Published on Sunday, June 29, 2003 by the Washington Post
. . . Bring Back the Skeptical Press
by Gilbert Cranberg
The Bush administration has been taking heavy flak for its as yet unproved claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. In fixing blame for the way the public appears to have been sold a bill of goods, don't overlook the part played by the media. Instead of closely questioning the administration's case, the nation's newspaper editorialists basically nodded in agreement.
Take their immediate reaction to the administration's most comprehensive presentation about the Iraq threat -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's blow-by-blow report to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5. An examination of editorial comment on Powell's speech and slide show, in a mix of some 40 papers from all parts of the country, shows that while some were less convinced than others by Powell's attempt to link Hussein to terrorism, there was unanimity as to Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction: "a massive array of evidence," "a detailed and persuasive case," "a powerful case," "a sober, factual case," "an overwhelming case," "a compelling case," "the strong, credible and persuasive case," "a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information," "the core of his argument was unassailable," "a smoking fusillade . . . a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable," "an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence," "only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction," "the skeptics asked for proof; they now have it," "a much more detailed and convincing argument than any that has previously been told," "Powell's evidence . . . was overwhelming," "an ironclad case . . . incontrovertible evidence," "succinct and damning evidence . . . the case is closed," "Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein," "masterful," "If there was any doubt that Hussein . . . needs to be . . . stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest."
Journalists are supposed to be professional skeptics, but nowhere in the commentary was there a smidgen of skepticism about the quality of Powell's evidence. Powell cited almost no verifiable sources. Many of his assertions were unattributed. The speech had more than 40 vague references such as "human sources," "an eyewitness," "detainees," "an al-Qaeda source," "a senior defector," "intelligence sources," and the like.
Of course, government informants often must remain unidentified to protect them. Nevertheless, the media's rationale for caution in its own use of unnamed sources -- that anonymity can be a license to exaggerate or even lie -- was equally applicable to judging Powell's speech. Yet none of the editorials, so lavish in praise of Powell's persuasiveness, warned readers that much of his talk rested on possibly suspect sources, or even mentioned the source issue in passing.
Powell did cite more apparently solid evidence, such as satellite photos of weapons sites and recordings of intercepted conversations. Viewers, however, had to depend on Powell "to capture and explain" what the indistinct photos meant. The troubling manner in which Powell embroidered one of the two intercepted conversations raises the question of whether similar spin figured in his interpretation of the photos.
Here is the relevant portion of the State Department's translation of a Jan. 30 conversation between Iraqi Republican Guard headquarters and an officer in the field:
Headquarters: They are inspecting the ammunition you have --
In recounting this exchange, Powell changed it significantly. In Powell's version, the order from headquarters to "inspect" for ammunition became an order to "clean out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas." Powell also claimed that headquarters told the field officer, "Make sure there is nothing there." This instruction appears nowhere in the transcript.
When I asked the State Department's press and public affairs offices to explain the discrepancy between its transcript and Powell's retelling, they referred me to the department's Web site. The material there simply confirmed that Powell had misrepresented the intercept.
Some 80 percent of the editorials I examined were written the day Powell delivered his address and ran the next day, Feb. 6 -- no doubt because of the preference of many editorial page editors for editorials "up to the news." That makes for timely comment, but the downside of instant analysis is the scant time it leaves for careful reporting and reflection. I learned in my many years of editorial writing to follow I.F. Stone's prudent advice to read texts and not to rush to judgment. None of these publications evidently realized, or noted, how Powell had embellished some facts, although that is readily apparent from a close reading of his text.
If the first casualty of war is truth, the media will need to be a lot more skeptical and alert to minimize the toll on truth.
Gilbert Cranberg is the former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company