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).