Disagreement over how well the media performed in the run-up to the Iraq war emerged between the three network news anchors Wednesday — but what Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Charles Gibson did agree on is that the Bush Administration put pressure on the media during that time.
The three were together on TODAY to promote a collaborative “Stand Up to Cancer” simulcast that NBC, CBS and ABC will simulcast on Sept. 5. But TODAY co-host Matt Lauer used the opportunity to ask them about charges in former White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s new book that the media failed to ask the “right questions” in the lead-up to the war.
According to early reviews, McClellan’s memoir “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception” at times paints a scathing picture of the motivations and actions of the Bush White House. It says that President Bush “veered terribly off course” and “rushed” to an unnecessary war in Iraq, according to The Washington Post.
“He said we didn’t do our job and we didn’t ask the right questions,” said Lauer, who co-hosted TODAY with Couric during the buildup to the invasion and the first three years of the war.
“I’ll start by saying I think he’s fairly accurate,” said Couric, now anchor of the CBS Evening News. “Matt, I know when we were covering it — and granted, [in] the spirit of 9/11, people were unified and upset and angry and frustrated — I do think we were remiss in not asking some of the right questions.”
Gibson begs to differ
“I respectfully disagree with the gentlelady from the Columbia Broadcasting System,” said Gibson, the ABC anchor, with facetious grandiloquence. In a serious tone, he continued, “I think the questions were asked.” Gibson remembered skepticism expressed about then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations that alleged that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction — allegations that proved to be wrong.
“I think the questions were asked,” Gibson repeated. “It was just a drumbeat of support from the administration. It is not our job to debate them. It is our job to ask the questions.”
Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor, said that one problem the media faced was not being able to independently verify the administration’s allegations.
“In Katrina, the evidence was right next to us,” he said in reference to the devastation wreaked on the Gulf Coast and New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “Sadly, we saw fellow Americans — in some cases floating past facedown. We knew what had just happened. We weren’t allowed that kind of proximity with the weapons inspectors [in Iraq].”
Williams agreed that the White House put tremendous pressure on news organizations to hew to the scripted administration line. “I was in Kuwait for the buildup to the war, and, yes, we heard from the Pentagon, on my cell phone, the minute they heard us report something that they didn’t like. The tone of that time was quite extraordinary.”
Couric remembered similar pressure: “I remember doing an interview and the press secretary called our executive producer and said, ‘We didn’t like the tone of that interview.’ And we said, ‘Well, tough. We had to ask some of these questions.’ And they said, ‘If you keep it up, we’re gonna block access to you during the war.’ ”
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She said that NBC did not buckle under, but, she added, “There was insidious pressure that I do think actually affected some of the coverage by the media outlets.”
Lauer observed that hindsight is 20/20, but at the time, the nation was unified behind the administration.
“I’m not sure we would have asked anything differently,” if given an opportunity to do it again, Gibson said.
“It’s tough to go back, to put ourselves in the mind-set. It was post-9/11 America,” said Williams.
“There was such a significant march to war, and people who questioned it very early on and as the war progressed were really considered unpatriotic,” added Couric. “I think that it did affect the level of aggressiveness that was exercised by the media, I really do.”
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