I first heard it in an email from a professor in Illinois. We were arguing about something I wrote on Barack Obama. I asked if he agreed that the media had been breathlessly, transparently biased in favor of Obama in the presidential election. "Yes, I agree," the professor admitted. "My private and unverifiable hypothesis is that many in the media are so ashamed of having been suckered and bullied into compliance with the invasion of Iraq … that they are determined to achieve some sort of belated redemption."
A similar point was made by Time magazine's Mark Halperin, who called the media's Obama bias "disgusting"–the "most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq war."
It is the claim about Iraq that strikes me, which, I've come to learn, is a dominant perception among the American left. Many liberals believe the media gave George W. Bush a pass on the war, especially by not challenging his assertion that Iraq had WMDs. Many are convinced Bush lied about WMDs: "Bush Lied, Kids Died," as the refrain from the left goes.
In truth, this is an upside-down understanding of reality.
Here's the undeniable fact: It wasn't that the media first heard about suspected Iraqi WMDs from George W. Bush. To the contrary, George W. Bush first heard about suspected Iraqi WMDs from the media.
How do I know this? Because I lived and breathed in the 1990s. I read the same newspapers we all read–the ones that ran literally thousands of stories on Iraq's clandestine WMD programs. I watched the TV networks. I listened to NPR. All were unanimous in reporting daily that Iraq was harboring WMDs in defiance of the 1991 U.N. ceasefire that mandated Saddam stop WMD production and allow U.N. inspectors into his country to destroy WMDs. Saddam repeatedly blocked the inspectors and, at one point in 1998, barred them entirely.
It was because of Saddam's obstruction, remember, that the Clinton administration unceasingly bombed suspected Iraqi WMD sites throughout the 1990s, so often that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times quipped that Saddam Hussein was the reason God invented the cruise missile.
There were never-ending reports in the major media that Saddam was mere months away–the numbers ranged from six to 18 months–from an operational nuclear bomb, on top of his equally alarming bio and chemical weapons arsenals, which he previously employed against "enemies" ranging from Kurdish children to the Marsh Arabs to the Iranians and Israelis.
I began collecting these articles at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) from 1991-93. I maintained the briefing book on this subject for our senior analysts, who were CNN's regular analysts, and most of whom voted for Bill Clinton. In one case, we discovered and blew the whistle on a suspected Iraqi WMD site near Kirkuk. Dan Rather grabbed the story and made his lead in an October 1992 "CBS Evening News" broadcast. I later collected such material as someone who spoke on the subject around the country and to the media in the mid-1990s, and then as a professor who taught the subject in the late 1990s.
As a professor, I regularly showed my Middle East course the terrifying November 23, 1997 clip of Bill Clinton's secretary of defense, Bill Cohen, on "Meet the Press with Tim Russert," laying out the horrifying projections on Saddam's WMD production in the absence of inspections. Russert, usually merciless in grilling people, naturally accepted Cohen's details; there was no reason to doubt them. I also showed video of Clinton's security team–Cohen, Sandy Berger, and Madeleine Albright–being shouted down by extremely rude students in a forum at Ohio State University in February 1998, which CNN broadcast as an "International Town Meeting." Despite the embarrassing behavior of the students, the Clinton team hung in there, rightly urging that America "must get those WMDs." I showed my class the November 1997 CNN special report, "Showdown with Iraq." Those are just a few examples of what was always fresh and available from the TV media.
Conservatives like myself defended Bill Clinton on TV, radio, in print, for constantly bombing Saddam's suspected WMD facilities. Liberals did as well. My only complaint–later George W. Bush's as well–was that these strikes never removed the real source of the problem: Saddam. As long as Saddam was in power, this crazy, lethal cat-and-mouse game would continue.
Unforgivably, all of this very recent history was forgotten by a very emotional, very angry political left–including liberals within the same media–once George W. Bush did not find the WMD stockpiles we all expected in Iraq. Bush had correctly calculated that Saddam's WMD arsenal, by 2003, after at least five years of no inspections, was an intolerable, unacceptable risk in the wake of 9/11. We could not wait to see if and when we would be attacked again, and by whatever monstrous weapons the "Butcher of Baghdad" was hiding.
This was a fully legitimate fear, with Bush's suspicion of Saddam's stockpiles first informed not by his advisers but, instead, by the media that informed all of us in the 1990s, years before Bush became president. For anyone who doubts me on this, I implore you to go to your computer and simply begin searching the words "Saddam WMDs" in online search engines. You will find every type of article I just described, plus much worse, including major features in Sunday newspaper sections that laid out supposed secret nuclear tests–not merely programs, but tests–conducted by Saddam.
Check the Washington Post (Barton Gellman, "Iraq Works Toward A-Bomb," September 30, 1998); The London Times ("Defectors say Iraq tested nuclear bomb," February 25, 2001, and "Iraq 'will have nuclear bomb in months,'" September 16, 2002); The New Yorker (Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Great Terror," March 25, 2002); U.S. News World Report (Richard J. Newman, "Stalking Saddam," February 23, 1998); Newsweek (John Barry, "Unearthing the Truth," March 2, 1998); or Time, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal or on and on. Don't forget to peruse transcripts from TV news broadcasts–CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC. Oh, and don't neglect the full-blown books published by top New York houses, like Khadhir Hamza's Saddam's Bombmaker.
That all of this could be so quickly forgotten is a sobering example of the ability of the dominant media to completely shape public perception. As someone who worked this issue, it has been painful to watch. Such is the spellbinding power of current trends and prevailing fashion.
So, should the mantra, instead, be "Media Lied, Kids Died?"
For five years now, a good man who, yes, made mistakes as president, has been viciously denounced as a liar and an idiot. What an outrage.
And what did it get George W. Bush's opponents? Answer: The presidency and the Congress.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision Values at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007) and God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life (HarperCollins, 2004).