Editor's note: Although “fake news” has, for some, become a way to disparage the accuracy of news reports, support for two of the nation’s most disastrous conflicts was built on “fake news” fashioned by no less than the men who were presidents.
I was reminded of that with word of an event this week to honor four reporters whose continuous challenge to the President George Bush administration’s claim of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to justify the preparations for the March 2003, invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein brought them to ridicule from journalistic peers and public criticism.\\
Perhaps second only to Lyndon Johnson’s creation of what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident to get the backing of Congress to wage the Vietnam war as he saw fit was George W. Bush’s masterful creation of the need to deal with Hussein’s alleged stockpile of WMD.
But this column is not to focus on the public manipulation by presidents but on the importance of journalistic courage to counter such efforts as a pillar of Democracy.
Rather the occasion is that the four reporters, including my friend Joe Galloway, who were covering the preparation for war from the Washington bureau of Knight-Ridder Newspapers, will receive the Defenders of Liberty Awards from an organization called the Committee for the Republic. Also honored will be the 2017 movie about the four called Shock and Awe, a drama conceived and directed by Rob Reiner, who also co-starred as John Walcott, the newspaper chain’s Washington bureau chief.
I am using the occasion of the honor to reprise a column I did when the movie came out three years ago, again because journalistic integrity and courage need to be shared to be appreciated. Encouraged. And sustained.
As I wrote in that March 2017, column, it's perhaps appropriate that a degree of attention has focused on a movie about four professional journalists who were certain, in the face of all the forces arrayed against them, that President George Bush and his administration had concocted a "fake news" tale to justify a war in Iraq.
The movie is Shock and Awe, the title drawn from the campaign of that name created by the leaders of the Bush Administration in preparation for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a plan built on the premise that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Of course, the term "fake news" wasn't part of our culture then, especially being applied to a president.
The movie, conceived and directed by Rob Reiner, has been described as "the politically charged story" about the four reporters from the Washington, D.C., bureau of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain who first looked into the Bush Administration's attempts to tie Saddam to the 9-11 terror attack. Thereafter their some 80 stories followed a theme that the allegations of WMDs were intentionally inaccurate.
The understandable support for Bush and his build-up for the war from the general public and others was the nation’s need for some cathartic revenge against someone for 9/11, thus the focus on Hussein in the year following that disaster toward the attack on Iraq in March of 2003.
One of the four reporters was iconic Vietnam correspondent Joseph L. Galloway, then more than 35 years into his career covering wars and those who fight them and thus the voice of experience that the two younger reporters, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, turned to for help in finding their way through the fabrications formed to keep the nation focused on the need for war with Iraq.
It is because of my friendship with Galloway, both of us alums of the news service UPI, and because many in the Seattle area came to know him during his two visits to do Vietnam veterans interviews and several interviews he and I did, including the Seattle Rotary, that I decided to do a Harp about the movie.
Regular readers of the Harp will recall that Joe Galloway has been the subject of a half-dozen Harps in recent years (Google Flynn's Harp: Joe Galloway).
Eventually, the four including Knight-Ridder bureau chief John Walcott, played by Reiner himself, came to be described as "the only ones who got it right," but before that, they had to weather immense pressure and scorn, not only from the White House but also from peer publications and some editors of their own newspapers.
For example, there is the story of the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer saying bluntly that the tone of their stories doesn't "fit in." And Galloway recalled "There is a scene in the movie where Walcott confronts the Philadelphia editor for choosing to run ‘New York Times b.s. over our story.’ He taunts the editor with 'will you be running the Times correction and apology when that comes out?'"
It was after watching a Bill Moyers’ interview with the reporters that Reiner decided to produce a movie dramatizing Knight Ridder’s lonely work. Released in 2017, Reiner ends “Shock and Awe” with a news clip of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, a constant journalistic supporter of the Bush WMD campaign, admitting the media got WMD wrong – “except for Knight-Ridder.”
The movie includes Miller’s comments, as well as Sen. Robert Byrd’s moving speech drawing parallels between the lies that drew America into its Vietnam debacle and the falsehoods that would destroy many American and Iraqi lives in Iraq.
There is a perhaps ironic juxtaposition of the timing of the release of the critically acclaimed The Post, whose storyline about the Washington Post's publisher, Kathrine Graham deciding to confront the Nixon White House by publishing the Pentagon Papers, and Shock and Awe detailing a confrontation with a different president and more recent time. And a reluctance of the newspaper to be part of the confrontation.
In fact, Reiner suggests that the struggle he had to secure U.S. distribution for the movie might relate to his belief that "American audiences might not be ready to confront the subject."
I didn't think anybody in America could stomach it," Reiner said. "I don't think they can stomach it now, to be honest with you."
The start of the Iraq War and how its continuation has unfolded in the years since then may be viewed as too near to current political realities for close scrutiny of the legitimacy of the Bush Administration's campaign to go to war. In fact, the allegation that the WMD case built by key members of the Bush team was fabricated still draws outrage from some conservatives.
It's obviously much easier to take a critical look at Richard Nixon, or with Reiner's LBJ, released last year bringing a critical look at another former president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
In fact, Reiner's LBJ screenwriter, Joey Hartstone, also wrote Shock and Awe, and actor Woody Harrelson, who played LBJ. Plays one of the reporters in Shock and Awe.
The fact Reiner was greeted with two separate standing ovations last September (2017) at the Zurich International Film Festival for the world premiere of Shock and Awe may have contributed to the firming up of presentation in this country.
The movie was the second time that Galloway will have the opportunity to watch an actor on the screen playing him. Tommy Lee Jones in this case.
The other was the movie We Were Soldiers, which was released ironically in the year prior to the Iraq invasion, as the film version of Galloway's book, We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, co-authored by Hal Moore, the commanding officer of U.S. troops in the battle of Ia Drang. Later events, including Galloway’s subsequent reporting, made clear that in November 1965, la Drang battle, the first between U.S. forces and North Vietnam regular army troops were the losses on both sides convinced Ho Chi Minh that the U.S. could not win, was the defining battle of a war that would drag on for another decade and claim 55,000 American lives.