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Post Pre-War WMD Coverage

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2004; 3:15 PM

As violence continues in postwar Iraq and U.S. forces have yet to discover any WMDs, some critics say the media, including The Washington Post, failed the country by not reporting more skeptically on President Bush's contentions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) during the run-up to war. In Thursday's Post, media critic Howard Kurtz examined The Post's pre-war coverage of WMD: The Post on WMD: An Inside Story, (Post, Aug. 12)

Kurtz discussed his story, The Post's coverage and the decisions about which stories ran, and where they ran, in the days leading up to the war.

Howard Kurtz (washingtonpost.com)


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Washington, D.C.: Great article, I think Michael Getler had written about the suspicious pattern or skeptical war stories appearing on the back pages, but he was not conclusive.

Is anyone on The Post going to be held accountable (firings on the news side)? They were obviously intimidated by the administration.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know why you would conclude that Post staffers were "obviously...intimidated." If that was the case, none of the skeptical stories would have been published at all. There were plenty of shortcomings here, but I saw no evidence of intimidation.

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Virginia Beach, Va.: Joby Warrick, Walter Pincus and others at The Washington Post did some excellent reporting about the faulty intelligence. The information was there for anybody who was really paying attention. But The Post news coverage clearly gave more prominence to Bush administration views. The Post editorial page was gung-ho in favor of the war.

Assistant Managing Editor Liz Spayd asks "Do I feel we owe our readers an apology? I don't think so." How about an apology to the families of the 900+ American military killed and 6,000+ wounded in action in Iraq?

Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. expresses doubts that The Washington Post has any effect on public opinion. If a larger majority of Americans had heard the truth from the media and opposed the war, does he really think the war would have happened?

Major newspapers like The Post have a sacred responsibility to question authority. The Bush administration is still in denial of reality about the WMD and connections between Hussein and al Qaeda. Why isn't The Post calling them on it now?

Howard Kurtz: I agree with your first paragraph. But I think it's quite a leap to say that if the Post had published these stories on the front page, or published more stories, there wouldn't have been a war and people would not have been killed. President Bush has made quite clear that he would have taken the country to war even without the WMD issue.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Interesting article. I, personally, don't feel a sense of reckoning at The Post. What are you guys going to do differently in the future? Also, aren't you repeating the same mistake with regard to what's happening in Iraq right now? The Bush administration wanted the handover to happen to get the slow bleeding of our troops off the front page, and I believe they've succeeded. We lost more soldier in July than June, and the coalition has already lost 25 soldiers this month (22 American). You know that if you did a poll on this, the American people would not know that things are getting worse there on this one metric, not better.

Are you going to be writing a story in six months about how The Post fell down on the ongoing instability in Iraq?

Howard Kurtz: I don't accept your premise. The Post has had at least one front-page story on Iraq almost every day since the handover. Post reporters are in the region risking their lives--one, Dan Williams, barely escaped death during an attack on his car--to keep following the story. It's difficult to report under these conditions, but there's certainly no lack of trying.

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Alexandria, Va.: A fascinating article this morning. Two points:

Even if there's a "firewall" between your news and editorial departments, it sure seemed that Fred Hiatt never read or ignored the articles that were in the back pages of the paper.

As for Len Downie's comments, if he had been around during Watergate, Nixon would still be in the White House. Whatever happened to The Post's fearlessness and willingness to confront power?

Howard Kurtz: I'm sure Fred Hiatt read all the news coverage, but he and the editorial board are paid to express their opinions. You may not agree with those opinions--I don't always agree--but their function is far different than the news pages.
As for Downie, he was around as an editor who worked on the Watergate story. He's a former investigative reporter who's always pushing for what he calls accountability reporting (a recent example is the Post's aggressive coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandal). He admits that he and the paper made mistakes during the runup to war, but that doesn't mean he isn't a fan of aggressive reporting.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Why should we act surprised at these revelations about The Post's coverage.

We saw a press that was almost totally cowed by this administation -- after the firing of Phil Donahue at MSNBC for daring to talk to anyone questioning the drumbeat to war. The lack of questions to the administration about the criminal past of Achmed Chalabi -- the staged statue pulldown in Baghdad -- easily recognized if only one had seen the BBC coverage which of course no U.S. national TV news would carry.

Howard Kurtz: I see a big difference between The Post's coverage, whatever shortcomings it had, and MSNBC's decision to drop Phil Donahue (who was a lonely liberal in cable land, but also didn't get great ratings).

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Raleigh, N.C.: Thank you for your piece today about the Post's coverage of the WMD issue. It's such a relief to know that at least some media organizations are taking a hard look at the ways in which they carried water for the White House claims du jour. I look forward to seeing how the Post changes its approach.

