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Pilloried Post

Excuses, excuses.

Howard Kurtz offers a long-but-shallow examination of The Washington Post's credulous prewar reporting about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction and the Bush administration's supposed evidence for it.

Atrios has already done the heavy lifting in highlighting some of the godawful revelations and admissions in this piece, but here's my two cents.

To its credit, the Post did publish a dozen or so articles casting doubt on — and in some cases, disproving — many of the claims and assertions being made about WMD in Iraq. Those articles, however, tended to get buried deep in the paper, while the assertions and claims were trumpeted on the front page:

"The paper was not front-paging stuff," said Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. "Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?"

One advantage of reading the Post online is that it puts an A24 story and an A1 story on a more equal footing. Those of us who read the online paper noticed that this "contrary stuff" was supported by sources and evidences in a way that the front-page (and editorial page) claims were not.

But, according to some of the Post's editors, sources and evidence are not a newspaper's job. Newspapers don't have an obligation to ferret out the actual facts, only to repeat what people in power say. As reporter and former assistant managing editor Karen DeYoung says:

"We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power. … If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said."

Got that? So if an elected official stands up and says the moon is made out of green cheese, a newspaper is not obliged to challenge this assertion.

As Michael Massing's article, and forthcoming book, "Now They Tell Us" demonstrates, there is little we know now about Iraq's lack of WMDs that we didn't already know before the war. It was in the press, in the newspapers — even if only on Page 24 — long before it was in David Kay's report.

That's why bloggers who had been reading those newspapers realized that Colin Powell's Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the U.N. Security Council was riddled with errors and falsehoods (see my earlier "A Big Steaming Powell" or Ron K.'s " Colin Powell, the Adlai Moment and the O.J. Question").

What was startling at the time was how the editors of those same newspapers found Powell's speech so convincing (Massing has a damning collection of their willfully blind praise). It seems the editors of the Post hadn't merely buried their own articles contradicting Powell's claims on the aluminum tubes — they didn't even believe those articles to be true.

Leonard Downie Jr., the executive editor of the Post, admits as much:

Downie said the paper ran several pieces analyzing Powell's speech as a package on inside pages. "We were not able to marshal enough evidence to say he was wrong," Downie said of Powell. "To pull one of those out on the front page would be making a statement on our own: 'Aha, he's wrong about the aluminum tubes.' "

I just don't get that. Powell was wrong about the aluminum tubes. The Post knew it. I knew it. Powell knew it. And the assembled members of the Security Council knew it. So why exactly does Downie think such a statement doesn't belong in the newspaper?

(Kurtz doesn't explore this aspect of the Post's coverage of Powell's speech, but it's worth noting that while the American newspapers found his performance so utterly convincing, the speech was actually a failure. It was supposed to be convincing to the members of the Security Council, but they were decidedly unpersuaded. Why? The Post never bothered to ask. They simply accepted the trope that all other nations, like the French, are perverse. No sense interviewing any of them, then. Why bother asking, say, the Canadian government why they didn't find Powell's speech persuasive when we already know that it's because of reflexive Canadian anti-Americanism.)

Downie comes across as rather dim in Kurtz's report. "The voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones," he says. This is a wonderful piece of circular reasoning. Those who questioned the war were being ignored by the media, so Downie decided he should ignore them as well.

It's too bad those who opposed the war didn't stage some kind of large-scale demonstration to get Downie's attention.

And Downie's final comment is just screamingly obtuse:

"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.

No. We just wish Downie's newspaper had attempted to discover whether the assertions of public officials could be reconciled with or supported by the facts. You know, journalism.

Downie thinks his job is only to repeat to us what others have said, not to try to find out whether or not it's true. That's not journalism. That's gossip.

  • Patrick Mullins

    Fred (or whoever else has time), I would like to know if almost the same journalistic phenomenon about the WMD and Iraq War occurred in all the big papers.
    It seems it’s about 2 months, maybe a little more since the NYTimes started repenting heavily, and I think it’s important the degree to which they did this in the mainstream papers–primarily, was this kind of “credulous prewar reporting” about the same in the Washington Post, the NYTimes, LATimes, etc.–or was it more obviously administration-driven in some than others?
    Thanks.

  • julia

    The Post was _full_ of wag the dog articles, some on the front page, when Clinton went to war. It’s ridiculous for them to say that they “inevitably” carry water for the president. They demonstrably don’t.
    I don’t see how anyone could be expected to believe that their editorial policy didn’t not only affect but dictate their coverage.

