Dereliction of Duty

The failures of the media during the Iraq War should not be assigned exclusively to the reporters. Editors deserve blame, too. A response to Leslie H. Gelb and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati.

By Michael Getler

Tagged IraqJournalism

The war in Iraq is now more than six-and-a-half years old. We don’t know how it will end. But we do know how it began. We know now that this country was led into a long, costly, and controversial war based on premises that were stated publicly with great certainty yet turned out to be false.

The study by Leslie H. Gelb, with Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati, in Democracy (“Mission Unaccomplished,” Issue #13) is a valuable addition to the material that has been accumulating in the public domain about how the press performed, or failed to perform, its role in challenging these premises. It focuses on what the authors call “the elite print press”—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and Newsweek—and makes several important observations and recommendations. It notes, accurately in my view, that “the elite print press did not embarrass itself to the degree widely assumed—nor did it distinguish itself.” And it also points out that, aside from some newspaper-specific articles in the Times and the Post, “there has been no comprehensive effort to look at all the pre-war print reporting and draw conclusions about its successes, as well as its failures.” I agree with that, too, and the authors make some recommendations about the importance of getting this done and how it might be accomplished, as well as some internal policy suggestions for news organizations.

That said, I have a few criticisms of their study: It would have been better to have a more detailed examination of pre-war reporting, which was the crucial time for the press, rather than the hundreds of stories about events after the war began. I also felt the piece needed to deal in some fashion with television, which is where most Americans get their news and which is a huge megaphone for any administration’s simplified, scary message. As the essay said, there were some attempts—rather good ones, I thought—at the Times and Post to report on their own failures. But there was nothing like that for television.

But the more important point is that any study that relies on an academic, article-rating system—which Gelb and Zelmati’s does admirably—inevitably misses the culture of newsrooms that can contribute to failures. Gelb and Zelmati end their study with some recommendations and approaches, but I think the most effective one—thorough, no-punches-held internal investigations—is right under the nose of each news organization.

The war dominated my life as ombudsman at The Washington Post from November 2000 until October 2005. I wrote 19 columns before the war about criticism from readers—always adding my own critical assessments, even if they were not mentioned by readers—about pre-war coverage. As the war unfolded, I wrote dozens more columns. In my last one, on October 9, 2005, I came back to Iraq once again “because I cannot think of a story in the past 40 years that offers more warning signs for journalism and for the role of the press in our democracy.” I ended by saying, “It’s a lesson that ought to be etched in the culture here as deeply as Watergate.”

I should say at this point the Post is an excellent paper, and it also did some excellent reporting before the war—more than you might think. But I also had a catbird seat watching it stumble and, while my observations are necessarily about the Post, they may be more broadly applicable. From where I sat, there were two newsroom failures, in particular, at the root of what went wrong with pre-war reporting. One was a failure to pay enough attention to events that unfolded in public, rather than just the exclusive stuff that all major newspapers like to develop. The other was a failure of editors and editing up and down the line that resulted in a focus on getting ready for a war that was coming rather than the obligation to put the alternative case in front of readers in a prominent way. This resulted in far too many stories, including some very important ones, being either missed, underplayed, or buried. Let’s start with the second problem, which is in many ways the more distressing.

Gelb and Zelmati focus on the reporters, but the editors deserve as much, if not more, focus. Granted, I don’t think a lot more critical front-page stories in these “elite” newspapers would have stopped the march to war. But that should not be the concern of editors. It is also true, of course, that you can’t put every story on the front page. But the front page displays a newspaper’s best judgment about what issues matter that day, and when you appear continually to fail to grasp the significance of stories, especially as the country is getting ready for war, you let down your readers.

Reporters get the bylines, and the scandals tend to get their name, whether it’s the Post’s Janet Cooke, or the Times’s Jayson Blair, or USA Today’s Jack Kelley, or CBS’s Dan Rather. But it is the editors who are the gatekeepers, who need to be on top of things and challenge reporters. They need to be experienced and informed so that when they gather around story conference tables to decide what goes on Page A1, they are able to argue with authority about the value of their stories. They need to understand that in extreme national circumstances, stories based on anonymous sources must compete with and be treated equally at times with the pronouncements of a president.

Many of the important stories at the Post that were buried were based, by necessity, on sources speaking on the basis of non-attribution. There is often no other way. Even the pre-war stories from what was then Knight Ridder Newspapers’ Washington Bureau, the ones that got so much praise from critics of the other papers, relied almost exclusively on anonymous sources. The Gelb-Zelmati paper indeed includes some good recommendations about editing, but the problem, in my view, runs even deeper.

My sense is that what ailed the Post most in its coverage was not having the right editors in the right places at the right time. Part of this is simply a consequence of earlier personnel decisions. But as wartime approaches, you need the right editors in place. Many newspapers have a few top reporters who are labor intensive, meaning you need knowledgeable editors always willing to pull all they know out of these reporters and do a fair amount of re-writing. One or two of the Post’s best reporters, like star reporter Walter Pincus, who did so many important stories before the war, are like that. One of the Post’s best editors, then–Managing Editor Steve Coll, a brilliant journalist with the most knowledge of the whole region in the Administration’s cross-hairs, was permitted to take a book leave for several months during the crucial period between the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions.

The Times and Post had different kinds of failures. The Times actually published some stories, most notably a piece by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller on September 8, 2002, that wound up contributing to what turned out to be the administration’s bogus case for war. The Post was much less guilty of that particular sin, but it displayed a pattern of missing or downplaying events that unfolded in public—events that might have played a role in public opinion during the run-up to the war.

