Four Years On: Probing Press Failures in Run-Up to War

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By: E&P Staff

Exactly four years ago this week, E&P, then still a weekly, carried a cover story titled UNANSWERED QUESTIONS, with the deck: ?In grip of war fever, has the press missed the mark on Bush and Iraq?? Next to it was a picture of the president in an Army jacket in front of a microphone, with soldiers behind him.

The ?special report? inside carried this headline: ?ON THE WAR PATH: As public opinion swirls, the press must dig deeper for answers to key questions surrounding the likely attack on Iraq.? It included a series of articles raising questions about the war coverage.

Around here, we thought this might be a “landmark” issue. But, sad to say, E&P was one of the few national ?mainstream? magazines or newspapers taking a consistently skeptical view of the arguments for the invasion of Iraq ? which ranged from the reality of Saddam?s WMDs to the certainty of being greeted as liberators by the Iraqis. In fact, in this same Jan. 27, 2003 issue, we also published a hard-hitting interview with Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg in which he accurately predicted nearly everything that would go wrong.

We kept raising questons — about the war, and about the coverage — right up to the invasion two months later, and beyond, and to this day.

To mark the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the real run-up to the war ? and in hopes of helping inspire more skeptical coverage by newspapers next time around ? we republish below our cover story in that Jan. 27 issue. Looking back, it can make you wince, but also ponder. Consider the warning from a national columnist that ?the vast majority of journalists are boomers, and they’re more likely to doubt whatever they’re told and assume the worst.?

The following was written by Greg Mitchell with Joe Strupp and Dave Astor.

Smooth ramp-up to war, or slippery slope? Now that the Super Bowl and Golden Globes are over, Americans are finally ready to debate an attack on Iraq. Yet, as Michael Getler, The Washington Post’s ombudsman, observed recently, “Whatever was proper, there now seems, to me at least, a sense of unreality about this moment” and, worse, “as a citizen, and a consumer of news, I don’t feel prepared.”

Much of the fault for this rests with the officials planning the war, who have not fully explained the reasons for it, but no small measure also resides with U.S. newspapers.

Now, with polls showing rising doubts about the wisdom of a war at this moment, E&P examines some of the issues the press should –indeed, must — confront before the bombs start falling. Also, we describe some surprising views from the boardrooms, from the editors’ lairs, and from the journalistic trenches.

Nearly everyone E&P talked to last week, on all sides of the issue, agrees the prelude to war has been exceedingly difficult to cover. “It is much tougher these days because the desire to control is greater,” observes David Halberstam, who first came to fame covering the Vietnam War for The New York Times. “I think the press has done well asking questions. But most people who have Vietnam in their bones are uneasy about this war.”

Phil Bronstein, who covered the Persian Gulf War for the San Francisco Examiner and now edits the San Francisco Chronicle, says: “News is managed more than ever by very smart and shrewd people. We’ve done a relatively good job of getting through that, but there is a lot we don’t know and a lot we are not finding out. A lot of questions are being asked, but they are not being answered.”

Still, press coverage overall has been “as aggressive as you can be on a subject that is complicated and closely held,” says Bill Keller, columnist for The New York Times. “I think newspapers have learned their lesson from the Gulf War: not to let yourself be too dependent on the military handlers.” Howell Raines, the Times’ executive editor, explains, “We approach this story with the full knowledge that the military is not always forthcoming.?

This has led to a reliance on leaks, making Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post’s media critic, nervous: “I continue to be amazed at all the specific leaks about timing and war plans. Sometimes the press is all but sending Saddam an AOL instant message on the week and time an invasion might take place.”

As with so many press issues, where you sit depends on where you stand, politically. Those who favor a pre-emptive strike on Saddam Hussein tend to feel coverage so far has been fine (with a few caveats), while opponents of a quick war find fault.

Washington Post Writers Group columnist George F. Will, for example, believes newspaper coverage “has been amazingly thorough,” adding that he doesn’t think any major questions or issues have been missed in a “long, stately march to what is in essence an optional war.” This is all the more surprising, he tells us, because “newspapers have been used by two groups of people: the Bush administration sending signals to Saddam Hussein, and opponents of the war — in timeless Washington fashion — using the press as a bulletin board for their anxieties.?

Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, agrees “coverage has been like always, some hits and some misses, but, by and large, an American newspaper reader has a pretty good idea what is going on — the debate, the stakes, the risks. There has been very good coverage.” Even the antiwar movement, he says, has “gotten ample space, in The New York Times for sure.?

Others with more doubts about the war express considerable criticism of the press’ performance.

Universal Press Syndicate columnist Richard Reeves says coverage has been “generally pro-war.” One reason, he notes, is that “war is a great story — interesting, challenging, and great for journalists’ careers. It’s like military leaders whose careers are usually advanced when there’s a war. To get medals, you need war.”

“Newspapers have been a little on the flat side in terms of giving all dimensions of views,” says Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. “Where is the debate, aside from the occasional Op-Ed piece? There is timidity at appearing unpatriotic.”