One of the concerns often expressed about questioning administration claims in the build-up to the Iraq war was that of "losing access" to key administration sources. Do you know whether the New York Times and/or other media organizations have suffered repercussions as the result of coming clean about their failure to question what they were fed? How likely is it that the Post will lose sources now that it will (HOPEFULLY) take a stronger stand against propaganda?

Also, I'm intrigued by the "in-house-i-ness" of the mea culpas -- a familial discussion that ellides the part of the statement that goes: "-They lied to us, and] we are not going to let that happen again." Does the White House understand that these mea culpas are not so much mere introspective acknowledgements of editorial weaknesses as they are statements that bonds of trust between government and the press have been sorely stretched, if not broken?

Howard Kurtz: That's more a question for the White House. Certainly there's been no shortage of stories challenging the administration's credibility on WMD and Saddam/al Qaeda links in the wake of the war. But access is not really an issue here. Few reporters of any kind have particularly good access in this administration because of the way in which the White House tightly controls information. And access means little if all the top officials are simply spouting the party line.

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Titusville, N.J.: Fascinating story today- shines a light on the complex dynanimcs in the newsroom. I was troubled to learn of editors complaining that Walter Pincus's writing was hard to follow and had to be heavily re-written. Isn't that what editors are supposed to do? Was it too much work? Try explaining that to the parents and spouses of our war dead. Weren't they entitled to know the real justification for the war, i.e. bringing democracy to the Middle East, instead of having fears of WMD exploited? Perhaps Liz Sayd is right, that the Washington Post doesn't owe its readers an apology. And perhaps Leonard Downie is right -- that we would have gone to way anyway. But I wouldn't want to explain that to a kid whose father isn't coming home.

Howard Kurtz: What I tried to do is explain how the newsroom works, or doesn't work, in making these decisions. Obviously editors did the editing they believed that Pincus and other writers needed, but this tended to slow up and/or result in underplaying many of these stories. But again, I'd be careful about making the leap from flawed journalism at the Post to people dying on the battlefield. If there's one thing we've learned it's that the Bush administration was determined to go to war in Iraq.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Kurtz it was nice to see something of a Mea Culpa run by your paper.

I am one of the minority that questioned the war in 2002-2003, as much of what was being touted just did not add up. A huge red flag for me (and should have been for the press) was seeing that many within or outside the Bush Administration had signed off on a Project For The New American Century letter asking President Clinton to take out Saddam in the late 1990's. This meant there was desire looking for sellable reasons, of which 9/11 and WMD became convenient.

Although I agree with the notion that louder press coverage on page one would likely not have stopped Bush's march to war, it just might have.

I never could tell if the Media was just inept about digging deeper into the buildup to war and reasons given for us to go to war, or higher powers that be within news organizations actually wanted the war to happen.

What do you think?

Howard Kurtz: What I think (and keep in mind that regime change in Baghdad was President Clinton's official policy as of 1998) is that this was an extraordinarily difficult story to report. You couldn't go to Iraq, as Woodward observes. You had to rely on sources, many of whom couldn't go on the record and all of whom were relying on shadowy intelligence. That doesn't excuse the shortcomings of the media in general and The Post in particular, but this was not easy stuff.

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Arlington, Va.: I think your article today was a valuable contribution, but I worry that it will give the Post even more of an excuse to be anti-Bush. The Post already holds the President to a higher standard than John Kerry (see the Swift Boat Vets controversy), and is often suspected of having a liberal slant to its reporting. Do you think your report will shift the Post's coverage further left?

Howard Kurtz: I don't accept the premise and I don't think my story will have any impact one way or another. If The Post is so anti-Bush, why wasn't it more aggressive on the WMD issue during the runup to war? Most of the criticism seems to be coming from people on the left who believe the paper has been too soft on the administration.

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Falls Church, Va.: This whole thing, and even the aftermath, strikes me as an example of non-ideological bias. 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, particularly given the unprecedented access to the fighting they had been promised by DoD. I think the reverse is true today. Raising issues about the justification for war, while arguably driven in part by ideology or a desire to compensate for what they feel were their previous coverage shortcomings, is the latest great story that the press has a personal self-interest in hyping. Is this an overly cynical view, or does it serve as a materially accurate warning about the underlying motives that drive the media's coverage of the news?

Howard Kurtz: I couldn't disagree more. Some foreign correspondents enjoy covering war, but the idea that journalists "wanted" this war is just totally off the mark.

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Burke, Va.: I always thought that the role of the press was to challenge the powerful, not amplify what they say.

