A subject I’ve been writing about for, oh, the past decade or so—the media’s sad, tragic performance during the run-up to the US attack on Iraq—never gets old, at least for me. It provides such a revealing glimpse of, and warning about, how leading media outlets usually cave to the “official narrative” from the “serious” policymakers and pundits. Howard Kurtz, now at Fox, calls it, aptly, the media’s “biggest failure of modern times.”
Obviously this is relevant in today’s world where the US is pushed to intervene abroad by many of the same macho crew from 2002-2003, who have no shame, from Senator John McCain to “liberal hawks” such as Bill Keller. Consider how close we came to going to war in Syria a few months ago, when much of the media again fell short again.
The New York Times and Judith Miller get much of the blame for the media failures in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, so let me shine a light here on the Washington Post. My book So Wrong for So Long reviews the article Kurtz wrote for the Post in 2004, taking the newspaper to task for some of its misconduct (the paper itself did not assign is own probe).
Because of the notoriety surrounding Judith Miller, the Post’s almost equally poor coverage and opinion pieces drew too little attention after WMD were not discovered. The Post ran Kurtz’s critical August 12, 2004, piece on the front page, something it inevitably failed to do with stories skeptical of the march to war.
By the Post’s own admission, in the months before the war, it ran more than 140 stories on its front page promoting the war, while contrary information “got lost,” as one Post staffer told Kurtz. So allow me to pursue a few points (see my book for much more on media misconduct in war coverage). First, two quotes (beyond the Woodward gem) from Post staffers that speak for themselves:
• “There was an attitude among editors: Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all the contrary stuff?” —Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks.
• “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.“ —Reporter Karen DeYoung.
“[Bob] Woodward, for his part, said it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly if weapons were ultimately found in Iraq.”
Next, consider the highly revealing excuses, offered by Post editors:
• Executive Editor Downie said experts who questioned the war wouldn’t go on record often enough. But his paper, and others, quoted unnamed pro-war sources willy-nilly.
• Downie also asserted that “voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones.” This is simply rewriting history. On the eve of the invasion, polls showed that half the public wanted to delay the invasion to give the United Nations inspectors more time to do their duty, and millions had already marched in the streets. Many of the editorial pages of major US newspapers (though, crucially, not the Post’s) were expressing their own doubts about the need for war. Key intelligence experts questioned the administration’s evidence but were given little play, on or off the record, at the Post.