In 2003, the United States marched into battle with Iraq to the beat of war drums in the media, where some journalists willingly trotted out as fact erroneous claims from the George W. Bush administration that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
Fast forward to 2013, and some of those drumbeaters are at it again.
William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, wants US President Barack Obama to take military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the suspicion the regime used chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21. British weekly The Economist features Assad on its most recent cover with this advice for Obama: “Hit him hard”. The president himself favours punitive military action against Assad, whom his administration holds responsible for the chemical attack. But the evidence is not, to borrow a basketball term, a slam dunk. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said that UN inspectors who visited the site of the chemical weapons attack would not be able to determine who was responsible.
The Iraq experience has served as a cautionary tale for many American journalists. “A great deal of the coverage is haunted by the fraudulent intelligence that the Bush administration circulated regarding Iraq,” said Todd Gitlin, chair of the PhD programme at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York. However, he adds, “As usual, media tend to defer to government officials”.
Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, describes the US media coverage of the war as admirable, but says the debate over chemical weapons has been challenging for many journalists. “Verifying the accuracy of the claim that Assad deployed chemical arms forces reporters to rely on official (or unofficial) government sources, always a frustrating proposition,” he said.
In the opinion pages, the line between conservatives and liberals has been blurred on Syria. “This is a story the ideological press may be a little confused about how to cover, because it is not breaking down along traditional partisan lines,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s journalism project. On one side, Obama, a Democrat, has received support for his plan to attack Syria from hawkish Republicans. On the other side, liberal Democrats and the libertarian Tea Party wing of the Republican Party have opposed the strike plan.
“The dominant frame overall seems to be the question of whether failure to attack would ‘damage credibility’,” said Gitlin. “Little attention is being paid to the question: credibility in whose eyes?”
Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington DC