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Missing before the war: Journalism 101 questions

COMMENTARY | May 07, 2004

If Bush administration leaders misled the public and made exaggerated claims in the lead-up to the Iraq war, then most national news organizations played a part in the deception by not doing basic reporting. It's too late to redo that coverage but it's not too late to learn from it. One main lesson is to ask Journalism 101 questions, the kind you would ask of a DA, or a mayor, or any public official:

By John Hanrahan

  • Are you accepting at face value what a public official says, or are you asking tough questions?
  • Are you getting comments from people who take a different position, and are you putting those comments high up in the story?
  • If deadline pressures leave you no time to corroborate a public official’s claims or to get informed alternative views and analysis into your first-day story, are you doing a second-day story presenting the alternative views?
  • In follow-up stories about the public official’s claims, are you making sure the differing views are again reflected?
  • Have you looked over any public documents relevant to a particular issue, and have you pushed sources to give you other documents? Remember, documents can sometimes contradict what an official is saying publicly.
  • Have you asked public officials to define or explain terms that are complicated or subject to more than one interpretation?
  • On a complex issue, have you gone to experts to get a fuller understanding of all facets of the issue and not just the interpretation of one expert or one public official?
  • Have you tried hard to get your sources on the record, and to not be dependent on the same sources for each story? Are you aware of your sources' motives?

As the late muckraker I.F. Stone was said to have told journalism classes: "If you want to know about governments, all you have to know is two words: Governments lie."

This is all pretty basic stuff. So what happened with much of the mainstream U.S. news media in the run-up to the American-British invasion of Iraq?

The conclusion I draw from a March 2004 study by Susan D. Moeller, a University of Maryland journalism professor, is that, in covering President Bush's "weapons of mass destruction (WMD)" rationale for invading Iraq, most influential U.S. news organizations too often ignored basic Journalism 101 and reported uncritically on the Bush administration's claims.

In fairly dispassionate language, Moeller’s report makes many of the same criticisms other critics have made more pointedly in The New York Review of Books, Editor & Publisher Online, Slate magazine, Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, and Extra!, the publication of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).

Stenographers taking down the official line

Among Moeller’s findings:

  • "Many stories stenographically reported the incumbent administration’s perspective on WMD, giving too little critical examination of the way officials framed the events, issues, threats, and policy options."
  • "Too few stories proffered alternative perspectives to [the] official line...(T)he tendency of the U.S. media to lead with the most ‘important’ information and the most ‘important’ players gave greater weight to the incumbent administration's point of view on WMD issues, at the expense of alternative perspective."
  • "Most journalists accepted the Bush administration’s formulation of the "War on Terror" as a campaign against WMD..."
  • "Most media outlets represented WMD as a monolithic menace, failing to adequately distinguish between weapons programs and actual weapons or to address the real differences among chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological weapons."

Moeller’s conclusions dovetail with the findings of other press critics. One, Michael Massing, wrote in the February 26, 2004 New York Review of Books that "in the period before the war, U.S. journalists were far too reliant on sources sympathetic to the administration. Those with dissenting views – and there were more than a few – were shut out…This was especially apparent on the issue of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – the heart of the President’s case for war. Despite abundant evidence of the administration’s brazen misuse of intelligence in this matter, the press repeatedly let officials get away with it."

Massing blames the news media failings primarily on "one of the most entrenched and disturbing features of American journalism: its pack mentality." According to Massing, many reporters and editors "began to muzzle themselves" out of a concern of being labeled unpatriotic or being out of step "from what everyone else is writing. When a president is popular and a consensus prevails, journalists shrink from challenging him." Some reporters may have also feared losing access to administration sources, Massing wrote.

Moeller and Massing each single out some journalists for praise. Moeller points to individual efforts at The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. Massing, a contributing editor to Columbia Journalism Review, lauds reports in Knight Ridder and in The Post. Both note, however, that the good examples they cite were few and far between on a long-running story.

For her study, Moeller analyzed news reports from The Times, The Post, The L.A. Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and National Public Radio ("Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered") in the United States, and The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Economist in the United Kingdom. Daily U.S. newspapers come in for most of the report’s attention

Titled "Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction," the report examined WMD news coverage during three three-week periods. Two of the three dealt with Iraq – a period in October 2002, when Congress had just approved military action there (and when North Korea announced that it has a nuclear weapons program), and in May 2003, when President Bush had declared "an end to major combat operations in Iraq."

Using numerous examples from daily coverage, Moeller criticizes news outlets for allowing the Bush White House to set the news agenda and to determine "what gets covered and how." Worse, these agenda-setting stories relied increasingly on "off-the-record" and "anonymous" sources favorable to the Bush administration for the analysis and critique of the issues.

