There is a long list of reasons why Donald Trump might start a war. Even conservative writers in outlets like The American Conservative and The Wall Street Journal call him “rash,” while he seems to either have a poor grasp on America’s strategic relationships or to re-write them on the fly. He has suggested that the time for talking with North Korea might be ending. He seems particularly fond of adoration, and after launching cruise missiles into Syria was rewarded by prominent voices calling him presidential, or “led by his heart.”
And while the president doesn’t have a reputation for being tactical, he doesn’t need to be Napoleon to realize that starting a war might “take off” the “great pressure” on him these days. Maybe it’ll even turn out better than firing that “nut job Comey.”
In such a scenario—say a war of choice with Iran alongside our Orb-Allies in Saudi Arabia—how might influential news outlets perform? Would The New York Times and The Washington Post stop breathing down Trump’s neck? Would probing reporters disappear from MSNBC and CNN only to be replaced by waving flag graphics?
One way to handicap Trump’s chances of leading the press by the nose is to look at the last time this happened in 2002-2003. On the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War, consider how the press reviews its own conduct from that time: from “not good enough,” to “we were duped like everyone else,” to “the media’s greatest failure in modern times.”
Back then, memos circulated among managers encouraging patriotism on air, critical figures like Phil Donahue were fired because, as an internal email at his company stated, he was a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war,” and pieces looking closely at the White House’s evidence were often relegated to section A17.
Prominent news organizations were outplayed and journalists felt outmatched. “It was an amazingly executed, brilliantly executed plan,” reflected Donahue in 2014. The Bush team treated their war drive like a product campaign, its release coordinated as if across a corporate structure. There were slick slogans about smoking guns and mushroom clouds. A lie tactically “leaked” to Judy Miller one day was published the next day and then cited as evidence by Dick Cheney hours later. “The field,” wrote Paul Farhi of The Washington Post, “was tilted.”
Very soon, the White House made it clear that it would get its war—Congress had delegated its war authority to the Executive Branch and the White House had already ordered many tens of thousands of troops to Kuwait by the first weeks of 2003. MSNBC and NBC Nightly News affixed banners reading “Countdown: Iraq” on their screens to emphasize the inevitability of the war. “We were going to war,” said the former executive editor of The Washington Post on the war’s 10-year anniversary. That couldn’t have encouraged editors and journalists to martyr themselves for a lost cause.
A key part of the White House’s campaign was to put respected figures before reporters to promote it. Retired or current military personnel and government officials flooded the airwaves, accounting for two-thirds of all sources interviewed or named in early spring 2003. They were overwhelmingly pro-war and received vastly more time than critical voices. The most important voice was probably Colin Powell, whose presentation before the U.N. of “acts and conclusions based on solid intelligence” is now infamous.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan remembers. She was unnerved by the response of a lot of people in the TV news industry after Trump’s strikes on Syria this spring, reacting with a column the next day subtitled, “Are we really doing this again?” She wrote that “a lack of proper skepticism…is something that we’ve seen many times before as the American news media watches an administration step to the brink of war. Most notoriously, perhaps, that was true in the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003.”
When I asked her whether the Trump White House might outplay today’s press in event of a repeat, she said, “I don’t get the sense that we’ve learned very much and that’s a prospect that worries me. I have great confidence in the judgment of Post editor Marty Baron but—across the board—we might be in real trouble, maybe worse than in 2003.”
Walter Pincus, then at The Washington Post, was one of those reporters who kept investigating and publishing on the flimsiness of White House evidence in 2002-2003. I asked him about grounds for optimism or pessimism today. Some reporters will have learned from the hard lesson of 2002-2003, and some will not, he said. He’s confident that some will have the backbone needed to dig hard, but complicating it all are the stresses amid an industry made of owners, publishers, news managers, and reporters. “Each element acts in its own world with different rules, approaches and even ethics,” he says. For another thing, reporters will need to find channels of good information. “I was lucky to have sources within the intelligence community, the Pentagon, and the U.N. investigating group that kept informing me about the questionable nature of the claims that Saddam Hussein had, or was pursuing, nuclear or biological weapons.”
It’s encouraging, then, that Trump’s ship is a far more leaky one than Bush’s was. But Jane Kirtley, who directs the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, is concerned about what might happen to civil liberties in general and freedom of the press in particular in this scenario. She’s watched closely as Trump’s threatened leak publishers with prosecution. “The law is untested, in terms of prosecuting journalists for reporting classified information, as distinguished from sources leaking it. This would make reporting legally risky,” she said.
When I reached him, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi was loath to generalize about the profession’s prospects, but thinks the job would at least be easier given a rerun. By early 2003, George W. Bush enjoyed a 61% job approval rating, compared to Trump’s 38%. In those days, Bush didn’t have a general reputation as a liar. Today, figures like the FBI director are rather plainly stating that Trump is one. “Very different context,” he concluded.
But figures other than Trump would be selling the new war, cautioned Mark Feldstein, veteran of CNN and ABC and now a chaired journalism professor at the University of Maryland. It “is more likely,” he said, that such war would be “backed by more establishment figures in his administration—like McMaster, Mattis, Kelly,” and he’s not optimistic about a repeat of the reporters vs. brass contest. He agreed with those who said that reporters would be dependent on leaks arising from rifts developing between such officials.
He also told me, “History shows that the news media always rallies around the flag in patriotic, if not jingoistic, coverage of war—at least at first.”
It’s a fear shared by Charles Hanley, another reporter celebrated for doing his due diligence in the lead up to Bush’s war for the Associated Press. “The ‘rally ‘round the flag’ factor will always be with us. Even in the age of Trump, I fear that homebound editors will instinctively credit American voices over those of foreigners, and the Beltway narrative over the word of even their own correspondents abroad. It happened in 2003. I fear it can happen again.”
He pointed to another factor that’s new or more conspicuous since 2002. The news industry, he said, is unable or unwilling to support international desks staffed by experts on the ground who could check an administration’s claims about imminent danger from abroad.
Still, he suggested that the poor example of 2002-2003 might serve as a sort of inoculant. “Today’s journalists would be inspired to do a better job this time.”
Like most of the others I talked to, Charles Lewis, former 60 Minutes producer and founder of the Center for Public Integrity places his hope in Trump’s mendacious reputation and the recent track record of outlets like the Times and Post. But what he’s seen of the cable news industry’s handling of Trump makes him fear a repeat of 2003. Its ratings and ad revenue became engorged feeding at the Trump bacchanal throughout 2016, which doesn’t portend a sober and scrupulous examination of a new push for war. Something more, he said, like “dogs chasing cars.”
Of course, the question to ask—after considering how the news industry and journalists might perform—is whether their performance would matter except as a quixotic exercise of distinguishing alternative facts from evidence-based facts. Historically, Congress has consistently granted presidents authorizations to use military force, even with the facts unclear. On the other hand, in this age of shattered political norms and riled constituents, it’s possible that an incisive press response to a cooked-up war with Iran or North Korea could result in another broken norm.