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Why the Media Owe You an Apology on Iraq
Published on Sunday, March 28, 2004 by The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA)
Why the Media Owe You an Apology on Iraq
by Rick Mercier
 

THE MEDIA are finished with their big blowouts on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and there’s one thing they forgot to say: We’re sorry.

Sorry we let unsubstantiated claims drive our coverage.

Sorry we were dismissive of experts who disputed White House charges against Iraq.

Sorry we let a band of self-serving Iraqi defectors make fools of us.

Sorry we fell for Colin Powell’s performance at the United Nations.

Sorry we couldn’t bring ourselves to hold the administration’s feet to the fire before the war, when it really mattered.

Maybe we’ll do a better job next war.

Of course it’s absurd to receive this apology from a person so low in the media hierarchy. You really ought to be getting it from the editors and reporters at the agenda-setting publications, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. It’s the elite print media that failed you the most, because they’re the institutions you have to rely on to keep tabs on the politicians in Washington (television news cannot do the kind of in-depth or investigative reporting that print media can do—when they’re doing their job properly).

In the past several months, the Times, the Post, and other print media have gotten around to asking questions about the quality of prewar intelligence on Iraq and about whether the administration might have misused that intelligence to sell the war to Americans and the rest of the world.

Most of these media outlets, however, also need to conduct self-examinations. From the horrendously distorted coverage of Times reporter Judith Miller (her sins in many ways were far worse than those of plagiarist/fabricator Jayson Blair) to the bewildering (and biased?) news judgment of the Post’s editors, journalists at America’s most influential publications helped ensure that a majority of you would be misinformed about Iraq and the nature of the threat it posed to you.

Stenographers or journalists?

The main reason you were misinformed is that the major print media were too willing to take the White House at its word. A study released earlier this month by the University of Maryland’s Center for International Security Studies at Maryland concluded that much of the prewar coverage about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction “stenographically reported the incumbent administration’s perspective” and provided “too little critical examination of the way officials framed the events, issues, threats, and policy options.” Too few stories, the study said, included perspectives that challenged the official line.

A study published last month in The New York Review of Books reached a similar conclusion. “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,” writes Michael Massing, a Columbia Journalism Review contributing editor who authored the study.

Even much of the prewar enterprise or investigative reporting was shaped by the assumption that pro-war sources were above serious scrutiny. This was particularly the case with Iraqi defectors, on whom both the administration and media relied heavily for painting a picture of the Iraqi threat.

As Massing observes, there was vigorous debate inside intelligence circles about the veracity of many of the defectors’ claims, but not much of this reached readers. Instead, the print media were repeatedly duped by defectors on the Pentagon’s payroll who were busily slipping credulous reporters the same disinformation they were peddling to the administration.

Knight Ridder journalists Jonathan Landay and Tish Wells reported earlier this month that the main Iraqi exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, fed the Times, the Post, The Associated Press (the primary source of world and national news for this newspaper), and other print media numerous unsubstantiated allegations about the Iraqi regime that resulted in over 100 articles worldwide.

Those articles, the Knight Ridder correspondents found, made assertions that still have not been substantiated but that helped build the administration’s case for invasion. They included claims that Iraq had mobile biological weapons facilities; that it had Scud missiles loaded with poison that were ready to strike Israel; that Saddam was aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons; and that he had collaborated with al–Qaida.

The Times’ diva of disinformation, Judith Miller, had a particularly uncritical fondness for the INC and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi. Last spring, Post media columnist Howard Kurtz obtained an internal Times e–mail in which she wrote: “I’ve been covering Chalabi for about 10 years. He has provided most of the front-page exclusives on WMD to our paper.”

It’s hard to imagine a more damning admission, not only in the light of hindsight but also because of the questions many intelligence analysts (both inside and outside the government) had before the invasion about the quality of the INC’s information.

