Published on Wednesday, April 21, 2004 by Newsday / Long Island, New York
How the Media Blew the Iraq Story
by Susan Moeller
It is part of the media's job to cover the White House. Yet there must be a difference between reporting on what the president says and repeating what the president says.
As a result of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the rise in American casualties and the attention of the 9/11 Commission, the media today are looking skeptically at presidential statements and policies on WMD.
But that is a relatively recent trend. In the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2003, the media slavishly repeated the administration's assertion that a core objective of the war on terror was to prevent Iraqi WMD from falling into the hands of terrorists. While that may have been a common fear, no terrorist organization had committed an act of true "mass" destruction using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons - much less one involving materiel gained from Saddam Hussein.
The media, by giving such presidential statements front- page treatment, effectively magnified those fears.
That was one of the conclusions of a study released last month by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. The study, "Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction," which I authored, evaluated how 11 leading U.S. and United Kingdom newspapers, newsmagazines and public-radio programs covered WMD during three critical months: May 2003, when President George W. Bush announced that combat operations in Iraq had ended and the hunt for WMDs escalated; October 2002, when Congress approved military action to disarm Iraq and when revelations about the North Korean nuclear weapons program surfaced; and May 1998, when India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests.
In contrast to coverage during the Clinton era, when many reporters made careful distinctions between acts of terrorism and the acquisition and use of WMD, in 2002 and 2003 many stories stenographically reported the administration's perspective and gave too little critical examination of the way officials framed events, issues, threats and policy options. The media tended to report uncritically the Bush administration's conflation of all "weapons of mass destruction" into a single category of threat - a conflation that equates the destructive power of, say, chemical weapons with that of nuclear weapons.
Analysis of the coverage of WMD documented how successful the White House has been in getting the media to confirm its political agenda. The Bush administration dominated the daily news cycle. The media covered Iraq and the issue of WMD through breaking stories that led with the most "important" news of the day - the president's statements. Bush's argument that a pre-emptive war in Iraq was imperative because Hussein had WMD became a top-of the-news story.
The coverage not only disseminated the administration's logic, but because it didn't offer equally prominent alternative perspectives, it also validated it. When reporters did take on the administration, their stories were often buried by their editors.
Terrence Smith, media correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," confirmed that tendency in a conversation with Michael Getler, ombudsman for The Washington Post, on a recent Diane Rehm radio show: "One thing that was rarely reported and was on the public record of statements of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden were very critical statements about Saddam Hussein and his regime. To Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein's regime represented precisely the sort of secular world leadership that he wants to get out of the Arab world. So there was evidence, was there not, Michael Getler, that rather than being allied they were quite opposed?"
"Yes, there was," replied Getler. In one of his tapes, bin Laden "specifically made that point ... and even that got very little attention." Getler quoted headlines for four stories published in the Post that did question the 9/11-Iraq-WMD connection in the run-up to the war, but they all ran "inside the paper - not on page one," he said.
In the period before the Iraq war, pressure to respond to crises patriotically - and the lack of much congressional opposition - limited the assessment of White House policy and the consideration of other policy options. According to recent books by Bob Woodward, Richard Clarke and Ron Suskind (with former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill), several top officials entered office in 2001 determined to make war.
This insider information only emphasizes how critical the need is for the media to give a more prominent examination of the administration's still active argument that WMD is an integral element in a global terrorism matrix, and that Iraq was part of that equation.
Susan Moeller, a media and international affairs professor at University of Maryland, is author of "Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death."
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