The Current

Journalists today face a 'brick wall of nationalism,' says director Rob Reiner

Rob Reiner's new film Shock and Awe tells the story of a dogged investigation into the justifications for the Iraq War. He and two of the journalists it portrays joined Duncan McCue to discuss the mistakes the media made back then, and whether those lessons are being remembered today.

Our greatest obligation is to hold those in power accountable, says former Knight Ridder journalist

Rob Reiner directs the new film Shock and Awe about the lead-up to the Iraq War and also plays editor John Walcott. (Pacific Northwest Pictures)

Journalists today have a more difficult job than ever in bringing the truth to light, according to actor and director Rob Reiner.

"You have two sets of narratives going on," he told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.

"You have one section of mainstream journalism that is fighting very hard to get to the truth, and they're coming up against a brick wall of nationalism that is stoked by this other chunk of mainstream journalism, which is essentially state-run media."

Reiner's new film, Shock and Awe, is centred on a group of journalists trying to get to the truth in the lead-up to the Iraq War.

Throughout my career I have made the distinction between stenography and journalism — it is not our job to simply record what people in power say.- John Walcott

Those journalists — reporters John Landay and Warren Strobel, columnist Joe Galloway and editor John Walcott — were skeptical of the Bush administration's justifications for the invasion of Iraq.

Working for now-defunct media organization Knight Ridder, they began working on a theory that the decision to invade Iraq had already been made, and the government was seeking a reason to convince the public. It was a hunch not shared by other publications, some of whom later regretted their own lack of skepticism.

Throughout his career, Walcott said he has "made the distinction between stenography and journalism."

"Our greatest obligation is to hold those in power accountable," he told McCue, "And there is nothing that demands that more than a decision to send people to war."

Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay are played by James Marsden and Woody Harrelson, respectively, in the film Shock and Awe. (Pacific Northwest Pictures)

"No one should be sent in harm's way without ample evidence and I'm reminded of that every time I go across the Potomac River to Section 60 at Arlington Cemetery," said Walcott, who is now a foreign policy national security editor for Reuters' Washington, D.C. bureau. 

"Anytime you go over there you see widows, children who never knew their parents, kneeling at these graves. They're the ones who pay the price and they're the people that we were serving."

Covering the Trump administration 

Landay, who is now a national security correspondent for Reuters, is ambivalent about whether the lessons from the Iraq War coverage are being remembered in the era of Donald Trump.

Executives at leading news organizations were seduced by the ratings that Trump brought them during the 2016 presidential election, he said.

"Every time he spoke, they were just there allowing him to speak and not digging into his background sufficiently to present some serious questions ... to the American people," he told McCue.

Since then, however, there has been a greater effort by "the responsible mainstream media" to hold the Trump administration to account, he added.

"We've seen an extraordinary — I believe unprecedented — number of senior administration officials including cabinet members who were forced to resign because of alleged malfeasance."

Landay, Walcott and Reiner joined Duncan McCue to discuss Shock and Awe and the Knight Ridder investigation into WMDs. Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Danielle Carr and Samira Mohyeddin


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