The Times cannot argue that it was impossible to get dissenting views from those inside the U.S. intelligence establishment. Knight Ridder was able to develop sources among career intelligence officers who were dismayed by many of the adminis-tration’s claims. In an interview with Massing for his study, Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief John Walcott explained the news service’s decision to use these “blue-collar” sources:

“These people were better informed about the details of the intelligence than the people higher up in the food chain, and they were deeply troubled by what they regarded as the administration’s deliberate misrepresentation of intelligence, ranging from overstating the case to outright fabrication.”

Knight Ridder produced some accurate, balanced reporting as a result of their approach, but mid-level intelligence experts remained a missing piece of the puzzle in most print-media coverage.

Powell’s really big show

There were other important pieces of the puzzle to which the media had access but downplayed or ignored.

Take Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s son-in-law, who was Iraq’s weapons chief until his defection in 1995. He was cited by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and just about every other invasion supporter as an important source of intelligence on Saddam’s arsenal. However, while he was describing all of Saddam’s awful weapons during his post-defection debriefings, Kamel added one little thing that the administration and its mouthpieces forgot to mention: All of Iraq’s prohibited weapons had been destroyed.

Newsweek obtained the transcript of the interview in which Kamel made this assertion and reported on it about two weeks before the start of the invasion, but the magazine did not give the story the prominence it deserved.

Elsewhere in the U.S. print media, only the Post and the Boston Globe picked up the story, according to the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Both of these papers placed the news deep inside their A sections.

The Kamel example illustrates a common problem with prewar coverage: Even when reporters did good investigative work, it often got buried. Post staff writer Walter Pincus told Massing that his paper’s editors “went through a whole phase in which they didn’t put things on the front page that would make a difference.”

It’s not clear from Massing’s article when that phase might have been, but at least some of it must have fallen in the period after Powell’s presentation to the United Nations and before the beginning of the invasion.

The day after Powell’s big show, an editorial in the Post titled “Irrefutable” declared it “hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” The Post’s news pages, and those of other elite publications, seemed to have been operating under that assumption for months, but Powell’s performance sealed the deal.

Yet there was plenty to question about Powell’s case: the ammunition depot that supposedly stored prohibited weapons; the alleged mobile bioweapons labs; the aluminum tubes that were said to have been bought to further Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program; and the claims of a Saddam/al–Qaida connection. Even the recorded conversations between Iraqi military personnel that Powell presented as evidence of the regime’s trying to hide banned weapons raised skepticism among some experts who had knowledge of Iraqi security protocol. (See the Robert Greenwald documentary “Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War” for a full dissection of Powell’s presentation.)

But most mass media weren’t interested in drawing too much attention to these weaknesses in Powell’s case or in doing further investigative work to scrutinize the secretary of state’s claims. Instead, they played it safe and geared up for war.

‘We were taken for a ride’

Earlier this month, the president of Poland, which has over 2,000 troops in Iraq, said “We were taken for a ride” by the administration in the run-up to the war. It’s now clear that the major media helped navigate for the White House during that long, strange trip.

Yet a couple of things should be said in the media’s defense.

First, it’s not easy to ask tough questions amid war hysteria, and those who do a good job of it will be attacked by the überpatriots. (I can attest from personal experience that some may even clamor for your head.)

Second, there were a few mainstream journalists who did ask the tough questions when it counted. But there were too many reporters who weren’t asking them, and there were some who acted as little more than cogs in the White House propaganda machine.

Most disturbing of all, some of these journalists still don’t get it. When Massing asked the Times’ Miller—an investigative reporter covering intelligence—why she didn’t include more comments in her stories by experts who contested White House assertions, she replied: “My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.”

But even a cub reporter should know that if the government tells her the sky is blue, it’s her job to check whether it might not be red or gray or black. And skepticism must be exercised most strongly when the matter at hand is whether the nation will go to war.

By neglecting to fully employ their critical-thinking faculties, Miller and many of her colleagues in the elite print media not only failed their readers during the countdown to the Iraq invasion, they failed our democracy.

And there’s no excusing that failure. The only thing that can be said is, Sorry.

RICK MERCIER is a writer and editor for The Free Lance–Star. He can be reached at rmercier@freelancestar.com.

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