations”, “Blast kills 12 Iraqi security guards”,  “18 dead in attacks on Iraqi police”,  “Two U.S. Marines killed in Iraq”, “Bodies of Kuwaitis unearthed in Iraq”,  “Shiite-Sunni violence reported near Baghdad”, “Humanitarian group founder killed in Iraq Iraqi military officer”, “Suicide bomber targets Iraqi army recruiting center”,  “Iraqi officials find dozens of bodies in Tigris”, “Eleven die in Iraq helicopter crash”,  “7 U.S. security contractors killed in Iraq”, “Eleven die in Iraq helicopter crash Al-Zarqawi-linked group claims it tried to kill prime minister “. Even after the Media admitted that they failed to report accurately on the early stages of the war, they continue to create an overall impression that the only casualties in this war are Americans and that the terrorists are running the show in Iraq. These headlines hardly reflect fair balanced journalism.


In the early stages of this conflict, the Media created nightmares of a hidden enemy, sleeper cells, dirty bombs and WMD. There was an undisputed adherence to the government’s claims and a lack of journalistic questioning among U.S. media outlets. The media was simply “not aggressive enough in challenging President Bush’s assertion that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction but instead pushed forward with their own agenda and scare tactics. We failed the American public by being insufficiently critical about elements of the administration’s plan to go to war,”[xx] Ultimately, there are numerous explanations for the insubstantial reporting the media has shown in the past few years. The surge in fear after 9/11 also created a swell in patriotism. It is likely that this sentiment which extended across the public, embraced the media as well. Fear reporting may be a projection of over zealous patriotism. “When a story as momentous as this one comes into view, when caution and doubt could not be more necessary, they can instead be drowned in a flood of adrenalin.”[xxi] Perhaps the media was operating out of a collective remorse since 9/11 or maybe a good story just outweighed journalistic integrity. A combination seems likely.                                                     The media failed to discover any prior inclination or warning to the 9/11 attacks and this guilt has them taking a second look at everything and anything. Since 9/11, the media has given the public access to real-time data which was previously withheld as not to create panic. But, the fear of an imagined future is driving politics and the Media at the moment. Imagine the worst and try to prevent it. It’s a cynical view but a precautionary one.                                                                                                The more derisive explanation for the media’s fear over facts campaign in the last few years are ratings. The media is a billion dollar money making machine and the war on terror hit a chord with the American public. Not since the Cold war have we had such a clear enemy and as fear of the enemy grows, more and more viewers tune into the media to stay updated. As a result, news ratings have gone up and those media outlets with the darkest imaginations like the Fox news channel continue to gain viewers.

“For the week of March 17 (2002), each of the 24-hour news cable channels saw huge gains in viewers following word the night of March 19 that U.S.-led forces had launched the attack on Iraq. Fox's viewership was up 379 percent over the same time last year, CNN increased by 393 percent, and MSNBC soared by 651 percent, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. The early evening newscasts for ABC, CBS and NBC averaged a total of 32.2 million viewers, up from the 30.6 million-viewer average of the week before. Nielsen also reported that Fox News Channel averaged 5.5 million viewers during the first week of the war, followed by CNN's 4.3 million viewers and MSNBC with 2.1 million viewers.”[xxii]

Reporters, who dish better scoops, get more publicity and acquire a greater audience and he manner in which the media sold the war in Iraq has proven that self preservation triumphs over integrity. Likewise, it has also demonstrated a media with an agenda of fear can easily manipulate an apathetic  public. With party lines blurred, the free market right and socialist left deteriorating, and political correctness growing, there is a sterilized environment for belief at the moment. “In a society that believes in nothing, fear becomes the only agenda….a society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by people who believe in anything, and, therefore, we label those people as fundamentalists or fanatics, and they have much greater purchase in terms of the fear that they instill in society than they truly deserve.”[xxiii] Overall, the media has created and played on the fears of the general public, simultaneously creating and adding to their anxiety. While the media has learned volumes from this exercise, fear is still being used to report how the occupation is being run goading terror over truth, while the future remains uncertain.



[i] Schechter, Danny. Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception: How the Media Failed to Cover the Iraq War. Prometheus books. October, 2003.


[ii] Barstow, David. Broad, William and Gerth, Jeff. “How the White House Embraced Disputed Arms Intelligence”. The New York Times. October 3, 2004.



[iii] Okrent, Daniel. “The Public editor; Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?” The New York Times. May 30, 2004, Sunday.



[iv] Okrent, Daniel. “The Public editor; Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?” The  New York Times. May 30, 2004, Sunday.


[v] Miller, Judith. “Aftereffects: Prohibited Weapons; Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, An Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert.” The New York Times. April 21, 2003

[vi] Curtis, Adam. The Power of Nightmares. BBC Documentary Film, January 2005.

[vii]  Curtis, Adam. The Power of Nightmares. BBC Documentary Film, January 2005.

[viii] Bone, James. “New York on guard for 'dirty bomb'” The New York Times. July 6, 2002.

[ix] Vann, Bill. “The New York Times whitewashes Bush’s lies on Iraq war”. The New York Times.  September 30, 2003.

[x] Okrent, Daniel. “The Public editor; Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?” The  New York Times. May 30, 2004, Sunday.

[xi]  “A Pause for Hindisght.” The New York Times, July 16, 2004

[xii] Curtis, Adam. The Power of Nightmares. BBC Documentary Film, January 2005. 

[xiii] Curtis, Adam. The Power of Nightmares. BBC Documentary Film, January 2005.

[xiv] Wolff, Michael. “The Media at War”. New York Magazine. August 11, 2003.

[xv] Curtis, Adam. The Power of Nightmares. BBC Documentary Film, January 2005.

[xvi] Curtis, Adam. The Power of Nightmares. BBC Documentary Film, January 2005.


[xvii] Worth, Robert. “At Least 19 Killed in String of Suicide Attacks Across Iraq”. The New York Times. April 14, 2005.


[xviii] Faraj, Caroline. Mohyeldin, Ayman . Sadeq, Kianne. Starr, Barbara and Tawfeeg, Mohammed and Petkov, Venelin. “Nine die in Commercial helicopter crash: Terror Group claims attempt to Kill Iraqi PM”. CNN.com . April 21, 2005.

[xix] Mohyeldin, Ayman . Sadeq, Kianne and Tawfeeq Mohammed .“Talabani: More than 50 bodies pulled from Tigris Twenty Iraqi soldiers killed in stadium, official says”. CNN.com. April 20, 2005.

[xx] Coburn, Joey and Yu, Betty.  “Journalists Spar Over Media Coverage of War With Iraq.” The Daily Californian. March 19, 2004.

[xxi] Okrent, Daniel. “The Public editor; Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?” The New York Times. May 30, 2004, Sunday.

[xxii] Johnson, Allan. “Cable news gets huge ratings lift from war, Some networks also see gains.” The Chicago Tribune. March 27, 2003.

[xxiii] Curtis, Adam. The Power of Nightmares. BBC Documentary Film, January 2005.



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