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Ultimately, Newspapers Can't Move the Earth

The idea that journalists wanted war is, well, ludicrous. Who wouldn't have preferred to see Hussein crawl into a spider hole and turn over the country to the forces of democracy?

The idea that journalists were worried about the administration cutting off their access might have some merit, but those who cover the Bush White House say information is so tightly controlled that access doesn't really matter. Most of the time, even senior Bush aides provide the same scripted talking points.

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The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story (The Washington Post, Aug 12, 2004)
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The idea that journalists were reluctant to challenge a president who was mobilizing support against a mass murderer has some validity. It takes considerable gumption to brave charges of being unpatriotic at a time when the country is rallying behind the commander-in-chief, young men and women are being shipped into danger zones and some television anchors are wearing flag lapels. With the opposition Democrats providing little opposition to the war, antiwar activists were often shut out, especially on the airwaves, unless they happened to be celebrities, in which case they were booked and then belittled.

But I saw little reticence in the work of such Post reporters as Walter Pincus, Dana Priest, Tom Ricks, Bart Gellman and Joby Warrick and fine journalists at other news organizations. Their writing was overshadowed, however, by some of the editing decisions I described and the immense difficulty of nailing down credible information about illegal weapons in a closed and hostile country.

Downie told me he liked "definitive" stories for the front page. George Bush or Vice President Cheney or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld making statements about Iraq was clear and unambiguous, even if the evidence they cited was anything but. Articles questioning whether the administration had the evidentiary goods on WMDs and terrorism in Iraq, on the other hand, were by no stretch definitive. They were tentative, incremental, hedged, pieced together from sources of questionable motivation. That's the way investigative reporting works.

Proving a negative -- that Hussein no longer had chemical and biological weapons and was no longer actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program -- is an enormously difficult task. Reporters aren't prosecutors; we have no subpoena power. We can't compel anyone to talk. We're supposed to write what we can confirm and what credible sources are saying, not what we think, sense or suspect must be true.

How do you "prove" Bill Clinton's claim that he didn't make a sexual advance toward Paula Jones in an Arkansas hotel room, when she tearfully insisted that he had? How do you "prove" that Ronald Reagan didn't know his subordinates were illegally funneling money to the Nicaragua contras? How do you "prove" that Richard Jewell didn't detonate a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics after some journalists recklessly quoted sources as saying he was a prime suspect? The first time I wrote about New York Times fabricator Jayson Blair, I could prove only that there were suspicious similarities between his story about a Texas woman whose soldier-son was missing and an account in the San Antonio Express-News. I couldn't prove that Blair had never been to Texas, which he falsely told me he had. Only through the slow accumulation of detail in subsequent stories could I demonstrate that Blair had committed journalistic fraud (and those initial pieces didn't make The Post's front page either).

In the case of Iraq, reporters often had to rely on intelligence sources, usually unnamed, who in turn were relying on shadowy informants within Iraq. Reporters were also fed information by Ahmed Chalabi's band of defectors, who had a vested interest in blowing WMD smoke to trigger a war. No one, at least on the outside, really knew what the truth was.

Newspapers live on a 24-hour cycle where everyone, from the Hollywood reporter to the Redskins beat writer, is pushing ideas for the front page (which is one of many pages but has tremendous symbolic value). Some people -- say, the president of the United States -- can command that space almost at will. But reporters and their editors have to argue that they've come up with some new information, document, analysis or trend to justify a Page 1 headline. "Situation Still a Muddle, Experts Say" doesn't quite cut it.

To plunge back into the coverage of 2002 and 2003 is to wonder why White House pronouncements were given such a huge megaphone and the occasional critical pieces, which now seem so prescient, were presented at low volume. It is far easier for skeptics to believe that Post news coverage was following a pro-war line because the editorial page strongly backed Bush on the war. There really is a church-and-state wall separating the news staff and the editorial page staff -- each side goes about its business independently of the other -- but for some reason this is a hard sell to some readers.

From September 2002 through the March 2003 launch of the war, the press had opportunities to challenge Bush's expressions of virtual certainty that Hussein was hiding WMDs. (The adminstration offered other rationales for the war, of course, but this was the most prominent and consistent one.) Yet one story here about the lack of evidence tying aluminum tubes to an Iraqi nuclear program, and another there about the doubts of military officials, could hardly match the administration's determined drumbeat.

Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, might have provided a counterweight to Bush, but most of the stories involving his search turned on his concerns that the Iraq regime wasn't sufficiently cooperating. Stories that Gen. Tommy Franks was drawing up detailed invasion blueprints while the president was insisting he had no war plans on his desk were obscured by Pentagon secrecy. Stories about a split in the administration between a skeptical Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Cheney-Rumsfeld faction that saw the case for WMDs as a "slam dunk" (in CIA Director George Tenet's words) would have been definitive (and juicy) enough for the front page, but Powell remained too much the loyal soldier for reporters to make that case.

Even Woodward, who is as well-sourced on national security matters as any journalist in the country, was only able to tell the paper in a memo on the eve of war that the intelligence on WMDs "looks increasingly circumstantial and even shaky," according to "informed sources."

So were the media a band of pro-Bush, pro-war cheerleaders? The unexciting truth is that newsrooms are a collection of human beings who don't always get it right. We miss some stories and hype others. We fall prey to conventional wisdom. Sometimes we show bias. Sometimes we retreat to the safety of he said/she said journalism. Sometimes editors have blind spots, or play favorites, or follow the pack, or balk at rewriting dense copy into clear, accessible front-page material.

None of this is meant to justify or excuse the journalistic performance on Iraq. The media, including The Post, fell short when the stakes could hardly have been higher. But those failures were for a variety of reasons that had little to do with political leanings or intimidation or salivating for the excitement of war. The question now for editors and reporters is whether we've learned any practical lessons for the next time the going gets rough. The question for some readers is whether they can accept the limitations of journalism or whether they will insist on seeing what is published, and not published, through an ideological lens.

Author's e-mail: kurtzh@washpost.com

Howard Kurtz covers the media for The Post.


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