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Bill Moyers' new PBS series sheds light on the cost of war


In the closing statements of his PBS special series, Buying the War, Bill Moyers states some facts: The number of American troops killed in Iraq now exceeds the number of victims of 9/11; the United States has been fighting in Iraq longer than it took to defeat the Nazis in World War II; and the number of Iraqis killed exceeded 35,000 last year alone. Four years after the war began, a pesky interrogative continues to surface: Why is the United States at war with Iraq?

Thanks to the eagle eyes of hindsight, we now know that Iraq's supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction was a thinly stretched web of intelligence fabrication, and that the Iraq-Al Qaeda link was wishful thinking, skillfully conjured into being when America's big five (Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rice and Rumsfeld) threw a fistful of half-truths into a cauldron, let it boil and chanted repeatedly, "Iraq, Al Qaeda, Iraq, Al Qaeda" until their spell suspended the disbelief of congressmen, journalists and American citizens coast to coast. But if the government committed the crime, who can be charged with aiding and abetting? In Buying the War, PBS journalist Moyers sets aside the obvious political culprits leading the charge into war to point fingers in a less likely direction: the media.

In the 90-minute media-on-the-media documentary, Moyers presents a candid examination of the ways in which the mainstream press—television news networks (including both the unfortunately labeled "conservative" and "liberal" networks), newspaper reporters and columnists, and magazine editors—helped to create a social and political climate that labeled journalistic scrutiny of the government as unpatriotic in a post-9/11 United States and propelled the country into war. From Dan Rathers' poignant and tearful patriotic appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman to former CNN Chairman and CEO Walter Isaacson's directive for CNN staff to better balance war news with images of 9/11, Moyers continually draws attention to the white elephant at the center of the media's coverage leading up to the war, namely the obvious lack of impartiality concerning the claims made about Iraq and Saddam Hussein by the White House and the Pentagon. It's what The Washington Post's Walter Pincus describes as "evidence of a paradigm shift in the role of journalists in democracy." Instead of being independent and objective on its own, says Pincus, the media become merely carriers of the administration messages.

Buying the War takes some of the most well respected journalists to task for their professional shortcomings, while championing two reporters from the Knight-Ridder news service who, throughout the months leading up to the war in Iraq, published stories refuting the White House's case and raised questions about so-called evidence. However journalists making an opposition case were swimming upstream against the New York Times' and The Washington Post's most influential columnists and reporters, and a gaggle of self-described "expert" pundits on whom the networks were relying for commentary rather than picking up the phone and talking to sources in the intelligence community.

Moyers takes Buying the War into the nitty-gritty details of dates, stories and a who's who in mainstream media, and so much information requires a keen interest in understanding how a country was so successfully duped. We're still embroiled in a war that has been declared over, the media is deeply fractured beneath all that corporate veneer and even as media reviews media reporting media, we're lost in a world of spin from all directions.

Buying the War, special premiere Wednesday, April 25, 9 p.m., IPTV Channel 4.