Tonight's edition of "Bill Moyers Journal" on PBS is one of the most gripping and important pieces of broadcast journalism so far this year, but it's as disheartening as it is compelling.
It's always depressing to learn that you've been had, but incalculably more so when the deception has resulted in thousands of Americans dying in the Iraq war effort.
In this 90-minute report, called "Buying the War," Moyers and producer Kathleen Hughes use alarming evidence and an array of respected journalists to make the case that, in the rage that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the media abandoned their role as watchdog and became a lapdog instead.Gee, I had no idea.
Moyers does not set out to attack anyone himself; instead he tries to find out why journalists -- electronic and print -- behaved in ways that are supposed to be anathema to a free press in a free nation. The show asks: Did the Bush administration benefit from having an effective collection of accomplished dupers -- a contingent that Washington Post investigative reporter Walter Pincus calls "the marketing group" -- or did the outrage of 9/11 made the press more vulnerable to being duped?Seriously folks, set the Tivo.
Pressures subtle and blatant were brought to bear. Phil Donahue's nightly MSNBC talk show was virtually the only program of its type that gave antiwar voices a chance to be heard. Donahue was canceled 22 days before the invasion of Iraq, Moyers says. The reason was supposedly low ratings, but the New York Times intercepted an in-house memo in which a network executive complained: "Donahue represents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time, our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
Dissent was deemed not only unpatriotic, Donahue recalls, but -- perhaps even worse -- "not good for business." ***
Even if this Moyers report tells you some things you already knew, it puts the whole story of the media's role in the war into one convenient package -- a story of historical value that is also frighteningly rife with portents for the future and for what will pass as journalism in months and years to come.