Like most media and political writers, I often let bygones be bygones, painful as that may be. Then there are the especially tragic or high-stakes cases. For example, the media failures in the run-up to the Iraq war, given the consequences. This explains my reaction to the Columbia Journalism Review’s announcing yesterday, after a widely watched search, that it was hiring Liz Spayd, late of The Washington Post, as its new editor and publisher.
Now, I suppose I should review her entire career, for context, though others are doing it and you can read about it in plenty of places. And here’s a memo from Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School (and a Washington Post vet himself) on the hiring, and Spayd’s own reaction. She was managing editor of the Post or its website for many years until last year, and obviously supervised a good deal of important work (and some not so terrific, of course). But I am moved to recall, and then let go, one famous 2004 article, also at the Post, by Howard Kurtz, which I highlighted in my book on those media failures and Iraq, So Wrong for So Long.
In a nutshell: The New York Times, under Bill Keller, had printed as an editors’ note a very brief and very limited semi-apology for its horrific coverage during the run-up to the war, dubbed a “mini-culpa” by Jack Shafer. The Post, almost equally but not so famously guilty, didn’t even do that, to its shame, leaving it to one of its reporters, i.e., Kurtz, to report it out. His piece made the paper look pretty bad, with some embarrassing quotes from editor Len Downie, Bob Woodward and Karen DeYoung, among others, usually along the lines of, “Well, what could we do?” And there was this passage about Spayd:
Liz Spayd, the assistant managing editor for national news, says The Post’s overall record was strong.
“I believe we pushed as hard or harder than anyone to question the administration’s assertions on all kinds of subjects related to the war…. Do I wish we would have had more and pushed harder and deeper into questions of whether they possessed weapons of mass destruction? Absolutely,” she said. “Do I feel we owe our readers an apology? I don’t think so.”
Of course, the paper’s editorial page was even worse, making the news disaster that much more damaging.
In some ways, the “hero” of the Kurtz piece was Walter Pincus, the longtime national security reporter who had tried to get more skeptical stories on Iraq WMD in the paper (or get them on the front-page).
But while Pincus was ferreting out information “from sources I’ve used for years,” some in the Post newsroom were questioning his work. Editors complained that he was “cryptic,” as one put it, and that his hard-to-follow stories had to be heavily rewritten.
Spayd declined to discuss Pincus’s writing but said that “stories on intelligence are always difficult to edit and parse and to ensure their accuracy and get into the paper.”
The much-respected Michael Getler later reviewed his years as ombudsman at the Post from 2000 to 2005, and offered a strong critique of the role of the paper’s editors in the Iraq WMD disaster. He observed:
I should say at this point the Post is an excellent paper, and it also did some excellent reporting before the war—more than you might think. But I also had a catbird seat watching it stumble and, while my observations are necessarily about the Post, they may be more broadly applicable. From where I sat, there were two newsroom failures, in particular, at the root of what went wrong with pre-war reporting. One was a failure to pay enough attention to events that unfolded in public, rather than just the exclusive stuff that all major newspapers like to develop. The other was a failure of editors and editing up and down the line that resulted in a focus on getting ready for a war that was coming rather than the obligation to put the alternative case in front of readers in a prominent way. This resulted in far too many stories, including some very important ones, being either missed, underplayed, or buried.
Getler chronicles the many important stories the Post either did not cover or buried deep inside the paper (including reports on large antiwar marches). Then he adds:
Here’s a brief sampling of additional Post headlines that, rather stunningly, failed to make the front of the newspaper: “Observers: Evidence for War Lacking,” “U.N. Finds No Proof of Nuclear Program,” “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” “Legality of War Is a Matter of Debate,” and “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.” In short, it wasn’t the case that important, challenging reporting wasn’t done. It just wasn’t highlighted.
Of course, Liz Spayd was just one of a group of editors and hardly deserves full blame for the Post’s performance. But she did defend that record afterward—and said no apology was needed.