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.
• Liz Spayd, assistant managing editor for news, offered another weak defense in explaining why a key article questioning the existence of WMD by thirty-two-year Post veteran Walter Pincus was finally published on Page A17. Pincus’s stories are “difficult to edit,” as she put it. Matthew Vita, then national security editor and now deputy assistant managing editor, offered another defense for the Pincus miscue: “We were dealing with an awful lot of stories, and that was one of the ones that slipped through the cracks.”
• That rationale also applied to another sad case. In the days before the war, Dana Priest and Karen DeYoung finished a piece that said CIA officials had communicated significant doubts to the administration about evidence linking Iraq to an attempted uranium purchase. The story was held until March 22, three days after the war began. “Editors blamed a flood of copy about the impending invasion,” Kurtz explained.
• Vita had a different excuse on another missed opportunity. One of the fresh revelations in the Kurtz piece was how, in October 2002, Thomas Ricks (who has covered national security issues for fifteen years) turned in a piece titled “Doubts,” indicating that Pentagon officials were worried that the risks of an invasion of Iraq were being underestimated. It was killed by Vita. He told Kurtz that a problem with the piece was that many of the quotes with names attached came from “retired guys.” But the Post (and much of the rest of the media) rarely shied away from “retired guys” who promoted the war.
• Other excuses rippled through the Kurtz piece, featuring phrases like “always easy in hindsight,” “editing difficulties,” “communication problems” and “there is limited space on Page 1.” One editor explained, “You couldn’t get beyond the veneer and hurdle of what this groupthink had already established,” even though the British press somehow managed to overcome that. Amid all the excuses, Post staffers denied that the paper was under any pressure from the White House.
• At the end of the Kurtz piece, Downie offered his ultimate defense. “People who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical of the media’s coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war,” Downie said. “They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media’s coverage had been different, there wouldn’t have been a war.”
Two responses to that final excuse come quickly to mind.
Most of those against the war did not ask for a media “crusade” against invasion, merely that the press stick to the facts and provide a balanced assessment: in other words, that the Post do its minimum journalistic duty. If anything, the Post, and some other major news outlets, came closer to crusading for the war.
And did Downie honestly believe that nothing the media might have done could have possibly stopped the war? Especially when, as noted, public and editorial opinion on the eve of war was divided? Does he take issue with Walter Lippmann’s notion that the press plays a vital role in “manufacturing consent”? And does he really believe his must-read newspaper lacks any clout? If so, what does that say about the state of modern newspapering?
Greg Mitchell’s So Wrong for So Long, on the media and the Iraq war—with a preface by Bruce Springsteen—has been published in an expanded edition for the first time as an e-book.
Read Next: Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr.: Why We Need a New Church Committee to Fix Our Broken Intelligence System.