Downie Deserves Plaudits — But Remember the Run-up to War

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By: Greg Mitchell

Since he announced his retirement as executive editor of The Washington Post yesterday, Leonard Downie, Jr. has received well-deserved plaudits, even tributes, from colleagues and peers at other papers. He is coming off a six-Pulitzer season, which only added to an impressive total that may have topped any other editor. Pulitzers aren?t everything, but we need only mention the names of a few reporters to grasp the depth of the team he led: Tom Ricks, Bart Gellman, Anne Hull and Dana Priest, Tim Page and Tom Shales, a whole slew of Iraq correspondents, and on and on.

At E&P, we also found that he is one of the most ?stand-up? editors around, quick to return calls (unlike some other top editors we could name) and provide informative or frank replies. Our own Joe Strupp wrote the best Downie profile ever a few years back. And, as I often point out to some of my friends, Downie was NOT responsible for the Post?s editorial page.

That said, I also have to mention the greatest stain on his record: The Post?s tragically poor performance in the run-up to the Iraq war, and Downie?s failure (as far as I’ve seen) to fully admit that. His paper, given its influence, stands out as a “complicit enabler,” to use Scott McClellan’s phrase.

This was explored almost four years ago, in an epic probe conducted by the paper?s media critic Howard Kurtz. It is revealing that, unlike at The New York Times, this did not come from the Post?s editors but from a reporter, though Downie cooperated with the effort.

The Post piece by Kurtz ran on its front page on Aug. 12, 2004. By the Post?s own admission, in the months before the war, it ran more than 140 stories on its front page promoting the war, while contrary information ?got lost,? as one Post staffer told Kurtz. Downie said this was his “mistake.” He went on to say, hey, the paper couldn’t have stopped the war anyway.

Here is an excerpt from how I covered it here at the time.

As with the Times? ?mini-culpa,? it is a day late and a holler short. At least the Post ran Howard Kurtz?s critical piece on the front page, something it inevitably failed to do with stories skeptical of the march to war.

But praise for any paper should be limited when it merely acknowledges the obvious, with little corrective action promised. It should also be noted that last week’s story was solely Kurtz?s idea, although Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. agreed to publish it.

The Post has no obvious Judith Miller albatross hanging around its neck. So why not give the Post a pass on the lax standards and disturbing attitudes revealed in the Kurtz article?

If the issue involved nothing more than a housing scandal in Montgomery County, fine. But when a newspaper helps enable a major military strike and lengthy occupation, readers may feel insulted by Downie?s we-couldn?t-have-stopped-the-war-anyway plea. This is especially true when a war turns out so badly, in lives lost, in money squandered, and as a net loss in the war on terrorism. Add to that the paper?s notoriously hawkish editorial page rantings about the war.

By the Post?s own admission, in the months before the war, it ran more than 140 stories on its front page promoting the war, while contrary information ?got lost,? as one Post staffer told Kurtz. So allow me to pursue a few points.

First, three quotes from Post staffers that speak for themselves:

— ?There was an attitude among editors: Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all the contrary stuff.? — Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks.

?- “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.? — Reporter Karen DeYoung

??[Bob] Woodward, for his part, said it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly if weapons were ultimately found in Iraq? — Howard Kurtz

Next, consider the highly revealing excuses, offered by Post editors:

–Executive Editor Downie said experts who questioned the war wouldn’t go on record often enough. But his paper, and others, quoted unnamed pro-war sources willy-nilly.

— Downie also asserted that ?voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones.? This is simply rewriting history. On the eve of the invasion, polls showed that half the public wanted to delay the invasion to give the United Nations inspectors more time to do their duty, and millions had already marched in the streets. E&P surveys at the time showed that many of the editorial pages of major U.S. newspapers (though, crucially, not the Post) were expressing their own doubts about the need for immediate war. Many intelligence experts questioned the administration’s evidence but were given little play, on or off the record, at the Post — while getting major play in Knight Ridder dispatches.

— Liz Spayd, assistant managing editor for news, offered another weak defense in explaining why a key article questioning the existence of WMD, by 32-year Post veteran Walter Pincus, was finally published on Page A17 (and only after Woodward intervened): Pincus? stories are ?difficult to edit,? as she put it. But editors are paid to edit, particularly when stories pertain to the most critical issue of our time. Matthew Vita, then national security editor and now deputy assistant managing editor, offered another defense for the Pincus miscue: ?We were dealing with an awful lot of stories, and that was one of the ones that slipped through the cracks.?

–That rationale also applied to another sad case. In the days before the war, Dana Priest and Karen DeYoung finished a piece that said CIA officials had communicated significant doubts to the administration about evidence linking Iraq to an attempted uranium purchase. The story was held until March 22, three days after the war began. ?Editors blamed a flood of copy about the impending invasion,? Kurtz explained.

— Vita had a different excuse on another missed opportunity. One of the fresh revelations in the Kurtz piece was how, in October 2002, Tom Ricks (who has covered national security issues for 15 years) turned in a piece titled ?Doubts,? indicating that Pentagon officials were worried that the risks of an invasion of Iraq were being underestimated. It was killed by Vita. He told Kurtz that a problem with the piece was that many of the quotes with names attached came from ?retired guys.? But the Post (and much of the rest of the media) rarely shied away from ?retired guys? who promoted the war.

— One editor explained, ?You couldn?t get beyond the veneer and hurdle of what this groupthink had already established,? even though the British press somehow managed to overcome that. Amid all the excuses, Post staffers denied that the paper was under any pressure from the White House.

— At the end of the Kurtz piece, Downie offered his ultimate defense. ?People who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical of the media?s coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war,? Downie said. ?They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media?s coverage had been different, there wouldn?t have been a war.?

Two responses to that final excuse come quickly to mind. For one, most of those against the war did not ask for a media ?crusade? against invasion, merely that the press stick to the facts and provide a balanced assessment: in other words, that the Post do its minimum journalistic duty. If anything, the Post, and some other major news outlets, came closer to crusading FOR the war.

And does Downie honestly believe that nothing the media might have done could have possibly slowed or stopped the war? Especially when, as noted, public and editorial opinion on the eve of war was divided? Does he take issue with Walter Lippmann?s notion that the press plays a vital role in ?manufacturing consent??

And does he really believe his must-read newspaper lacks any clout? If so, what does that say about the state of modern newspapering?
A longer version of this assessment is included in Greg Mitchell’s new book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.

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