The Media Didn't Fail on Iraq; Iraq Just Showed We Have a Failed Media

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Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

The Media Didn't Fail on Iraq; Iraq Just Showed We Have a Failed Media

The headline on a story (3/22/13) by Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi:

On Iraq, Journalists Didn't Fail. They Just Didn’t Succeed.

To make that case, though, he has to redefine "failure" so far down that it's hardly possible to avoid failing.

"Thousands of news stories and columns published before the war described and debated the administration’s plans and statements, and not all of them were supportive," he says. I suppose the North Korean media might fail by that standard, but few others.

"It wasn't impossible for skeptics of the war to connect the dots," writes Fahri. It was not actually like the dystopian novel 1984, where every scrap of contrary information went down the Memory Hole!

You know what, Paul Farhi? Skeptics are aware that it was possible to "connect the dots," because they did so, in real time–citing the same exceptional journalists whom you now cite to prove that the media as a whole were doing their job.

But the real job of the media is not to sprinkle 1 percent truth amidst 99 percent bullshit, so that diligent researchers can search it out like Easter eggs. The job of the media is to present information so that when when its audience consumes it in the usual manner, that audience can get some sense of what reality is like. By this basic standard, the corporate media failed.

Farhi trots out journalists' old, tired excuses for this failure:  Condoleezza Rice's talk of mushroom clouds and Colin Powell's entirely dubious claims about WMDs "turned everyone irrational," says the Post's Walter Pincus.  "The consensus was universal,” says the L.A. Times' Doyle McManus. Even if such claims were true, which they patently aren't, what else would you call a media system that responds to a crisis with irrational groupthink but a failure?

A comforting streak of fatalism runs through Farhi's piece. The idea that "a more confrontational press could have stopped the march into Iraq" is "wishful thinking," he writes; it implies that "the media could single-handedly override the president’s influence and that of other leaders."   Former Post executive editor Leonard "Downie believes that no amount of media skepticism would have stopped the administration. 'We were going to war,' he said."

You may have thought that corporate media outlets that are read, watched and listened to by cumulatively tens of millions of people are powerful shapers of public opinion–turns out no. How comforting the belief in the media's powerlessness must be to people who would otherwise fear they shared responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

But Farhi does not just dispute that journalists have the power to change history; he has doubts about the ability of journalists to do journalism. Quoting Pincus again: "If there's disagreement inside the government about what's true and what isn't, how the hell can the press determine what's true?"

It's the kind of statement that makes me wonder why the Washington Post doesn't close up shop and recommend that people log in instead to the White House blog. If journalists can't tell truth from falsehood, or at least move us closer in that direction, what are they doing besides reformatting press releases?

But it's really not impossible to distinguish credible from incredible claims. During his press-addling WMD performance, Colin Powell declared:

It took years for Iraq to finally admit that it had produced four tons of the deadly nerve agent, VX…. The admission only came out after inspectors collected documentation as a result of the defection of Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein's late son-in-law.

But as Newsweek (2/24/03) reported, Kamel had also said that "Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them." Who quotes evidence so selectively–and deceptively? Someone who's lying, that's who (FAIR Media Advisory, 2/27/03).

Or take Pincus' piece from March 16, 2003,  "U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms," the most on-point of the Post pieces cited by Farhi to make his case that the Post's pre-war performance "doesn't sound like failure." Even this piece didn't come out and say that anyone thought there were no WMDs to be found–only that "U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned weapons or where they are hidden." And because the truth, as Churchill put it, must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies, Pincus provided the administration's comeback:

Although senior intelligence officials said they are convinced Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction, they feel they will not be able to prove it until after an invasion, when U.S. military forces and weapons analysts would have unrestricted access. These officials said the administration is withholding some of the best intelligence on suspected Iraqi weapons–uncertain as it is–from UN weapons inspectors in anticipation of war.

Right, the Bush administration could have pointed out where those weapons were hidden–if they had wanted to. Would you trust a reporter who swallowed this explanation to watch your car?

And here's what passes for dissenting opinion in what may be the Post's single best example of not failing to be properly skeptical of administration WMD claims:

Some officials charge the administration is not interested in helping the inspectors discover weapons because a discovery could bolster supporters in the UN Security Council of continued inspections and undermine the administration's case for war.

Farhi also has an argument about how reporters were hemmed in by journalistic standards–a version of  his colleague David Ignatius' line (4/27/04) that "the media were victims of their own professionalism" (Extra!, 11-12/04). Here's Farhi:

Congress's unwillingness to stand up to the president was critical…. There were no hearings that could have featured skeptical government experts disputing the official line….

Administration officials hogged media attention with scary, on-the-record statements. On the other side, there were few authoritative sources countering them. Even Al Gore believed that Iraq had WMDs….

Pincus and other reporters found people in the intelligence community who questioned the administration's case. But those with the most knowledge about classified material were unwilling to be identified publicly. And while anonymous sources are fine for suggesting the presence of smoke, they don't cinch the case for fire.

You'll notice the common thread here: A lack of "government experts," "authoritative sources" (like Al Gore!) or on-the-record secret agents. Journalists wanted to write fair, balanced journalism–but they just couldn't find enough people in the government who would tell them that the government was lying.

Meanwhile, there were millions of people marching in the streets, holding vigils, signing petitions, calling and writing their representatives–all in an effort to stop the war. These people had leaders, journalists, experts they relied on–the very people who had been "connecting the dots" left by Farhi's non-failing media.

Did media give a platform to these folks–who, aside from representing a significant segment of public opinion, had the not-inconsiderable virtue of being right? No, they deliberately turned their back on them. Out of 393 sources who discussed the prospect of war on the ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS evening news shows from January 30 until February 12, 2003, according to a FAIR study (3/18/03),  "only three (less than 1 percent) were identified with organized protests or anti-war groups."

"If you want to say the press failed, you have to ask, what was the press supposed to do?" the Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib told Farhi. Well, it was supposed to provide the accurate information and the space for public debate that democracy requires. But by the account of Farhi and his sources, corporate media never had any intention of doing either of these things. It's hard to say that the press failed at something it never tried to do in the first place.

P.S.: Farhi's piece ran while the Washington Post killed a far more critical piece on Iraq and the media it asked Greg Mitchell to write. Apparently the Post thought his piece didn't offer many "broader analytical points or insights." Still, Farhi positions himself as a brave contrarian standing up against media self-flagellation. Whatever gets you through the night.

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas is editor of EXTRA! Magazine at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website.

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