Watchdog Blog

Dan Froomkin: ‘A Failure of Editors’

Posted at 8:07 am, September 16th, 2009
Dan Froomkin Mug

What is it about the culture of our elite newsrooms that led the nation’s major newspapers and television networks to fall so short in the run-up to the war in Iraq? Why were the spurious claims from the Bush administration greeted with credulousness rather than the appropriate skepticism?

Michael Getler – who was Washington Post ombudsman from 2000 to 2005 – has an answer: He blames the editors.

Getler is now the ombudsman for PBS. In an article for Michael Tomasky’s Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (free registration required), Getler builds on an article from a previous issue by Leslie H. Gelb and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati. (I blogged about that one here.)

Gelb and Zelmati conducted an empirical study, and determined that American’s finest journalists failed to even minimally evaluate administration claims. But Getler writes that

any study that relies on an academic, article-rating system—which Gelb and Zelmati’s does admirably—inevitably misses the culture of newsrooms that can contribute to failures.

What Getler saw from his “catbird seat” was

a failure of editors and editing up and down the line that resulted in a focus on getting ready for a war that was coming rather than the obligation to put the alternative case in front of readers in a prominent way. This resulted in far too many stories, including some very important ones, being either missed, underplayed, or buried.

While most of what we hear about anonymous sources is that they are overused – and they most certainly are — Getler reminds us of their extraordinary value, particularly when those sources are contradicting the message coming from their superiors.

Getler also points out that it helps if the editors know what they’re taling about. He writes that editors

need to be experienced and informed so that when they gather around story conference tables to decide what goes on Page A1, they are able to argue with authority about the value of their stories. They need to understand that in extreme national circumstances, stories based on anonymous sources must compete with and be treated equally at times with the pronouncements of a president…

My sense is that what ailed the Post most in its coverage was not having the right editors in the right places at the right time.

Getler also notes that much of what these editors overlooked was in plain sight:

Some examples: In the summer and fall of 2002, the paper failed to record promptly the doubts of then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey. When Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to George H.W. Bush, wrote a cautionary op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, it apparently didn’t strike anyone at the Post as news. A rare Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on containment rather than war—that the administration refused to provide witnesses for—got a few paragraphs at the bottom of a story. The testimony of three retired four-star generals warning against an attack before the Senate Armed Services Committee was not covered at all. Speeches by Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Robert Byrd that seem prescient today were not covered….

Large anti-war rallies in London and Rome went unreported the day after. In October, when more than 100,000 gathered in Washington to protest the war, the story went in the Metro section because the Post underestimated its size.

Then there was what Getler calls the “Page A18 problem”:

Here’s a brief sampling of … Post headlines that, rather stunningly, failed to make the front of the newspaper: “Observers: Evidence for War Lacking,” “U.N. Finds No Proof of Nuclear Program,” “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” “Legality of War Is a Matter of Debate,” and “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.” In short, it wasn’t the case that important, challenging reporting wasn’t done. It just wasn’t highlighted.

And while Getler fails to name names, as Post media writer Howard Kurtz documented in his August 2004 article, key decision-makers at the time included then-executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. (now “vice president at large”) and Liz Spayd, then the assistant managing editor for national news (now managing editor). Downie told Kurtz that, in retrospect, “we were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration’s rationale. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part.”

Getler ends with a plea that will be familiar to regular readers of this Web site: That this failure be re-examined, so that the proper lessons can be learned.

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