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Ultimately, Newspapers Can't Move the Earth

By Howard Kurtz
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page B01

For as long as I can remember, the majority of the distrust, even disgust, toward those of us in the media has come from conservatives. But now, while we're still unpopular with the right, the most intense anger toward the mainstream media seems to be coming from the liberal side -- especially liberals who passionately opposed the invasion of Iraq and see the nation's top news organizations as essentially having aided and abetted President Bush in his march to war.

Some on the left would go even further, as I discovered after writing a critical review this month of The Washington Post's performance during the run-up to the war, one of the most divisive in American history. Liberal critics told me, in a torrent of e-mails and online postings in reaction to my Aug. 12 article, that The Post and its ilk could have slowed or halted the drive to war if only we had tried harder to uncover the truth about Saddam Hussein and Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This view deserves an unvarnished response.

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_____Related Article_____
The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story (The Washington Post, Aug 12, 2004)
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First, some background. No one in management asked me to write the story. As the paper's media reporter, I simply felt that there were many lingering questions, both inside and outside the newsroom, that cried out for an in-depth assessment of The Post's pre-war reporting on WMDs.

The overall reaction to the article was positive; many readers appreciated that The Post would allow a staff member to probe its weaknesses and prominently display the results. But others felt I was too soft, and the intensity of their reaction surprised me, making me wonder whether I had adequately explained the culture of American newsrooms and how news is assembled and presented.

Some critics, of course, have little interest in the nuances of the paper's digging into whether Hussein had WMDs and ties to terrorists . They hate Bush, hate the war and are furious with The Post and the rest of the media. They seem to believe that proving a dictator no longer had WMDs was a simple enough task, if only journalists had the guts to take on the White House.

To briefly summarize the lengthy article: I wrote that there was a consistent pattern of administration declarations about Iraq being trumpeted on the front page month after month while most of the skeptical stories, despite complaints from the reporters involved, were assigned to inside pages. Some reporters said they had to fight to get their pieces published at all. Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. (who, like the other top editors involved, recused himself from reviewing my article before publication) said he had erred by underplaying some of the stories challenging the White House and not paying more attention to minority voices opposed to the war. The Post's Bob Woodward, the Watergate sleuth who was writing a book at the time on the administration's war planning, blamed himself for not pushing harder on the question. In interviews that sometimes resembled therapy sessions, other reporters and editors recalled frustrations and acknowledged missteps.

The harshest missives I received attribute immense power to The Post, as if the president's decision hung largely on what journalists thought. It's a newspaper, folks -- an influential one, to be sure, and one that could have affected the prewar debate, but no newspaper dictates foreign policy. And as we now know, the Bush administration had been gearing up for war for months, and had all but made the decision to invade even before the U.N. inspectors had finished their work.

Some critics were quick to assign nefarious motives to the paper, as suggested by these comments during an online chat:

"It seems to me that much of the press 'wanted' war, not because they wanted it ideologically, but because they knew it would be a great story."

"Whatever happened to The Post's fearlessness and willingness to confront power?"

"Why should we act surprised at these revelations about The Post's coverage? We saw a press that was almost totally cowed by this administration."

"Was it too much work? Try explaining that to the parents and spouses of our war dead."

One e-mailer said flatly: "You have blood on your hands."

The war and its violent aftermath had become our fault. So let's examine some of the assumptions involved:


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