"If the White House acted like a WMD story was important...so too did the media," the report said. "If the White House ignored a story (or an angle on a story), the media were likely to as well. When journalists did take on the administration – especially when the White House’s perspective formed the ‘conventional wisdom’ – their stories were often buried or their criticism was more implicit than explicit."

Moeller also found "that few reporters covering WMD ask enough questions of enough people – or ask the right questions of the right people." On the positive side, she singled out reporters Walter Pincus, Dana Milbank and Barton Gellman of The Washington Post; David Sanger and William Broad of The New York Times, and Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times.

Michael Massing found much to praise in the WMD articles of Knight Ridder’s Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel in September and October 2002. At that point, he wrote, "Almost alone among national news organizations, Knight Ridder had decided to take a hard look at the administration’s justifications for war."

For their articles, the Knight Ridder reporters managed to find senior military, intelligence and foreign service career officers with access to intelligence information. These sources, Massing wrote, had "detected no alarming increase in the threat that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein poses to American security and Middle East stability," and had determined that "there is no new intelligence that indicates the Iraqis have made significant advances" in rebuilding their weapons programs.

Massing and other press critics found particular fault with the WMD stories of Judith Miller of The New York Times. They alleged that Miller hyped the WMD threat and accepted uncritically information from sources that eventually proved to be wrong or misleading. In a brief letter of response to The New York Review of Books, Miller defended her reporting, saying simply that she "wrote about the intelligence that was available from government and nongovernment sources."

Page one stories buried deep inside

Moeller and Massing both use as examples of faulty news judgment the underplaying of critical stories written by Walter Pincus, a long-time national security expert for The Washington Post. Moeller noted that Pincus, with his "legions of sources in the Pentagon, the CIA, Congress, the State Department, the scientific community, and UN inspector Hans Blix’s office," was particularly well-positioned to report on the WMD issue.

<!--img:1066--> Massing reported how, in the weeks following Secretary of State Colin Powell’s dramatic February 2003 U.N. presentation of purported evidence of Iraq’s alleged ongoing WMD programs, Pincus "developed strong reservations."

Pincus reviewed U.N. weapons inspectors’ reports from 1998 and 1999 "and he was struck to learn from them how much weaponry had been destroyed in Iraq before 1998," Massing wrote. From General Anthony Zinni, the former head of the U.S. Central Command, Pincus heard about "the hundreds of weapons sites the United States had destroyed in its 1998 bombing [of Iraq]."

Pincus went back and reviewed Powell’s speech closely and concluded "that it was all inferential," Massing wrote. The intercepted conversations Powell discussed "really didn’t prove anything." Pincus went to his editors, proposing a story questioning the Bush administration’s WMD claims, but they "weren’t interested," Massing reported.

According to Massing, the story was published only because Pincus’s Post colleague Bob Woodward, "who was researching a book on the war and who had developed similar doubts," intervened on Pincus’s behalf with the editors. The story appeared in mid-March 2003 on page A17 – hardly choice newspaper real estate. Among other points, the article reported that "U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the banned weapons or where they are hidden...."

Two days later, Pincus and Dana Milbank, the Post’s White House correspondent, had an especially eye-opening story, the lead of which was: "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 US intelligence reports." That story, too, was buried, Massing noted, on page A13.

Massing quotes Pincus as saying that the poor placement of the stories was no accident. Said Pincus: "The front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times are very important in shaping what people think. They’re like writing a memo to the White House." But, he added, the Post’s editors "went through a whole phase in which they didn’t put things on the front page that would make a difference."

On one level, the Pincus articles are examples of first-rate investigative reporting. On another level, they are examples of a journalist following basic reporting principles learned at a young age: Don’t accept the word of public officials at face value; seek out alternate views and sources; read relevant documents, etc.

The news media also performed poorly in reporting on the Bush administration’s efforts to demonstrate a terrorist-WMD-Iraq link. In October 2002, Moeller wrote, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair repeatedly claimed "linkages of terrorism and Iraq and WMD" and were "extensively quoted" in news articles on this point. Yet, she wrote, "few stories expressed reservations about the evidence of Iraq’s connections with terrorists or reservations about administration officials’ flat statements that Iraq had WMD."

Post editor take issue with critics

Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor and senior correspondent at The Washington Post, was one of several journalists to take issue with Massing's New York Review of Books article. Kaiser accused Massing of having "cherry-picked" articles "that suit his thesis, [and] ignored or distorted those that don’t."

Without specifically citing the Pincus stories that received far-from-prominent play in the Post, Kaiser acknowledged that the newspaper did place some critical stories on inside pages, but added,

"Our job was to raise the questions. We did, again and again. Yes, the stories sometimes ran on inside pages, but does Massing really mean to imply that editors who will run a story on A10 somehow lack courage if they won’t put it on A1? That suggestion seems silly."

