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The press gets a low grade for pre-Iraq war reporting

COMMENTARY | September 29, 2008

In a new Nieman Watchdog survey, in part a post mortem on an immensely important period for journalism, Nieman fellows in the U.S. and around the world are highly critical of the main American news organizations. (First of two parts.)

By Barry Sussman

A new online survey of 145 Nieman fellows, including some well known and highly regarded journalists, gives the American press an abysmal grade of D for its coverage of the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Reporting during the period preceding the March 20, 2003, invasion, is widely if not universally seen as a failure on the part of the country’s main news organizations that must not be repeated in covering the next presidential administration.  

Frequent charges were that the press didn’t ask hard questions about weapons of mass destruction, was afraid to appear unpatriotic after 9/11, and in some instances became victims of phony “inside information” instead of digging for news.

“The national media simply reported what national leaders wanted to do without scrutiny or challenge,” said Bill Graves of the Portland Oregonian, a 1999 Nieman fellow, in a typical remark.

The survey was done in connection with the awarding of the first annual I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence to John Walcott, the editor in charge of Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau during the run-up.

In dozens of stories (click here) Walcott worked with two reporters, Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel, as they exposed weaknesses and fallacies in the Bush administration’s arguments leading up to the attack on Iraq. Their work was almost totally ignored by the rest of the news media. Instead, the New York Times and Washington Post and other leading news organizations rarely questioned administration positions.

Subsequently, in 2004, the Times ran an extraordinary Page One apology for its run-up coverage, saying that in a number of instances it was “not as rigorous as it should have been.”

The issue of what the press did or didn’t do is highly charged even now, more than five years later. Some believe that aggressive, steady coverage, such as that provided by Walcott, Landay and Strobel, might have stopped Bush from going to war had it appeared on the front pages of the Times and Post. Others hold that even if stronger reporting wouldn’t have stopped the war, the job of the press nevertheless was to report aggressively, and at that it failed badly. And there is a third group, which says coverage was satisfactory and criticism overblown. Less than a handful in the survey—three people of the 145 who took part—seemed to hold that view.

A number of Nieman fellows singled out Knight Ridder for praise while being highly critical of virtually all other news organizations.

“With the exception of McClatchy News Service and Seymour Hersh, news organizations crumbled by accepting as fact the Administration’s rationale for war,” wrote P.W.D Martin, a 1998 Nieman fellow now at NPR. (McClatchy bought Knight Ridder in 2006. Hersh writes for the New Yorker. Click here for a video of an interview of Hersh by the New Yorker editor, David Remnick.)

The Stone medal will be awarded by the Nieman Foundation and the Nieman Watchdog Project at the Newseum in Washington on Oct. 7. The presentation, starting at 2 PM, will be followed by a panel discussion in which seven distinguished journalists, a moderator and six panelists, will offer their own post mortem of the run-up coverage, and discuss ways to improve reporting of the next presidential administration. (For details—and an invitation to the event—click here.)

There were only two substantive questions in the survey. Question 1 asked the Nieman fellows to grade “the main American news organizations” for their reporting during the run-up. The exact wording was:

Thinking of the main American news organizations – leading newspapers, TV and cable networks and news magazines: What grade – A,B,C,D or F – would you give them as a group for their reporting during the run-up to the war in Iraq?

The email survey went to Nieman fellows in the United States and abroad. In all, 419 opened the invitation to take part and 145 responded, including about 110 from the U.S.  This report doesn’t claim to represent the views of a cross-section of all Nieman fellows—only the views of those who responded.

Following are some of the comments regarding the coverage:

“The media were nearly all rah-rah xenophobic. Seems we fear raising questions when the government raises its flag.” R. Gregory Nokes, a retired editor and writer and a 1972 Nieman fellow.

“The media appeared to be afraid of being called unpatriotic - when its national duty was to question if it was wise to send American troops to Iraq,” wrote Andrew Meldrum, a 2008 fellow now working at Global News Enterprises, a Boston-based Web site for international news.

“I’m stunned that the deep worldwide criticism – huge anti-war rallies, etc. – was barely noted. Why the enthusiasm in press to play war correspondent?” asked Margaret Engel, a 1979 fellow and director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

“Journalists were unwilling to challenge intelligence community guesses on WMDs and the administration's assertions that there were WMDs in Iraq”—John Seigenthaler, a 1959 fellow now at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, a program of the Freedom Forum.

“A related question, equally important, is whether we as a nation have lost a critical mass of active citizens motivated enough to read, think and act.”—Ed Lambeth, a 1968 fellow, director and professor emeritus of the University of Missouri Journalism School.

"They were, by and large, in capivity to flag and propaganda"—Hodding Carter, a 1966 Nieman now University Professor of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of North Carolina.

“The most grievous failure by the collective U.S. press in modern times, and still unexamined by most of them.”—Murrey Marder, a 1950 Nieman fellow, a retired Washington Post diplomatic reporter and the sponsor of Nieman Watchdog.

A few respondents thought the press did well in the run-up. Peter A. Jay, a 1973 Nieman, wrote: “Reporting on the run-up was much better than the reporting on the war itself.” Jay has been a reporter at the Washington Post, a columnist at the Baltimore Sun, a small town newspaper owner and now a farmer in Havre de Grace, Md.

Said Edward Norton, a free-lance writer who is also a 1973 Nieman: “The run-up was thoroughly covered for months by the print and broadcast media, with all sides having their say, including the UN resolutions.”

But views like these not only were in the minority, they hardly existed at all. Only one person, an American, issued a grade of A and only two, one American and one international Nieman, issued a B. There were 31 Cs, 60 Ds and 38 Fs.

Some International Nieman fellows begged off making comments about American press coverage but others weren’t shy:

“A lack of independence affected credibility,” wrote Benjamin Fernandez of Paraguay, class of 2000. “It is very difficult to defend and use American media as a professional example.”

“They lost their critical thinking as they rallied around the flag," wrote Endy Bayuni of the Jakarta Post, a 2004 Nieman. “This blinded them from spotting flaws in the weapons of mass destruction claims.”

Wrote Arben Kallamata of Canada, a 1993 Nieman: “They all failed to see the obvious – there was no connection between Iraq and al Qaida. This is when I lost my admiration for U.S. journalism.”

In operation since 1938, the Nieman Foundation sponsors about two dozen accomplished mid-career journalists at Harvard each year. It is the oldest, most renowned fellowship program of its kind.

Next: Question 2 in the survey, how to learn from past mistakes in reporting on the next Administration.

Posted by Jerome
10/05/2008, 09:56 AM

I live in the woods and I saw this happening real time. Media fell for the candy of being embedded with the military for the invasion. The war hawks sure know how to play you guys.

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