  • Addy Free

    You linked to my page of pictures from demonstrations protesting a potential (obviously now realized) war against Iraq at http://people.cornellcollege.edu/a-free/feb15content.htm
    If anyone needs another link to that site, as my school server is incredibly slow, you can reap the same images and information at http://addy.typepad.com/photos/february_15_2003/index.html
    Laterz =)

  • linnen

    If newspapers are not willing (at least the domestic ones) to act as fact checkers, what is the flaming point of buying them to read? Entertainment? I read speculative fiction for entertainment. I don’t need news to be entertaining, I need news to be informative.

  • SullyWatch

    Downie’s comment seems to suggest that the Post only considers something worth doing if it is likely to have a tangible effect on policy.
    If you want any further proof of what corporatization has done to our media, look no further. Principle means nothing; profit and upshot are everything.
    Did the Post and Bradlee know they would bring Nixon down when they started sticking with the Watergate stories? No! They were simply fulfilling their journalistic duties to ask officialdom questions that didn’t have easy answers.

  • BadTux

    I’ll point out that this is a problem that afflicts American journalism in general. I remember getting into an argument with a newspaper editor of a small town daily newspaper ten years ago about some lies his paper was printing. He said, “All I’m doing is reporting what the man said, it’s not my responsibility to inform the readers as to whether he’s telling the truth or not.”
    In other words, today’s media whores see their job as being that of stenographers, not that of seekers of truth. Sad. Sad sad sad.
    -Badtux the Disgusted Penguin

  • william

    For me, the saddest aspect is that the papers are now running “we should have been more sceptical about the war” articles, while at the same time their attitude to casualties in Iraq has changed completely since the handover and the military situation is going underreported even though more soliders than ever are dying. My nightmare is that in a year’s time they’ll be running “we should have been paying more attention immediately after the handover” stories. Mea culpas are only any good if you actually learn from them.

  • Susan

    Well, the Wash Post could not find those “lonely voices” against the war on Iraq…. and I guess now none of the mainstream media can find the “lonely voices” saying we should get out of Iraq as soon as possible.
    We’re going to have more massive demonstrations against this war in NYC this month. I’m afraid some people will die in this demonstration…. and then the media will protray how “unbalanced” the “lonely” antiwar voices are… and still fail to notice that people have to die to get noticed (and sometimes, it doesn’t work even then!)

  • Jim

    Following a link from Atrios. Great stuff Fred [Jim bookmarks Slacktivist].
    My hometown bird-cage liner, the Los Angeles Times, hasn’t issued a mea culpa and to be honest, I don’t think is needed all that much. They were a bit more sceptical about things and gave a somewhat fairer picture than the NYT and WaPo. Maybe it’s the result of being 3,000 miles from the centers of government and big money/big media? They still tend to bury important stuff on A24, but overall I’d give them a C+ and in this media climate, that’s not bad.

  • Jim

    Following a link from Atrios. Great stuff Fred [Jim bookmarks Slacktivist].
    My hometown bird-cage liner, the Los Angeles Times, hasn’t issued a mea culpa and to be honest, I don’t think is needed all that much. They were a bit more sceptical about things and gave a somewhat fairer picture than the NYT and WaPo. Maybe it’s the result of being 3,000 miles from the centers of government and big money/big media? They still tend to bury important stuff on A24, but overall I’d give them a C+ and in this media climate, that’s not bad.

  • Kevin Carson

    The DeYoung quote was especially damning. Our “watchdog press” sees its main role as regurgitating what public spokesmen and PR departments say as straight news, without asking any questions.
    Here are some quotes I’ve saved up over the past several years that make the same point about the culture of “professional” journalism–but in condemnation, not praise:
    “The norms of ‘objective reporting’ thus involve presenting ‘both sides’ of an issue with very little in the way of independent forms of verification… [A] journalist who systematically attempts to verify facts–to say which set of facts is more accurate–runs the risk of being acused of abandoning their objectivity by favoring one side over another….
    “….[J]ournalists who try to be faithful to an objective model of reporting are simultaneously distancing themselves from the notion of independently verifiable truth….
    “The ‘two sides’ model of journalistic objectivity makes news reporting a great deal easier since it requires no recourse to a factual realm. There are no facts to check, no archives of unspoken information to sort through…. If Tweedledum fails to challenge a point made by Tweedledee, the point remains unchallenged.”
    –Justin Lewis “Objectivity and the Limits of Press Freedom” Project Censored Yearbook 2000. pp. 173-74
    “…I find myself increasingly covering Washington’s most ignored beat: the written word. The culture of deceit is primarily an oral one. The soundbite, the spin, and the political product placement depend on no one spending too much time on the matter under consideration.
    “Over and over again, however, I find that the real story still lies barely hidden and may be reached by nothing more complicated than turning the page, checking the small type in the appendix, charging into the typographical jungle beyond the executive summary, doing a Web search, and, for the bravest, actually looking at the figures on the charts.”
    –Sam Smith. Project Censored Yearbook 2000. p. 60
    “In his more than two decades covering the military, Ricks has developed many sources, from brass to grunts. This, according to the current Pentagon, is a problem.
    “The Pentagon’s letter of complaint to Post executive editor Leonard Downie had language charging that Ricks casts his net as widely as possible and e-mails many people.
    “Details of the complaints were hard to come by. One Pentagon official said in private that Ricks did not give enough credence to official, on-the-record comments that ran counter to the angle of his stories.”
    –Pentagon to Washington Post Reporter Ricks: Get Lost
    http://washingtonian.com/inwashington/buzz/tomricks.html

