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Dan Froomkin: Leslie Gelb on the Media’s Iraq Fiasco

Posted at 9:52 am, June 17th, 2009
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A veteran journalist and Washington insider has completed an empirical study of the elite press’s performance in the run-up to and early days of the Iraq war and – big surprise – has found it badly wanting.

Leslie H. Gelb, writing in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, concludes that American’s finest journalists failed to even minimally evaluate administration claims. “For the most part, the elite print press conveyed Administration pronouncements and rationale without much critical commentary,” he writes.

Gelb and assistant Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati focused specifically on the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Time and Newsweek. They coded 576 news and opinion articles from three key moments in 2002 and 2003, using the following scale:

0: A story is entirely slanted, suppresses skepticism, and is completely supportive of the Administration line
1: A story is somewhat slanted to the Administration’s side, with skeptical and questioning sentences over-weighted by supportive ones
2: A story dutifully reports both sides by balancing experts or political leaders
3: A story raises questions about official statements and events and generally projects skepticism
4: A story casts fundamental doubt on Administration explanations, policies, and claims
5: A story casts fundamental doubt and then reports the Administration’s reaction to such doubt

Gelb writes he would have been satisfied with a solid three. But he ended up giving the elite press scores in the high ones and low twos. Some of the examples he cites, from the likes of Karen DeYoung, David Sanger, Richard Cohen, Jim Hoagland, Michael Gordon, Richard Wolffe and Daniel Klaidman, Bill Keller and Vernon Loeb are enough to make you weep.

(For comparison purposes, an online survey of Nieman fellows last year gave the American press overall an abysmal grade of D for its coverage of the run-up to the war.)

A former New York Times editor, senior government official and president of the Council on Foreign relations — and an avowed big supporter of the war in the early days — Gelb never satisfactorily explains why the press was so trusting. He doesn’t even raise the factor mentioned most often in a Nieman Foundation panel discussion last October: The abiding fear, especially among senior editors, of appearing out of step with the country.

But he does make some important observations nonetheless. In the run-up to war, for instance, he writes: “The elite media’s posture of neutrality amounted to little more than deference to the Administration’s position.” Another big problem was that “most stories emphasized politics over policy.” As Gelb explains:

fixating on politics is worrisome. It sometimes suggests that the writer doesn’t know much about policy or the genuine ideological positions of policymakers. It’s also evidence that the writer has not mastered the substance of their subject. I have found over the years that if people don’t know substance, they talk pure politics. Everyone is a political expert; it is the great leveler

Gelb’s suggestions for averting another such journalistic disaster include these two excellent ones:

First, to do its job right, the elite press has to adopt an aggressive but fair attitude to all stories about war and peace. Editors have to stress this, so reporters won’t fear they’ll get punished for being too critical. And to help them be aggressive in an informed manner, editors should encourage them to read history and keep up with other stories and op-eds. Reporters have to know enough to ask intelligent follow-up questions.

Second, do more and better news analysis pieces. Over the last decade or so, these critically important articles have slipped into a pattern of he says/she says, not much superior to cable news. They should be about what we know and don’t know, and they should point out how difficult it is to establish key facts in certain situations. These pieces need to explore policy ideas in depth.

Echoing a call that veteran editor Gilbert Cranberg made on this Web site in 2007, Gelb expresses a hope that his appraisal will spur further probes of what went wrong. He writes:

The stakes could not be higher: Our public debate and our democracy hinge in good measure on how well our most prestigious print outlets cover matters of war and peace.

One Response to “Leslie Gelb on the Media’s Iraq Fiasco”

  1. Jim Hoagland says:

    [...] Leslie Gelb on the Media’s Iraq Fiasco Watchdog Blog – PeopleRank: 2 – June 17, 2009 …Jim Hoagland, Michael Gordon, Richard Wolffe and Daniel Klaidman, Bill Keller and Vernon Loeb are enough to make you weep. (For comparison purposes, an online survey of Nieman fellows last year gave the American press overall an abysmal grade of D for… Cited people : David Sanger  Karen DeYoung  Leslie Gelb  Richard Cohen  [...]

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