Looking Back Before the War
By Michael Getler
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page B06
Last month, the editors of the New York Times published an extensive note to readers acknowledging that several of the paper's prewar stories exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The Times' public editor followed up with another critique. In the aftermath, a handful of readers wrote to me and asked when The Post was going to do the same.
Some of this was directed at the editorial page, which has supported the war. Editorial pages are supposed to take a stand and that's their business, not mine. It's clear now that the press, as a whole, did not do a very good job in challenging administration claims. I have said many times that major news organizations should go back and take a nondefensive look at their prewar coverage. It's okay for ombudsmen to do so but more important for the news organizations themselves to do so.
It's also worth repeating that this was not an easy story to get at. An administration always has an edge. Much of the material was classified. There were no public whistle-blowers and Congress did little or no probing. The notion that Iraq had such weapons was widespread. Nevertheless, the press should have done better. There is no more important story than war.
My assessment is that The Post did not commit the sins of the New York Times. In fact, The Post had quite a few probing stories. There were, however, a few front-page stories that possibly raised the prewar temperature. "U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis" was the headline on a Dec. 12, 2002, story by staff writer Barton Gellman. It was the subject of an ombudsman's column a few days later. A Gellman story on March 20, 2003, reported, according to U.S. officials, that the United States had obtained potentially valuable new information on Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs and had more information on those programs than it had shared with the public or the United Nations. A story on Sept. 5, 2002, by Joby Warrick, based partly on British sources, focused on concerns about fleets of unmanned Iraqi "drones of death" that could spray biological agents. Those stories, by experienced reporters, were carefully hedged and reflected concerns at the time by unnamed official sources.
My quarrel with Post coverage throughout the prewar period, however, was mostly of a different nature. It was based upon complaints by a fair number of readers and my own sense of the obligation for more balanced coverage and display regarding a huge, approaching event. The criticism was twofold: (1) Too many Post stories that did challenge the official administration view appeared inside the paper rather than on the front page; and (2) too many public events in which alternative views were expressed, especially during 2002, when the debate was gathering steam, were either missed, underreported or poorly displayed.
Throughout 2002 until the start of the war in March 2003, there were 19 ombudsman columns, reflecting reader comments and my own two cents' worth, that dealt with some aspect of the impending war.
The Post did put a number of stories on the front page that challenged the official line. "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable; Presidential Tradition of Embroidering Key Assertions Continues," was the headline on Oct. 22, 2002, over a story by White House reporter Dana Milbank. Pentagon reporter Thomas E. Ricks broke a couple of stories in mid-2002 about military concerns over the timing, tactics and need for an invasion. A story by Warrick on Jan. 24, 2003, carried the headline: "U.S. Claim on Iraqi Nuclear Program Is Called Into Question." There were others as well.
Yet the number of challenging stories that editors put inside the paper was, to some readers and frequently to me, dismaying. Warrick's important initial report on the nuclear program, for example, on Sept. 19, 2002, headlined: "Evidence on Iraq Challenged; Experts Question If Tubes Were Meant for Weapons Program," went on Page A18.
Here's a sampling of other stories that didn't make the front page. "Observers: Evidence for War Lacking; Report Against Iraq Holds Little That's New," by Dana Priest and Joby Warrick, Sept 13, 2002; "Unwanted Debate on Iraq-Al Qaeda Links Revived" by Karen DeYoung, Sept. 27, 2002; "U.N. Finds No Proof of Nuclear Program; IAEA Unable to Verify U.S. Claims," by Colum Lynch, Jan 29, 2003; "Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy," by Walter Pincus and Dana Priest, Feb. 13, 2003; "U.S. Increases Estimated Cost Of War in Iraq; Military Expenses Alone Projected at Up To $95 Billion," by Mike Allen, Feb. 26, 2003; "U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms," by Walter Pincus, March 16, 2003; "Legality of War Is A Matter Of Debate; Many Scholars Doubt Assertion by Bush," by Peter Slevin, March 18, 2003; "Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq," by Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank, March 18, 2003.
Among the public events that were missed or underreported during the second half of 2002 were early doubts by some Republicans such as former House majority leader Richard K. Armey and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft; hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during which alternative strategies were discussed; hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee at which retired four-star generals urged caution; comprehensive challenges in early speeches by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Robert C. Byrd, both Democrats; coverage of big demonstrations here and abroad that didn't make the front page, and coverage surrounding the views of outgoing Army Chief of Staff Eric K. Shinseki.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Michael Getler is The Post's ombudsman. He can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071.|