Asked to provide examples of questions that have not been raised — or purs ued erratically — nearly everyone has a favorite.

The one thing that “can be laid at the doorstep of all papers is a tendency to take the leaks at face value,” says The New York Times’ Keller. “It would be nice to see a little more awareness in those stories of how much stagecraft is involved.”

David Shaw, media writer for the Los Angeles Times, says simply: “It seems the outstanding question is, ‘Why Iraq and not North Korea?'”

Reeves feels there should be more focus on how President Bush is personalizing his anger at Saddam Hussein into a need for war. “There has been very little coverage of the worldview,” observes Schell. “We have been pretty hermetically sealed. It revolves too much around Washington as the Sun. Other arguments are hardly equal.”

For Mark Jurkowitz, media critic for The Boston Globe, “the story that has been missed is the mood of the country. I don’t get a sense of how it is playing in Peoria. How does the average guy sitting around the dinner table feel about it? I think Americans are very ambivalent about this war. It is not an easy story to tell. The level of response to the war is so nuanced, it can’t be summed up in a sound bite and a lot of people have not worked out in their own minds how they feel.”

The Post’s Kurtz: “Some papers by their own admission haven’t devoted as much attention as they should to the antiwar voices out there that are forming a significant minority against invading Iraq. Journalists are sometimes lulled by political consensus when both the White House and Congress have signed on to a potential war. It is harder to judge the antiwar movement than in the Vietnam days when it cut such a wide swath across society, but that isn’t much of an excuse. The press needs to be careful about reflecting all sides.”

Arianna Huffington, the TMS columnist, cites “the lack of reporting on potential casualties. Sitting on a desk somewhere in the Pentagon is a computer printout listing projected American casualties for a range of Iraq invasion scenarios. Unfortunately, these vital figures are the only numbers that haven’t been part of the war debate — or the press coverage. The fact is, the number of Americans in favor of going to war with Iraq plummets when the prospect of thousands of American casualties is added to the question.”

No matter what their views on the wisdom of war at this time, nearly all the observers have concerns about what coverage will be like if and when it breaks out.

If there is a war, Reeves is pessimistic about how the media will perform. “We’ll cover only what they let us see,” he says, adding that the U.S government will put a positive spin on everything. If the truth eventually comes out, Reeves adds, it will be “too late,” as when it was learned the Patriot missiles that supposedly performed so well in the Gulf War didn’t intercept very many Scud missiles after all.

To illustrate this blinkered military mind-set, he cites what he calls “Kelly’s Law” — first postulated when Reeves was in Honduras during the Iran-Contra era of the 1980s. Coming upon a roadblock set up by Honduran soldiers, Reeves observed a U.S. Army truck driven by a Sgt. Kelly. Two C-47 planes came flying over the mountains, and 20 paratroopers dropped from each plane. “What’s that about?” Reeves asked Kelly. “What’s what about?” Kelly replied. “The paratroopers!” Reeves said. “What paratroopers?” Kelly answered.

If a war occurs, Leonard Pitts, Jr. sees “battles between military censors and newspapers.” He also feels newspapers, like society in general, tend to “rally around the government in times of war. There’s a sensitivity toward not writing anything that jeopardizes the government’s aims or, especially, the safety of the troops. But while that’s important, newspapers can’t abdicate their responsibility to be the askers of skeptical questions, especially when there’s so much doubt internationally and in this country about whether this war is necessary.?

Ruben Navarrette of The Dallas Morning News and Washington Post Writers Group, on the other hand, says the United States “has a duty to disarm Saddam, preferably with the help of others, but alone if we must,” and so he’s concerned about “boomer” coverage of the war. “I don’t think we’ll ever return, in the post-Vietnam era, to the time when someone would do what ‘Scotty’ Reston did during the Cuban missile crisis — sit on a story for the good of national security and U.S. interests. That’s so over. With boomers in charge, the tendency is to assume the government is lying and go from there.”

That does not sit well with him: “Far more important than whether they’re liberal or conservative is what generation they [the reporters] belong to. The remaining journalists of the post-World War II generation might, in covering a war, be more inclined to assume that our leaders think they’re acting in the best interests of the country. But the vast majority of journalists are boomers, and they’re more likely to doubt whatever they’re told and assume the worst. They can’t shake off the demons of Vietnam. The few Gen-Xers out there, I hope, will be willing to look at war against Iraq through their own lens without that baggage.”

But Norman Solomon, Creators Syndicate columnist, sees this quite differently. “Experience tells us that once the Pentagon’s missiles start to fly, the space for critical assessments and dissent in U.S. news media quickly contracts,” says Solomon. “Journalists get caught up in the war fever — their careers may benefit, but journalism suffers.”

And many journalists will pull their punches, Solomon adds.

“In contrast to state censorship, which is usually easy to recognize, self-censorship by journalists is rarely out in the open,” he says. “In the highly competitive media environment, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist or a social scientist to know that dissent does not boost careers. This is especially true in times of war. The rewards of going along to get along are clear. So are the hazards of failure to toe the line.”

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