Some examples: In the summer and fall of 2002, the paper failed to record promptly the doubts of then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey. When Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to George H.W. Bush, wrote a cautionary op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, it apparently didn’t strike anyone at the Post as news. A rare Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on containment rather than war—that the administration refused to provide witnesses for—got a few paragraphs at the bottom of a story. The testimony of three retired four-star generals warning against an attack before the Senate Armed Services Committee was not covered at all. Speeches by Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Robert Byrd that seem prescient today were not covered. (Aging senators are too often viewed in newsrooms as extinct volcanoes.)

The list goes on. Large anti-war rallies in London and Rome went unreported the day after. In October, when more than 100,000 gathered in Washington to protest the war, the story went in the Metro section because the Post underestimated its size. The rather amazing Congressional testimony of top Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz, describing the previous testimony of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki about the need for hundreds of thousands of troops as “wildly off the mark,” went unreported. The Times did a much better job on these public events.

Then there was the Page A18 problem. The Post, to be sure, did put some good stories challenging the official line on the front page. But they consistently seemed to be outnumbered by important stories, usually sourced to anonymous government or military insiders, that were positioned way inside the newspaper.

A crucial early story by investigative reporter Joby Warrick on Sept. 19, 2002, went to the heart of Administration claims that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons based on evidence from captured aluminum tubing. The headline read: “Evidence on Iraq Challenged; Experts Question If Tubes Were Meant for Weapons Programs.” It went on Page A18. It was also one of the few on-the-record stories, but it was from a non-governmental research group. They don’t count very much in newsrooms.

Here’s a brief sampling of additional Post headlines that, rather stunningly, failed to make the front of the newspaper: “Observers: Evidence for War Lacking,” “U.N. Finds No Proof of Nuclear Program,” “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” “Legality of War Is a Matter of Debate,” and “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.” In short, it wasn’t the case that important, challenging reporting wasn’t done. It just wasn’t highlighted.

All this said, the press was not alone in its failure to challenge the White House. We think of the news media as, ideally, independent of the political system, but in reality it often relies on the powers of government to open up otherwise closed sources. The shortcomings of the press were contributed to by a Congress that was largely pathetic, lazy, and uncritical. We knew, even before the war began, that there were scientists in the Department of Energy and the nuclear laboratories and experts in the State Department who also disputed the aluminum tube evidence the administration was using. But there were no Congressional hearings that got them on the record so they could be quoted and interviewed.

We learned later that the Defense Intelligence Agency had reported in 2002 that “there is no reliable information” about Iraq’s alleged chemical weapons stockpile and had put out a “fabrication notice” warning of intelligence supplied by Iraqi informers, a view shared by some in the CIA. We learned that Air Force experts in the service’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center did not buy into the idea that drone aircraft in Iraq were for delivering chemical and biological weapons. But at a crucial moment, nobody in the know put his or her hand up in public for the media to report.

For the press, this was a complicated challenge that it ultimately failed to overcome. A disciplined administration with a relentless and intentionally scary message; a widespread belief that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; an anesthetized Congress; no whistle-blowers; highly classified information that could get you in serious trouble if disclosed; editorial and op-ed pages, particularly in the Post, that provided stereophonic support for the war; and some continuing poor judgment, in my view, on the news side.

I don’t believe Post reporters were intimidated by the Bush Administration, but I do think it’s possible that some reporters and editors, not necessarily on the Post, favored going to war. Which raises another question: whether the press generally, or specific news organizations, were vulnerable to falling into institutional tendencies where they at least appeared to be following a perceived and accepted story line rather than being sufficiently open to challenges. There have, after all, been a number of big and explosive stories in recent years that turned out differently than expected: the Post’s 1981 series about an 8-year-old crack addict who actually did not exist, the Times’s energetic pursuit of suspected scientist Wen Ho Lee in a 2000 espionage case, the press pursuit of suspected Olympic bomber Richard Jewell in 1996 and suspected anthrax terrorist Steven Hatfill in 2001.

To the extent that editors were focused on getting ready for war rather than questioning more aggressively the case for war, it could be said that institutional tendencies were at work. But that doesn’t mean they were ideological or political tendencies. There were indeed a fair number of challenging stories. But you didn’t get to see many of them unless you got to page A18.

What’s the answer? Gelb and Zelmati refer to “discrete examinations,” but not really “serious” ones, done on their respective papers by Howard Kurtz of the Post and by the editors of The New York Times. The Times’s first ombudsman, Dan Okrent, also did a good follow up. I actually thought Kurtz’s article was the most valuable in digging into what really went wrong and getting candid quotes from reporters and editors, and it provides a model for any future investigation.

The goal should be to get every major news organization, including the television networks, to take an uncompromising, no-punches-pulled look at its pre-war coverage so that the shortcomings don’t reoccur. This needs to be done by small teams of diligent and respected reporters who know how their newsrooms work, or perhaps by an ombudsman. That’s what the Post did in the aftermath of the Janet Cooke disaster. This kind of investigation would have credibility and, most importantly, it would be read by reporters and editors. Studies by journalism schools or academics, in my view, will not have the same impact, or readership—and that includes the good work by Gelb and Zelmati. Some of the more enterprising independent critiques such as Michael Massing’s ground-breaking piece, “Now They Tell Us,” in The New York Review of Books in 2003, produced counter-attacks from the Times and Post, but little else.

The United States has been taken to war twice in the last 45 years under flimsy or false pretenses by Democratic and Republican presidents—in 1964 through a murky incident in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam that turned into a de facto declaration of war by Congress, and in 2003 under the threat of elusive weapons of mass destruction. It’s worth the effort for news organizations to undertake thorough investigations of their own recent performance so they do better the next time.

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Michael Getler is the ombudsman for PBS and the former ombudsman for The Washington Post.

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