A 90-minute documentary probing the role of America’s press in the lead-up to the invasion in Iraq marks the return of “Bill Moyers Journal” tonight on PBS.

In “Buying the War,” Moyers and producer Kathleen Hughes examine press coverage in the lead-up to war, finding too often it consisted of passing on unchecked information making the Bush administration’s case for war.

An Editor & Publisher commentary based on a preview DVD and draft transcript called it a “devastating” film and a “powerful indictment of the news media for falling down on its duties.”

“How the administration marketed the war to the American people has been well covered, but critical questions remain,” Moyers said in a press release. “How and why did the press buy it, and what does it say about the role of journalists in helping the public sort out fact from propaganda?”

Moyers said it was easy to fathom what the conservative media did. “They had been cheerleaders for the White House from the beginning and were simply continuing to rally the public behind the president–no questions asked,” he said. “How mainstream journalists suspended skepticism and scrutiny remains an issue of significance that the media has not satisfactorily explored.”

In the program, according to Editor & Publisher, Moyers says, “The press has yet to come to terms with its role in enabling the Bush administration to go to war on false premises.”

In a five-minute preview on the PBS Web site, Bob Simon of “60 Minutes” talks about the difference between what he saw while based in Middle East and what he read from within Washington’s Beltway.

“From overseas we had a different view,” Simon says. “And we knew things or suspected things that perhaps the Washington press corps could not suspect–for example, the absurdity of putting up a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.”

“Saddam, as most tyrants, was a total control freak,” explains Simon, who was held and brutalized by Saddam’s police for 40 days during the First Gulf War. “He wanted total control of his regime, total control of the country. And to introduce a wild card like al-Qaeda in any sense was just something he would not do. So I just didn’t believe it for an instant.”

Simon surmises the Washington press corps “wasn’t as aware as those of us who are based in the Middle East and spend a lot of time in Iraq.”

“When the Washington press corps travels, it travels with the president or with the secretary of state–in a bubble–whereas we who had spent weeks just walking the streets of Baghdad, and in other situations in Baghdad, just were scratching our head in ways that perhaps the Washington press corps could not,” he explains.

Moyers also profiles reporting by Knight Ridder newspapers, a 32-paper chain and one of the few media outlets to devote enough legwork in talking to intelligence and military sources to raise questions about White House claims.

Knight Ridder reported that as early as two weeks after 9/11, some in the intelligence community were worried that the administration was stretching bits of information linking Saddam to al-Qaeda without hard evidence.

“There was a lot of skepticism among our editors, because what we were writing was so at odds with what the rest of the Washington press corps was reporting,” Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder tells Moyers. “And some of our papers frankly just didn’t run the stories. They have access to the New York Times wire and Washington Post wire, and they chose those stories instead.”

Others interviewed on the program include Dan Rather, formerly of CBS, Tim Russert of “Meet the Press” and Walter Isaacson, former president of CNN. According to Editor & Publisher, several prominent media figures admit the media failed miserably, but “few take personal responsibility.”

“Buying the War” airs 9-10:30 p.m. ET April 25. Local listings are at PBS.org. Two days later, “Bill Moyers Journal” airs at its regular time slot, Fridays at 9 p.m.

After two years off of television, Moyers dusted off the title from the first series he did for public television in 1971 for what he said is probably his last round. The 21st century version adds an interactive twist, launching a blog to accompany the weekly broadcast allowing viewers to exchange views, with Moyers weighing in himself from time to time.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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