There doesn’t seem to be anything silly about contending that story placement matters. I know of no study, in the history of newspapers, that shows that readership of page 13 is as great as page one. Kaiser’s response seems to be one that editors often use when responding to complaints: "We had that story."

But that’s not enough, especially on a matter as grave as war and peace. A story deep on an inside page tells readers: "This is news, folks, but it’s not very big news in the greater scheme of things, and certainly not as important as what the administration has to say."

A newspaper is hardly doing its job when the administration’s day-by-day case for war is virtually guaranteed a position on page one, while occasional articles questioning that case have to meet a higher standard in order to appear on page one (if at all). It might not be a lack of courage, but it is inadequate journalism.

So what should the press have done?

It should have gone back to basics.

Moeller makes several very simple recommendations. She says "that when media cover WMD issues, events, and policies, they should strive to get more perspectives higher up in their breaking news stories – and to get more of their sources on the record."

Additionally, she proposes: "When time and space allow, an analysis or enterprise story that assesses the assertions made in the basic piece should be run in immediate and prominent juxtaposition to the basic, inverted-pyramid story."

She recommends that reporters "be skeptical not only of information that is released by an administration, but also of the timing of the release of that information";…and that "when the administration’s intelligence claims cannot be independently confirmed, [reporters] emphasize that lack of confirmation."

There were plenty of sources to be found

Moeller says U.K. newspapers did a better job than their U.S. counterparts of putting alternative viewpoints into their stories about Bush’s and Blair’s WMD claims. She feels, though, that the U.S. media "are not entirely at fault for their more passive coverage" because American politicians -- including most Democrats in Congress -- "substantially supported President Bush’s declaration and articulation of the 'War on Terror'...well into the summer and fall of 2003." By contrast, she wrote, "There was more consistent and vocal opposition among senior British political figures to some of the Blair government’s WMD policies," making for more obvious opposition sources to quote.

But politicians aren’t the only – or necessarily the best – sources for opposing views. Massing, in his article, demonstrates through the Post’s Pincus and the Knight Ridder reporters that there were plenty of sources to express doubts about Bush’s WMD claims. Additionally, he notes that few reporters tapped another good source – the International Atomic Energy Agency. Massing wrote of IAEA officials complaining to him that the agency was unable to gets its story out to the U.S. press: namely, that by 1998, contrary to the Bush administration's dire warnings of nuclear attack, "It was pretty clear we had neutralized Iraq’s nuclear program. There was unanimity on that."

I would add that U.K. outlets such as The Guardian and The Independent newspapers and the BBC, and Amy Goodman on Pacifica’s "Democracy Now" program in the United States, seemed to find plenty of skeptics and critics of the Bush-Blair WMD claims both here and in Britain in the months before the invasion of Iraq.

Contemplating going to war is the most fateful debate a nation can engage in, and the press has a responsibility to be at its best in reporting and examining the arguments for and against such a drastic endeavor. U.S. newspapers and broadcasters can, of course, point to some first-rate stories among their pre-war reporting, but the preponderance of the reporting didn’t rise to that level. And as various recent critiques of the press indicate, news outlets were particularly lacking in critical stories from November 2002 to March 2003, when the Bush administration was building the momentum for war.

There seems little doubt that the cumulative effect of the day-by-day drumbeat of numerous unchallenged Bush administration statements in print and broadcast outlets was to convince most Americans that the nation faced an immediate, serious, WMD threat from Saddam Hussein. This skewed coverage might also help explain the mind-boggling poll results showing that 70 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Perhaps more critical pre-invasion coverage wouldn’t have made a difference to the Bush administration’s ultimate decision to invade Iraq, but at least we would have had a better informed public – and a better informed Congress. Better coverage might have produced more skepticism in the public and opposition possibly as strong as in Britain, where much of the press coverage was

critical and members of Blair’s own Labour Party were in open revolt against the march to war. The press, at its best, doesn’t want to appear to be an advocate; but when its most influential outlets do an inadequate job – as was the case before the Iraq invasion – the press becomes a de facto advocate for the government and for war.

New York Times
Okrent tears into Times's WMD stories

Now They Tell Us
Michael Massing, New York Review of Books article 2/26/04 (www.nybooks.com)

The Times Scoop That Melted
Jack Shafer, Slate article, 7/25/03 (slate.msn.com)

The Great WMD Hunt
Seth Ackerman, Extra! article July/August 2003 (www.fair.org)

Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction
By Susan D. Moeller, 3/9/04 (www.cissm.umd.edu)

New York Times
The Times publicly finds fault with its own Iraq coverage

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