Saddam Hussein was allied with al-Qaeda, and helped finance the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Hussein regime had sought uranium from Niger. Iraq had obtained aluminum tubes to be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
All of those assertions turned out to be false. But they echoed throughout the press in the months-long run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and only after the war turned to disaster did the media engage in soul-searching and self-criticism. And even then, many sought to deflect blame. Judith Miller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter whose front-page story about the aluminum tubes bolstered the case for war in Iraq explained: “My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal.”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, reporters marveled at the ability of Donald Trump and his surrogates to create an alternate reality in which statements made by the candidate had not been made at all—from his view that global warming is a hoax, to his nonexistent opposition to the Iraq War, to his refusal to say he would concede in the event of a loss, to his remarks about his relationship to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. These are people who could argue that the sky is green without a blink. They were able to win a presidential election while doing so. Now they will have the entire apparatus of the federal government to bolster their lies, and the mainstream press is woefully unprepared to cover them.
The first reason is that political journalism is highly dependent on official sources, which are chased with abandon. Miller’s defense of stenography seems absurd in hindsight, but there is a grain of truth in it. Government sources are granted a high degree of credibility, and official lies can be difficult to dispute. Contrary leaks from highly placed sources can offer an important check on the official story, but the breadth of the surveillance state built by Bush and Obama, a surveillance state now in Trump’s hands, will make such leaks difficult.
For Trump administration mouthpieces, both public and anonymous, lies will now come with an officiality that will be difficult to contest. The total Republican control of government means that Democrats will struggle to get their objections to carry much weight, much as they did prior to the Iraq War.
Another obstacle is that media objectivity is not a fixed point. It is carefully calibrated to the perception of public opinion, because media organizations do not want to alienate their intended audience. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews offers a telling example of how media figures shift to identify with their perceived audience, which can ultimately mean cozying up to power. During George W. Bush’s absurd war pageantry in May 2003, Matthews remarked that Bush looked like a “high-flying jet star,” and that Bush “won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics.” The Iraq War is arguably still ongoing.
The Matthews episode illustrates that in addition to reporting itself being manipulated, members of the media themselves engaged in careful brand-management exercises in order to portray themselves as in touch with “Real America,” granting themselves permission to dismiss criticisms of the Bush administration as the ravings of pampered liberal elites. Only days after the 2016 presidential election, this process is already taking place, with prominent media figures seeking to defend the victorious Trump coalition against the slights of those religious and ethnic minorities who fear for their fate under a president who campaigned using them as scapegoats for the nation’s problems.
Adversarial coverage of the Bush administration notably increased once his approval ratings dipped so low that media figures felt as though they were reflecting public opinion when they criticized him. The Bush administration’s ability to shape the narrative in the aftermath of public crises like Hurricane Katrina was noticeably diminished, because unlike with Iraq, reporters could contrast official statements with what they saw with their own lives. Trump’s ability to forge an alternate universe of belief for himself and his supporters suggests that reality may prove far less of an obstacle for him than it was for Bush.
Nevertheless, the ability of the Bush administration to use its power to compel the press to adopt its alternate reality led to the greatest foreign-policy blunder since Vietnam, and the deaths of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, as well as the rise of ISIS. The consequences are, arguably, immeasurable, and the stats I have mentioned simply cannot do them justice.
With Trump, the United States has elected a president who has shown a complete disregard for free speech, arguing that his detractors do not have a “right” to criticize him. He believes the First Amendment’s protections for the press are too strong. He has a thirst for vengeance against those whom he perceives as having wronged him, and now he has the power of the federal government to pursue his vendettas. The Bush administration’s ability to manipulate the press, and the media’s willing acquiescence in the name of relating to its audience, led to catastrophe.
I want to emphasize that all administrations lie. The Lyndon Johnson administration successfully snowed the press on Vietnam. The Obama administration continually underestimated the strength of ISIS. With Trump, however, we are entering an era in which a president, prior to taking office, has already shown an ability to be entirely unbound by facts, with no political consequences.
The temptation to accept the Trump administration’s unreality—particularly given increased distrust of the media and his ability to insulate his base from the truth—will be tremendous. His ability to use the powers of the federal government to bolster his dishonesty will magnify his powers of deception a thousandfold. And the inability of the Democratic opposition to affect the outcome given their marginal presence in the U.S. government will ensure that any dissent is muffled.
The media is not ready to cover this president. And unless something changes, the American people, and possibly the rest of the world, will pay for it.