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.