On Iraq, journalists didn’t fail. They just didn’t succeed.

Paul Farhi covers the news media for The Washington Post.

For much of the past decade, the American news media has chastised itself for how badly it performed in the months leading up to the war in Iraq. The 10th anniversary of the conflict, in particular, offered article after article this past week condemning the media’s “failure” to challenge the Bush administration’s rationale for the war, plus plenty of mea culpas by journalists.

There’s no doubt that many news organizations, including this one, missed important stories, underplayed others that were skeptical of the administration’s case and acted too deferentially to those in power. A few instances — such as the New York Times’ September 2002 report hyping Iraq’s aluminum tubes as evidence of a reconstituted nuclear program — have become infamous. The Times and The Washington Post have publicly examined and admitted their shortcomings.

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But “failure” grossly oversimplifies what the media did and didn’t do before the war, and it ignores important reasons the reporting turned out the way it did. As new threats loom, from Iran to North Korea, better understanding these circumstances can help us assess what happened and whether we’re better positioned today.

Thousands of news stories and columns published before the war described and debated the administration’s plans and statements, and not all of them were supportive. Reporters at The Post, the Times, Knight Ridder, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek periodically produced stories that challenged the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq.

Some of these stories — too many — were not given prominence and, in the case of newspapers, didn’t make the front page. But it wasn’t impossible for skeptics of the war to connect the dots.

Iraq’s supposed links to terrorists? “The CIA has yet to find convincing evidence” connecting Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, The Post reported on its front page in September 2002.

Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction? President George W. Bush’s assertion that Baghdad had revived its nuclear program was disputed in January 2003 by International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who told the U.N. Security Council that his agency had no evidence that the program had been restarted. “After 2 Months, No Proof of Iraq Arms Programs,” was how the Los Angeles Times headlined the story.

The Post also revealed in early March that key evidence for Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was apparently fabricated. “Documents that purportedly showed Iraqi officials shopping for uranium in Africa two years ago were deemed ‘not authentic’ after careful scrutiny by U.N. and independent experts,” the story said.

Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, and particularly reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, have been rightly lionized for their skeptical stories, produced long before the rest of the media raised questions. But other outlets eventually came around. The Post, for example, cast doubt on Iraq’s aluminum tubes in a front-page story in January 2003. “After weeks of investigation, U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq are increasingly confident that the aluminum tubes were never meant for enriching uranium,” reporter Joby Warrick wrote.

On the Sunday before the war’s start, Post headlines included these: “U.S. Risks Isolation, Breakdown of Old Alliances in Case of War,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms” and “U.S. Missteps Led to Failed Diplomacy.” The lead story in that day’s Post was “Audacious Mission, Awesome Risks; Bold War Plan Emphasizes Lightning Attacks and Complex Logistics.”

Perhaps it was too late by then. But this doesn’t sound like failure.

After reviewing 576 news and opinion stories before and immediately after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, former New York Times columnist Leslie H. Gelb came to a less damning conclusion. “The elite press did not embarrass itself to the degree widely assumed — nor did it distinguish itself,” he wrote in 2009. “Only episodically did our best news outlets provide the necessary alternative information . . . ask the needed questions . . . or present insightful analysis about Iraq itself.”

A decade later, it’s easy to forget the circumstances in which journalists worked in the months before the invasion.

The war drums began beating less than a year after Sept. 11, 2001, when the public was still receptive to the alarming statements about Iraq made by Bush and his advisers. On Sept. 8, 2002, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN that it was unclear when Hussein might acquire a nuclear weapon but that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Such pronouncements, capped by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003, “turned everyone irrational,” says Walter Pincus, the veteran Post reporter who wrote a series of stories challenging administration claims.

Congress’s unwillingness to stand up to the president was critical, says Michael Getler, a former Post foreign-news editor who is now the PBS ombudsman. There were no hearings that could have featured skeptical government experts disputing the official line.

The field was tilted. Administration officials hogged media attention with scary, on-the-record statements. On the other side, there were few authoritative sources countering them. Even Al Gore believed that Iraq had WMDs, said Doyle McManus, who covered the period for the Los Angeles Times.“The consensus was universal,” he says.

“If you want to say the press failed, you have to ask, what was the press supposed to do?” says Gerald F. Seib, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. “Did we get to the bottom of the claims of weapons of mass destruction? No, but no one did, either, including the United Nations, with all of the resources it brought to bear on that question.”

Two prominent skeptics of the administration, ElBaradei and U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, helped level the imbalance somewhat. But they were never going to command as much credibility among Americans as those in office, Pincus says.

That left anonymous sources. Pincus and other reporters found people in the intelligence community who questioned the administration’s case. But those with the most knowledge about classified material were unwilling to be identified publicly. And while anonymous sources are fine for suggesting the presence of smoke, they don’t cinch the case for fire.

In hindsight, The Post’s executive editor at the time, Leonard Downie Jr., says he regrets not giving Pincus’s stories more prominence (most of them landed in the neighborhood of A18). But even Pincus recognizes that no one outside Iraq really knew precisely what was happening inside Iraq. “If there’s disagreement inside the government about what’s true and what isn’t, how the hell can the press determine what’s true?” he says.

Many critics of the media’s prewar reporting seem to believe that a more confrontational press could have stopped the march into Iraq. That’s wishful thinking. It not only assumes that journalists could agree on the facts, it also implies that the media could single-handedly override the president’s influence and that of other leaders.

Downie believes that no amount of media skepticism would have stopped the administration. “We were going to war,” he said.

Could it happen again? The months preceding the invasion were fraught with wariness about unknowable threats — some of which were, of course, exaggerated. We’re susceptible to the same panic as rogue states such as Iran and North Korea allegedly move toward the development of nuclear weapons. Such conditions can breed demagoguery.

But the news media’s memories of Iraq can be useful if they stiffen journalists’ backbones. The prewar reporting wasn’t a disaster. But it wasn’t good enough. We should remember why, if only so we aren’t doomed to repeat it.

Read more from Outlook:

Five myths about Iraq

Ten years after the invasion, did we win the Iraq war?

How the Iraq war hurt Republicans

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