Why the ‘Washington Post’ Inside Story on Iraq Pre-War Coverage Falls Short

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By: Greg Mitchell

Like The New York Times with its famous editors’ note in May, The Washington Post deserves credit for admitting serious mistakes in its pre-war coverage of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. As with the Times, however, it is a day late and a holler short.

At least the Post ran Howard Kurtz’s critical Aug. 12 piece on the front page, something it inevitably failed to do with stories skeptical of the march to war. But praise for any newspaper 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.

E&P is no enemy of The Washington Post. We have regularly hailed its postwar WMD coverage, singling out Barton Gellman, Dana Priest, Walter Pincus and others for often beating The New York Times. The Post has no Judith Miller albatross hanging around its neck. It put the Kurtz piece in a prominent position, not buried, as the Times did with its May editors’ note. It even named a few names, also something the Times failed to do.

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.

By the paper’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 Young.

“(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, in the Kurtz story, offered by Post editors:

# Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. 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 re-writing 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 about half of the editorial pages of major U.S. newspapers (though, crucially, not the hawkish Post) were expressing their own doubts about the need for war. Many intelligence experts questioned the administration’s evidence and were given little play, on or off the record, at the Post.

# Liz Spayd, assistant managing editor for news, offered another weak defense in explaining why a key article questioning the existence of WMDs, by 32-year Post veteran Walter Pincus, was finally published on Page A17 (and only after Woodward intervened): Pincus’s stories are “difficult to edit,” as she put it.

But one might argue that 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.”

# This 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 for nuclear weapons. The story was held until March 22, three days after the war began. “Editors blamed a flood of copy about the impending invasion,” Kurtz wrote.

# Vita had a different excuse on another missed opportunity. One of the fresh revelations in the Kurtz piece was how, in October 2002, Thomas 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.

# Other excuses rippled through the Kurtz piece, featuring phrases like “always easy in hindsight,” “editing difficulties,” “communication problems” and “there is limited space on Page 1.” 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 or that the stance of its opinion page (typified by the editorial statement, “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction”) had any effect whatsoever on the newsroom.

# At the end of the Kurtz piece, Downie offered his ultimate defense: no harm, no foul.

“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.” Kurtz himself has declared that the White House was determined to go to war.

Three responses come quickly to mind:

A) Plenty of people who did not oppose the war at the time are now critical of the media’s performance (some of them even work at The Post).

B) Most of those against the war did not ask for a media “crusade” against invasion, merely that the press stick to the known 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.

C) Does Downie honestly believe that nothing the media might have done in providing more probing coverage could have possibly 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?

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