Brokaw’s Redemption?

A. G. Moore 4/24/2013

Buried IE
D Destroys a Tank in Iraq
Photo submitted by Zaccarias
On Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes wisdom comes from an unlikely source; so it was yesterday when Greg Mitchell (The Nation)  cited Tom Brokaw’s ruminations about the Boston bombings and Islamic extremism:But we have got to look at the roots of all of this,” Mr. Brokaw declared. “… I think we also have to examine the use of drones…there are a lot of civilians who are innocently killed in a drone attack in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq “

Does this thoughtful statement suggest that there exists in the heart of Tom Brokaw regret over his part in enabling the Iraq War? Unlike the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post, Brokaw never apologized for contributing to the pre-war hype.

In a telling 2008 interview with Brian Williams, Brokaw was asked about his lack of skepticism in the months leading to war. Brokaw did not take the opportunity to accept blame. Instead, he punted, and explained, “So there is a fog of war, Brian, and also the fog in covering war”. His milquetoast words do not pass the smell test. An acknowledgment of responsibility and an apology, to Iraq veterans and the American people, would be more appropriate.

I wondered, during the war and after, about Brokaw’s reasoning. Was he personally invested in “the war on terror” because of the anthrax scare in his office, when an assistant was infected by a letter addressed to him? Did Brokaw need to punish, so much so that he wore blinders and refused to see the lies? Whatever the reason, Brokaw’s obstinate dereliction, his failure to investigate, to examine the “facts”, was reflected in most of the journalism of the time–most, though not all. A notable exception to this news blackout was ABC’s Peter Jennings; Jennings anchored the evening news program that ran opposite Brokaw’s.

Jennings’ war coverage was so trenchant, so threatening to the war cause, that he became the target of a conservative watchdog group, Media Research Center. In April of 2003, MRC published an online review of Jennings’ reporting. In several instances the review compared Jennings’ broadcasts to Brokaw’s. While the comparison is intended to show an ABC bias, what it ends up showing, ten years down the road, is that Jennings was perceptive and even prescient; Brokaw was flaccid and compliant.

I’ve separated MRC’s list of grievances into two sections; the first offers a head-to-head match up on particular news items between Brokaw and Jennings. The second provides a stand-alone sampling of the insightful journalism that characterized Jennings’ coverage in late 2002 and early 2003. Every question Jennings raises eventually would come back to haunt the Bush Administration, and the country, in ensuing years.

List 1–Brokaw/Jennings Head-to-Head

* December 3, 2002:
Jennings describes the work of UN inspectors as “going well”; Brokaw claims it is not going well.

* January 26, 2003:
Jennings reports that the UN weapons inspectors want more time to complete their job; in a parallel broadcast on NBC, it is reported that Iraq has not complied with the UN resolution.

* Feb 5, 2003
A British politician, Tony Benn interviews Saddam Hussein; Jennings does a straight report on the interview, describing Benn as a “famous” politician. Brokaw characterizes Benn as an “anti-war” spokesperson.

* Feb 26, 2003:
Jennings reports a leak which claims that Bush would assassinate Saddam Hussein if the opportunity arose. Jennings expresses concern about this leak. NBC never mentions the leak–the fact that it is rumored Bush would assassinate Hussein if given the chance.

* March 22, 2003: (War has begun)
Jennings describes the situation in Iraq as one in which, “There is resistance on the battle field and there is objection in the streets.” Brokaw has a different take; he reports, ” There are said to be a wide-variety of discussions under way with Iraqi civilian and military leaders on the prospects of surrender before American forces moving on Baghdad arrive in the Iraqi capital.”

It’s obvious, in reviewing the broadcasts of these two news anchors that, when the truth was needed, Brokaw failed and Jennings stepped up.

The following random items, taken once again from the MRC review, illustrate Jennings’ energetic and effective reporting.

List 2: A Representative Sample of Peter Jennings’ Iraq War Coverage

* November 21, 2002:
Jennings points out the antagonistic posture of the US to Iraq in not waiting for UN inspectors to finish their work; he describes growing anti-Americanism in Arab countries; he links this development to the hardline the US is taking with Iraq.

* February 15, 2003:
Jennings reports that much of the European public believes Bush is rushing to war.

* March 5, 2003:
Jennings asks if we are torturing Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

* March 10, 2003:
Jennings challenges Colin Powell on UN inspections. Asks why they can’t continue.

Anybody can be wrong, can make a mistake. Brokaw was drastically wrong, in a very consequential way. He was Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News for many years, including 2002/2003. If he, and the news division at NBC, had matched Jennings’ journalistic rigor, the Bush march to war may never have succeeded, inestimable carnage and destruction might have not have been suffered.

The Iraq War will exact a toll from the world for generations to come. This is not a private matter. Everyone needs to understand how this calamity came about. We to learn so that the next time war drums start to seduce we may recognize their shallow attraction. Mr. Brokaw owes himself, he owes history and the nation, a reckoning. I hope, this time around, he finds the courage to meet his obligation.

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