The Media and the War: Any Lessons Learned?

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In his valedictory column last Sunday, outgoing Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler once again took up his newspaper’s failure to subject the Bush administration’s arguments for war in Iraq to the scrutiny they obviously demanded. He terms this failure “by far the single most important and most disappointing performance by the press, including The Post,” and notes, “The key question for journalists is how the process of vetting the main prewar rationale for sending Americans into a war took place, or failed to take place.”

Getler examined the coverage back in June 2004 and complained that “(1) 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.”

He reiterates these points today, adding that “editors didn't have their eye on, and didn't go for, the right ball at the right time.” And he notes, “Some journalists or news organizations may have been intimidated by the atmosphere. I don't think The Post was.” Well, it’s hard to say. The nature of effective intimidation is that the victim frequently internalizes it to the point that even he or she is unaware. That is what makes the admission of New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller both so rare and valuable. Responding to criticism that the press went too easy on the president during a March 2003 press conference about the upcoming war, she told the Baltimore Sun, “I think we were very deferential because in the East Room press conference it's live. It's very intense. It's frightening to stand up there. I mean think about it, you're standing up on prime time live television asking the President of the United States a question and when the country is about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening and I think it made, you know, nobody wanted to get into an argument with the president at this serious time. It had a very heavy feeling of history to it, that press conference.”

What Bumiller is admitting here is a fundamental failure to do her job—a failure born of fear, and one that was deliberately stoked and exploited by an administration that sought to take this nation to war, no questions asked. But others in the media have sought to put a more generous gloss on this failure. Post columnist David Ignatius explained in April 2004 that the media’s “own professionalism” was to blame for them dropping the ball on the phantom WMDs. The reasoning goes like this: “In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn't create a debate on our own.”

The “rules” to which Ignatius refers are nowhere written down, and I certainly don’t teach them to my journalism students, but he is not that far off in describing the mores of contemporary Washington journalism. The Times continues to stand by the misleading reporting of Judy Miller despite her amazing February 2004 contention in The New York Review of Books: “My job was not to collect information and analyze it independently as an intelligence agency; my job was to tell readers of the New York Times, as best as I could figure out, what people inside the government who had very high security clearances, who were not supposed to talk to me, were saying to one another about what they thought Iraq had and did not have in the area of weapons of mass destruction.”

Note that the reporter’s understanding of what is actually “true” appears nowhere in these descriptions of the meaning of journalistic professionalism. And that is one big reason this administration has been able to lie, repeatedly, with impunity, as it has led this nation down a path toward economic, political, and foreign policy catastrophe. It is hard to imagine that this reticence is what America’s founding fathers had in mind when they gave the press its privileged status in the very first amendment to the Constitution. But that, as Walter Cronkite used to say, is the way it is…

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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Eric Alterman

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