  • http://www.pacificviews.org/weblog/archives/000368.html Pacific Views

    People Are Talking

    Though, as Slacktivist points out, it’s only journalism if you bother to go find out if they’re accurate. That last link was courtesy of Atrios, who also points to Sadly, No’s takedown of a jab at Edwards. Atrios also looks…

  • 537 votes

    Great piece. Great photos of the demonstrations. Except one was missing. How about the 500,000 on the Mall in Washington, DC, about 4 blocks or so from the Washington Post building?

  • Eric Tam

    I think, for the sake of fairness and accuracy, you may want to clarify that DeYoung’s statement was meant as a critique of the media’s practices (she is one of the Post reporters who was actually writing stories critical of the war and had them delayed or spiked). So she’s on your side–but it also makes her statement less of an admission than an attack.

  • liberal

    Julia wrote, “I don’t see how anyone could be expected to believe that their editorial policy didn’t not only affect but dictate their coverage.”
    I agree that there’s a strong connection.
    Note, however, that the _Post_’s news coverage was, net, far more critical of the buildup to the war than the _New York Times’_, yet the latter was, editorially, sympathetic to the antiwar argument (and if I recall correctly was against the actual invasion itself).

  • 537 votes

    Upon further review–the Washington, DC protest was Jan 18, 2003, not Feb 15 like the others. No wonder it wasn’t in the photos.
    Still, very big demonstration. Very close to Washington Post.

  • liberal

    BadTux wrote, “I’ll point out that this is a problem that afflicts American journalism in general. I remember getting into an argument with a newspaper editor of a small town daily newspaper ten years ago about some lies his paper was printing. He said, ‘All I’m doing is reporting what the man said, it’s not my responsibility to inform the readers as to whether he’s telling the truth or not.’”
    This is far and above the most important point to be made in discussions of journalistic “objectivity”; often referred to as “he-said-she-said” journalism.

  • Kenneth Fair

    To paraphrase Edmund Burke, a journalist owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
    Journalism is not mere stenography. Why have journalists forgotten that?

  • Jay Gold

    I. F. Stone said decades ago that the Washington Post was such an exciting paper – you never know where you’ll find a front-page story.
    Plus ca change….

  • Lex

    As an investigative reporter, let me give snaps to Walter Pincus for his quote: “The main thing people forget to do is read documents.” That’s the problem in a nutshell.

  • http://www.movingthegoalposts.org/archives/000306.html Moving the Goalposts

    “I think I was part of the groupthink.”

    This “well, we shoulda asked more questions” stuff doesn’t wash. The only thing that can be said about how our nation’s “respectable” media covered Iraq is that it was utterly shameful.

  • Avedon

    Hm, let’s see… I can go to whitehouse.gov and read everything administration officials have to say on the record, or I can spend money to buy a newspaper and read a repetition of selected quotes from that said material. What should I do?
    If that’s all newspapers are good for, what are newspapers good for?

  • http://www.longstoryshortpier.com/vaults/2004/08/13/welcome Long story; short pier

    How do you do. Welcome to the human race. You’re a mess.

    Better bloggers than I have ripped into the Washington Post’s shockingly deficient mea culpa for cheerleading us into an invasion of Iraq—but there’s this one bit that just won’t leave me alone: Across the country, “the v…

  • http://james.anthropiccollective.org/archives/000549.html little more than a placeholder

    Gossip and a ruse

    The blog world has been awash with commentary on the Washington Post’s recent attempts to defend their editorial decisions in…

  • http://james.anthropiccollective.org/archives/000550.html little more than a placeholder

    Gossip and a ruse

    The blog world has been awash with commentary on the Washington Post’s recent attempts to defend their editorial decisions in…

  • http://james.anthropiccollective.org/archives/000549.html little more than a placeholder

    Gossip and a ruse

    The blog world has been awash with commentary on the Washington Post’s recent attempts to defend their editorial decisions in…

  • http://www.pacificviews.org/weblog/archives/000368.html Pacific Views

    People Are Talking

    Though, as Slacktivist points out, it’s only journalism if you bother to go find out if they’re accurate. That last link was courtesy of Atrios, who also points to Sadly, No’s takedown of a jab at Edwards. Atrios also looks…


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