UPDATE The piece below was written, in only slightly different from, on assignment for The Washington Post but killed by the paper's Outlook section on Thursday. They later ran a piece by their own Paul Farhi claiming that the media "didn't fail" on Iraq. When I wrote about this today it drew wide attention across the Web. Follow that all here.
For awhile, back in 2003, Iraq meant never having to say you’re sorry, at least for the many war hawks. The spring offensive had produced a victory in less than three weeks, with a relatively low American and Iraqi civilian death toll. Saddam fled and George W. Bush and his team drew overwhelming praise, at least here at home.
But wait. Where were the crowds greeting us as “liberators”? Why were the Iraqis now shooting at each other—and blowing up our soldiers? And where were those WMD, biochem labs, and nuclear materials? Most Americans still backed the invasion, so it still too early for mea culpas—it was more “my sad” than “my bad.”
By 2004 it was clear that Saddam’s WMD would never be found, but with another election season at hand, sorry was still the hardest word. But a few very limited glimmers of accountability began to appear. So let’s begin our catalog of the art of mea culpa and Iraq here. Much more in my new ebook, So Wrong for So Long.
PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY President Bush and many others—including scores of Democrats—who once claimed “slam dunk” evidence on Iraq’s WMD now admitted that this intelligence was more below-average than Mensa. But don’t blame them! They simply had been misled. Judith Miller of The New York Times, perhaps the prime fabulist in the run-up to war, explained that she was only as good as her sources—her sources having names like “Curveball” and “Red Cap Guy.”
But the news media, which for the most part had swallowed whole the WMD claims, was not facing re-election, so some self-criticism, at least of the “mistakes-were-made” variety came easier.
THE MINI-CULPA This phrase was coined by Jack Shafer of Slate after The New York Times published an “editors’ note” in May 2004, admitting it had publishing a few “problematic articles” (it didn’t mention any authors) on Iraqi WMD, but pointing out it was “taken in” like most in the Bush administration.
Unlike the Times, Washington Post editors three months later did not produce their own explanation but allowed chief media reporter Howard Kurtz to write a lengthy critique. Editors and reporters admitted they had often performed poorly but offered one excuse after another. With phrases such as “always easy in hindsight,” “editing difficulties,” “communication problems” and “there is limited space on Page 1.” One top reporter said, “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power. “ Topping them all, Kurtz reported that Bob Woodward “said it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly if weapons were ultimately found in Iraq.”