Press Watch

Press Watch

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.


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.”

Miller, it turns out, has no monopoly on docility. CJR‘s survey of editorials makes it distressingly apparent that our top newspapers did not abstain from the chance to inform their readers about “what the government thought” of Iraq’s supposed arsenal. Mooney examined more than eighty editorials in half a dozen papers–the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune–for a six-week period, starting with Colin Powell’s February 5 speech to the United Nations and concluding with the onset of hostilities on March 19. It’s worth noting that Mooney, a freelance writer in Washington, had no ideological ax to grind. In the months leading up to the war, he was a “liberal hawk” who expressed prowar sentiments on his blog. To a certain extent, his piece is a reckoning with himself. (Full disclosure: I was a CJR staff member from 2001-03 and remain on the magazine’s masthead in an advisory capacity.)

The CJR report is largely about the reaction to Powell’s speech, which was rapturously received by editorialists. “Irrefutable,” proclaimed the Washington Post. Powell “may not have produced a ‘smoking gun,'” ventured the New York Times, but the speech left “little question that Mr. Hussein had tried hard to conceal one.” International newspapers–including the British Guardian–treated the speech as one side of an ongoing UN debate about Iraq’s WMD capacities and gave ample coverage to the opposing views of Hans Blix and the IAEA’s Mohammed ElBaradei, who maintained that Iraq did not have them. “Without appearing to weigh such contrary evidence,” Mooney writes, “the US papers all essentially pronounced Powell right, though they couldn’t possibly know for sure that he was. In short, they trusted him. And in so doing, they failed to bring even an elementary skepticism to the Bush case for war.”

Mooney was struck by the “strongly nationalistic character” of the editorials under review and the “almost knee-jerk tendency to distrust international perspectives”–a sentiment that, in many cases, led editorialists to minimize and dismiss the findings of Blix and ElBaradei. In March 2003, the latter informed the UN that there was little evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear program, but the prowar newspapers in the CJR study simply “shrugged off” ElBaradei’s critique. At least one of them–the Wall Street Journal–heaped scorn on the inspectors. When Saddam Hussein insisted that he did not possess WMDs, the Journal sneered, “If you believe that, you are probably a Swedish weapons inspector.”

What do the editorial page editors say in their own defense? “We don’t discuss the process that goes into writing the editorials,” the New York Times‘s Gail Collins told CJR. “I will go off my normal rule to say I wish we’d known there were no weapons of mass destruction.” Said Janet Clayton of the Los Angeles Times: “I do wish we’d been more skeptical of Powell’s WMD claims before the UN.” Others remain faithful to their own discredited narratives. “I’m not going to second-guess what we wrote,” said the Chicago Tribune‘s Bruce Dold. “If indeed [Saddam] did not have weapons–and I think it’s all still an open question–the fact was that he didn’t comply, and the UN had looked the other way while hundreds of thousands of people had died in Iraq.”

In the months after the war ended, major US newspapers–especially the Washington Post–recovered their skepticism and began to challenge aggressively the Administration’s justifications for war. But it was too little, too late: When we needed them most, they weren’t there. CJR gave the last word to the intelligence writer Thomas Powers. “All these papers are on notice,” Powers said. “They’ve seen what happened. They were hustled.”

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