Walcott, MacDonald explore media and politics of the Iraq War

The word “myself” rarely features in any blame game, much less in the Iraq War debate. But a panel discussion on that subject last Friday defied convention when a top journalist censured his industry, a professor criticized academia and both called the public culpable.

The discussion,titled “Media, Politics, and the Iraq War,” held in Griffin Hall this Friday right before the first presidential debate, was headlined by John Walcott ’71, Washington bureau chief of McClatchy, the second largest publishing company in the United States. Walcott is widely recognized for unearthing the fallacious claims about Iraq’s weapons program in the months before the beginning of war in March 2003. The panel also consisted of Rex Smith, editor-in-chief of the Albany Times Union, and Michael MacDonald, professor of international relations.

The panel broached a variety of aspects of the war, from why it happened in the first place to whether there were ways that it could have been avoided. Smith, the moderator, asked a series of searing questions that provoked largely like-minded responses from MacDonald and Walcott.

Both agreed that the Iraq War was caused by a failure of responsibility by the government and that the media failed to do its job in investigating the motives of the administration. Only a few voices, including Walcott’s, provided a critical perspective of the Bush administration’s claims for war. Walcott admonished the media’s lack of perceptivity. “It all came together because no one challenged the arguments being made for the necessity of going to Iraq.” Instead of investigating and digging underneath the surface for hard facts, the media publicized what Walcott called the “motives and sales pitches” of the administration.

According to MacDonald, some academics also supported the administration’s motives. “It starts with the government and then radiates south,” he said. “They packaged and sold the war, and used the media and academics to do this.” However, he noted that there was also a fair amount of opposition amongst academics.
In addition, MacDonald criticized the lack of a cohesive anti-war movement. Strikingly, he made the claim that neither advocates nor critics of the war disputed its detrimental impact: all discourse centered on whether weapons of mass destruction made it necessary and legitimate.

Smith then asked the panelists what would have happened had the media drawn attention to the many reservations about the war. Walcott provided a bitter response: “At the end of the day, nothing would have headed it off. The New York Times was completely, utterly wrong.” He added that these mistakes exposed the dire need to rely on more than one source of information.

When asked how McClatchy reporters differ from others, Walcott responded simply that they look in the right places, namely the lower rungs of governmental organizations. “We value our sources inversely proportional to rank. We make an effort to talk to those low in the ranks of organizations like the CIA and FBI. It takes time and effort,” he said. “The administration has a script, has points of sale. Why would I want to talk to them?”

MacDonald, previously quick to echo Walcott’s sentiments, diverged in saying that the blame could not be heaped solely on the government and media. While agreeing that it was the media’s responsibility to inform the public, he underscored the public’s obligation to demand the truth. “The idea that the government will disclose the truth is radically alien to American political tradition,” MacDonald said. “It was an equal failure of the American people.” For example, he noted that the desire for regime change in Iraq has been a Republican platform since 1998, and that a more aggressive and active public would have taken note of this.

Both MacDonald and Walcott attributed this passivity to the lack of immediate threat to most American citizens, in contrast to the Vietnam War era, during which the draft loomed. “When we talk about going to war, no one knows what war means anymore,” Walcott said. “I worry about this division between the kind of people here in the bubble, and those who go to war.”

Smith also asked whether there was ever a time when Americans were better informed and less easily swayed. MacDonald reminisced about a time when sound bites from top officials contained thought and reason, unlike the 12-second bursts offered by politicians today. Walcott blamed this on the “technologically induced ADD” prevalent in society today. “We have a need for constant stimulation, for 24/7 news,” he said.