The conduct of our major newspapers in the run-up to the Iraq war calls to mind William Hazlitt’s famous appraisal of the Times of London. “It floats with the tide,” Hazlitt wrote in 1823. “It sails with the stream.” Two new studies–one by Michael Massing in the February 26 New York Review of Books, which surveys news articles; the other by Chris Mooney in the March/April Columbia Journalism Review, which examines unsigned editorials–document the extent to which our elite press sailed with the stream in the decisive months leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Together, these articles paint a disconcerting portrait of a timid, credulous press corps that, when confronted by an Administration intent on war, sank to new depths of obsequiousness and docility.
Embedded in Massing’s prosecutorial brief against the press are the following charges: the dissemination of White House misinformation on Iraq; the embrace of dubious Iraqi defectors and exiles as sources; a lack of curiosity about debates in the intelligence community concerning US allegations about Iraq’s WMD capabilities; and a cavalier disregard for the International Atomic Energy Agency. Much of Massing’s firepower is directed at the New York Times in general and one reporter–Judith Miller–in particular. It was Miller (with Michael Gordon) who produced, on September 8, 2002, an article titled “US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” which reported that Iraq had tried to import thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes with the purpose of producing enriched uranium and, eventually, an atomic weapon. Bush Administration “hard-liners,” according to Miller and Gordon, feared nothing less than “a mushroom cloud.” The same day the article appeared, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice parroted the charges about the tubes on the Sunday-morning chat shows. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” Rice intoned on CNN.
“In the following months,” Massing writes, “the tubes would become a key prop in the administration’s case for war, and the Times played a critical part in legitimizing it.” A crucial element of the legitimation process was the Times‘s disregard for experts who didn’t share the White House’s dark view of Saddam’s WMD capabilities. The only national news organization that emerges unscathed from Massing’s inquiry is the low-profile Washington bureau of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain–which includes the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News–whose hard-hitting stories were based on the doubts and fears of military, intelligence and diplomatic officials, many of whom believed that the White House was misinterpreting and fabricating evidence about Iraq’s bellicosity.
Miller has been the subject of much scrutiny [see Russ Baker, “‘Scoops’ and Truth at the Times,” June 23, 2003], but Massing has produced the most authoritative account of her deferential posture vis-à-vis the Bush Administration. Massing asked Miller why her stories did not generally include the views of skeptical WMD experts; her reply is jaw-dropping: “My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself,” Miller averred. “My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought of Iraq’s arsenal.” Massing adds, with appropriate gravity: “Many journalists would disagree with this; instead they would consider offering an independent evaluation of official claims one of their chief responsibilities.”