Howard Kurtz: The truth is, it's both. If the president or vice president or governor or senator wants to make public statements about war and peace, we have an obligation to fairly report them. We also have an obligation to dig and challenge and question what they say. On this point, you'd have to say The Post tried, and did a better job than many news organizations, but fell short.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I applaud the Post and in particulary Downie for straight forwardly admitting a mistake. I also applaud Woodward for his positive role in the WMD.

I have several deeper concerns. First is why was the Post willing to go along with the broad definition of weapons of mass destruction as including chemical and biological weapons. With a liitle bit of digging the Post could have learned that dynamite is more of a weapon of mass destruction than either chemical or biological weapons to date. For example, despite all the fear of anthrax, more people were killed in Oaklahoma City than in the anthrax attacks shortly after 9/11.

Second, why is the Post not digging deeper into the problems of nuclear weapons and their proliferoration. Seem like Clinton was turned down for funding to reduce proliferoration of Russian weapons and Bush isn't even trying to reduce nuclear weapons at their source. Why isn't this being reported?

Howard Kurtz: On the first, because the administration was citing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as its justification for war. On the second, there have been a number of articles about North Korea, Iran and the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

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Houston, Tex.: What are the lessons here for journalists who believe they are onto to something, but don't want to be dismissed as "crusaders," as Walter Pincus was? What can rank-and-file reporters, or mid-level newsroom managers, do if they think the overall thrust of coverage is tilted too heavily to one side?

Howard Kurtz: Raise hell. Keep digging. Keep pushing. And some of our people tried, but ran into obstacles. Newsrooms are noisy, dissent-filled places, but they are not democracies.

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Cary, N.C.: Great article on WaPo's coverage of the WMD claims. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I'm eternally grateful to Walter Pincus, Thomas Ricks, Dana Priest, Joby Warrick (whom we in the Raleigh area are VERY proud of!), Barton Gellman, yourself, and others for diligently continuing to investigate, ask hard questions, and write what needed to be written despite poor story placement and editorial kills.

I can only imagine the vitriolic calls, letters, and other contacts the Post has had from people angry about stories that question or "criticize" the administration. Surely the anthrax-laced letters sent to the press after 9/11 had a chilling effect on editorial rooms at some level. How safe do Post staff feel about taking a more skeptical stance on issues such as the presence/absence of WMD and the buildup to war?

Howard Kurtz: I'd say many people here tried to take a skeptical approach from the beginning, but with obviously mixed results. Reporters aren't magicians, you know. We don't have subpoena power and can't compel people to talk to us. So we're always in the position of trying to obtain documents and develop sources and piece things together as best we can.

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Washington, D.C.: Why isn't the Post publishing the names of all those anonymous sources who lied to them about WMD? Or did the Post completely rely upon the word of Chalabi?

Howard Kurtz: You're assuming the sources deliberately lied. I'm sure most of them believed what they were being (by Chalabi's defectors, among others), that Saddam was hiding WMDs.

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Germantown, Md.: Mr Kurtz,

Isn't it possible that the reason that the major news outlets, like the Post, didn't report more on the possibility that WMD intelligence might be suspect was because it was accepted by everyone (including the French and German intelligence agencies and the UN) that Saddam DID have WMD?

I mean, it was the accepted conventional wisdom that Saddam had WMD. He had been shown to have (and had used) them before. Our inspectors were kicked out and hadn't been there for years. Clinton said he had them. The UN said he had them. All the intelligence agencies said he had them (and would use them if we invaded).

These lonely cries you refer to in your article: might it not be that they were people who opposed the war in the first place and wanted to keep a war from happening? Might their views of the impending war have influenced them to insist on more promiment coverage? And now there's a little bit of I told you so?

Howard Kurtz: Your first point is right. This was the widely accepted conventional wisdom, perpetuated by the administration, and that made it all the more difficult to challenge in the absence of hard facts.
On the second point, though, journalists like Woodward and Pincus and Priest and Gellman don't push their personal views on war or any other issues. I don't know what those views are.

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Arlington, Va.: Downie's last quote is a total cop-out and argues for his own irrelevance -- "well, we would have gone to war anyway."
One, if the Post and the media had done its job, either the timing or the outcome of the war decision could have changed dramatically. If the public had known the facts and public opinion changed, the Bushies may not have been so gung-ho.
And second, if it's a foregone conclusion, why bother with investigative journalism at all?

Howard Kurtz: We bother with investigative journalism because we believe in the old-fashioned notion that the public has a right to know. That doesn't mean we always have vast power to affect events.

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Chicago, Ill.: Mr. Kurtz,

Thanks for your excellent and information article about the Post's pre-war coverage of the WMD issue.

However, one issue you didn't touch on is whether there have been any internal consequences at the Post. Have reporters such as Walter Pincus been promoted? Have the editors who, as you write, "questioned his work" been demoted?

