In the above video, former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien and New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti discuss the duty of journalists to ask skeptical questions during wartime. And former CIA intelligence officer Michael Scheuer critiques the "media and the political establishment."
Host Brian Stelter said: "I want to start the morning by asking something controversial, but something that we as Americans have to be asking. Is our country again waging war in the Middle East based on faulty intelligence and exaggerated threats?"
It is "the media's duty to ask these questions in times of war," he said. Journalists have very few ways to verify the wartime claims of government officials. "Let's be honest, there are good reasons governments keep secrets," Stelter said. "Governments do a lot to keep us safe every day. But governments also have histories of exaggerating threats in order to advance their own interests. And you are not well-served if the press just passively plays along."
O'Brien said that back in 2002 and 2003, in the run-up to the Iraq war, there was a kind of journalistic groupthink - "an atmosphere where the narrative had moved a certain direction and if you were going to be a voice standing up for sort of the other direction, you'd have a terrible feeling."
This time around, as the United States has committed itself to a long-term battle against ISIS, "I actually think there has been an appropriate amount of skepticism," O'Brien said.
I was struck over the summer by this "ISIS as a threat," but no one was really examining exactly what this threat was all about. And then compound that with very gruesome videos of journalists being beheaded and all of a sudden, you had this real escalation of the rhetoric within the U.S. government about the need to go after ISIS.
So, what we tried do is write a couple stories which was really trying to truth squad this and examine to pick apart what exactly is a threat, who is it a threat to, and how imminent is the threat? As we started asking exactly what was the nature of the plot, we started to learn there had not been a target selected, there had not even been necessarily a mode of attack selected.
So, these are the things as reporters we have to continue to write about and ask questions about because, you know, we shouldn't just be buying what is said publicly.
Stelter remarked that "it is patriotic for us to be asking these questions, even though sometimes journalists are accused of being unpatriotic at times of war by challenging the government line."
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For some historical perspective and a little context, recall that Phil Donohue was let go from MSNBC in 2002 in part because of his criticism of the war in Iraq. Also, the Knight Ridder Newspapers distinguished themselves and stood virtually alone in their persistent questioning of the Bush Administration's rationale for the war, specifically, the allegations, supported and often encouraged by most other news outlets, of links between Saddam Hussein and various shadowy al-Queda operatives in particular and international terrorism in general, and assertions that the Iraqi dictator was seeking to acquire or develop weapons of mass destruction.
This neatly illustrates the discussion among you and your guests, Soledad O’Brien and Mark Mazzetti, that journalists have a duty to ask skeptical questions during wartime. Your other guest, Michael Scheuer, was correct in maintaining that U.S. and other western presences throughout the region were and are unacceptable to Arabs and Muslims generally, but was overly simplistic. While the terrorist leadership may have seen westerners as infidels invading their sacred lands, their recruits are typically otherwise directionless young people living in poverty. Living under autocratic regimes with high unemployment, it is no surprise that this burgeoning demographic should be susceptible to the propaganda of the ruling elite that directs their ire to Israel and the west, and the propaganda of those who would exploit their dissatisfaction and desire for something more.
The press doesn’t have to accept your fallacious choice of having to either swallow whatever any given administration feeds them or reflexively doubt everything they are told. Knight Ridder is no longer with us (they have since been folded into the McClatchy Newspapers), but their secret is no secret: Reporters, don’t be lazy, but do your jobs. (You’re not Congress! There’s honor and dignity in work!) Confirm and verify where you can, question where there is doubt, but, above all, be prepared to dig! Not every story requires in depth investigation or even any but the most cursory of inquiries, but, when it does, remember that you are not merely note-takers. Don’t merely transcribe, report!
When too many reporters were busy being ‘patriotic’ and greasing the skids to Bush’s and Cheney’s war, Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, John Walcott, Joe Galloway and Walter Pincus – as well as others I could name - were not supermen; they were reporters who did their jobs and did them well.