On February 7, two days after Colin Powell’s much-lauded presentation before the United Nations Security Council, Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus described how foreign government officials, terrorism experts and members of Congress disputed a key claim: the supposed link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Despite the article’s relevance, the Post buried it in journalistic no man’s land–page A21–where it had little effect. An article a week later by Pincus and military correspondent Dana Priest, “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” got a similar A20 placement.
On March 16 another Pincus article, “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” explained that US intelligence agencies believed the Bush Administration had exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam’s purported stocks of WMD. Its placement: A17. Two days later, Pincus and White House correspondent Dana Milbank wrote a strenuous indictment of the Administration’s rationales for war: “As the Bush Administration prepares to attack Iraq this week, it is doing so on the basis of a number of allegations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that have been challenged–and in some cases disproved–by the United Nations, European governments and even U.S. intelligence reports.” That one managed to vault only up to A13.
It wasn’t until May 29, almost a month after Bush declared an end to major combat operations, that Pincus, along with co-writer Karen DeYoung, broke onto the front page with a story headlined “U.S. Hedges on Finding Iraqi Weapons; Officials Cite the Possibilities of Long or Fruitless Search for Banned Arms.” At that point, with guerrilla attacks rising, postwar planning in disarray and the weapons highlighted by the Bush Administration nowhere to be found, experts and politicians on Pincus’s intelligence beat–and, more important, his own editors–began to stir. In June and July, stories about Iraq-related intelligence controversies written or co-written by Pincus, Priest and Milbank appeared on the front page twenty-one times. Between July 15 and July 21, their breaking news stories were on page one seven days in a row.
The Post‘s sluggish start, followed by its abrupt shift into high gear, was not lost on readers–including its own ombudsman. “There was a disconcerting pattern of underplayed or missed stories that were not up to the coverage that followed during and after the war,” says Michael Getler, who’s written critically of his paper’s prewar failure to acknowledge dissenting voices.
Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. denies any such transformation, saying “nothing is done differently now than before.” But Getler, and other Post insiders, disagree. Getler says the Post, like the rest of the press (but with a more significant impact, since it is the most closely watched barometer of the politics and mood in Washington), failed to capture adequately the transition from Osama and Afghanistan to Saddam and Iraq, a move that drastically increased dissent across the globe. “The Post is not biased,” Getler says, “but in the summer of 2002 up through [the start of war in Iraq], they were not alert enough, early enough, to dissenting voices.”