And if the answer is that there have been no internal consequences, is there any reason for readers to believe the Post will perform better in the future?

Howard Kurtz: No one has been promoted or demoted, as far as I know. This isn't a situation where people were deceptive or incompetent, but where the institution fell short for a variety of human reasons. Len Downie, after all, has said some of the mistakes were made by him as the paper's top editor.

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Rolla, Mo.: I appreciate your focus on WMD in the coverage leading up to the war, but was there any journalistic interest in other possible objectives for the war? I am specifically interested if the oil angle was explored, given the secret energy policy meetings, the fact that in 1999 Cheney was predicting the need for an additional 50 million barrels of oil per day by 2010, "Peak Oil" theorist Matthew Simmons is a Bush energy adviser, etc. Could it be that oil was a/the driver for the war, but not from a personal enrichment perspective, but from a strategic one?

Howard Kurtz: I made no attempt to examine why the war was fought. I had plenty to do to investigate how the paper handled the prewar intelligence issue, how the decisions were made, where The Post did well and where it fell short.

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Laurel, Md.: For about the last 6-12 months, I've seen pundit shows feature approximately the following exchange:

Q: Where are the WMDs?
A: Isn't it a good thing Saddam Hussein is out of power?

I'm afraid I'm a cynic of not just the politicians and press, but voters, too. Water-cooler conversationalists never really cared if there were WMDs or not. Invading Iraq was about showing that part of the world who the boss still was after 9/11 and maybe improving the flow of oil. The fact that the price of gasoline has gone UP this year is the main reason the war isn't as popular.

A lot of the press played along with the administration's charade. Wouldn't hammering on the factuality of WMDs have just made the Post seem liberal and out of touch?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think The Post cared about seeming "out of touch" on such an important question of war and peace. I do think it was very difficult to challenge the prevailing mindset and in effect prove a negative, that Saddam had no such weapons.

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Manassas, Va.: "Intelligence" agencies from the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, Israel and others believed that Hussein had some sort of WMDs.

Hussein's neighbors were terrified of him because they thought he had WMDs and has ready to use them.

Clinton (who signed a law in 1998 making it U.S. policy to overthrow Hussein), Gore, Kennedy, Kerry, Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Gephardt, Sandy Berger, Albright, and so many others believed that there were WMDs in Iraq.

It seems that Bush's was the last to know, but his major sin was that he did something about it.

If these powerful people couldn't find the truth about the WMDs, how could The Washington Post have done so at the time?

Howard Kurtz: We couldn't have definitively settled the question. We could have done a better job of questioning the administration's evidence and giving greater prominence to those with minority views.

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Bremen, Germany: It was a very interesting article. Did you find it difficult to write about your colleagues in such a manner? Was it uncomfortable for you to ask these types of questions of people you work with on a daily basis?
On a side note, I think the US print media has handled the Iraq War aftermath quite well. I wish the German press would also be a little bit more self critical.

Howard Kurtz: Thank you. I've been on this beat for 14 years, and I've often had to report critically in what goes on in my own newsroom, and people here have gotten used to my poking around. It's still uncomfortable, obviously. But I'm proud of the paper for publishing such a self-critical story and publishing it on the front page, and without interference from senior management. There aren't many newspapers that would have done that.

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Laurel, Md.: Other WMD assertions that also proved to be incorrect, and were not mentioned in your article, are the European and American left assertions that the UN's inspections led by Hans Blix were working. How can inspections 'work' if there's nothing to find? Even Fox and Friends had a guest parroting the European line, which we now know not to be true.

Howard Kurtz: The weapons inspections, widely derided at the time, look a little different in retrospect. But then, hindsight is always far easier.

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Washington, D.C.: I thought your article today was quite interesting. Among other things, it highlighted how the editing process at the Post is far less transparent than the reporting process. In this respect, I had two additional questions after reading your article.

1. How many levels of editors are there between a Post reporter and the top editor, Mr. Downie? I've read the Post daily for 30 years, and was quite surprised to learn that it has something called a "national security editor."

2. Your article describes who at the Post decides what articles get put on A1. If the article doesn't make it to A1, who then decides what inside page on which it is placed. In other words, who determined that Mr. Pincus' story would run on A17, rather than the more prominent A3?

Howard Kurtz: For a weapons story, the hierarchy goes something like this: Downie, Managing Editor Steve Coll, Assistant Managing Editor Liz Spayd, National Editor Mike Abramowitz, national security editor. In other words, like most big papers, The Post has a lot of editors.
Once a piece doesn't make the front page, editors may try to give it prominence on, say, Page 3 or 4. But a lot depends on layout and organization--Iraq stories from the front page may jump to Pages 16 to 18, so related stories would generally be grouped on those pages.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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