Why harp on the press' Iraq WMD failures?

by Greg Mitchell, Editor ad Publisher

Four years ago, E&P was one of the few mainstream news outlets to strenuously question the administration's case for WMD in Iraq. We've carried countless articles about this since, and occasionally a reader will ask, Why do you harp on it?

The simple answer is: We wonder if the media has really learned its lesson. Periodic incidents suggest otherwise, balanced by evidence that, as the prophet urged, "we won't get fooled again."

The recent firestorm over reports of Iranian weapons in Iraq provided reason for both hope and fear.

Three weeks ago, The New York Times featured prominently on its front page and Web site a report by Michael R. Gordon -- based wholly on unnamed sources -- claiming firm evidence that Iran was supplying "the most deadly" weapon used against U.S. forces in Iraq: a certain kind of roadside bomb. Gordon, of course, had produced (with Judith Miller) the so-called "mushroom cloud" article in 2002 relating to WMD in Iraq that proved quite false.

Last week, the Times' public editor, Byron Calame, offered his appraisal, which raised some questions about Gordon failing to provide a little more balance in his report -- but praising followup articles by other Times reporters that did seem more skeptical. Yesterday he printed some letters from readers, all critical of Gordon and the Times.

A San Francisco man commented: "Now even The New York Times’s public editor must pick up a bucket of whitewash to try to paint over the newspaper’s boosting of the Bush administration’s propaganda for another misguided war, this one against Iran. The truly unfortunate aspect is that these articles are carried on the front pages of hundreds of local newspapers. It’s a sorry mess, to which your fingerprints have been added, even through the white gloves your column claims to wear."

A woman from New Hampshire: "You insult the readers when you imply that Mr. Gordon has become the scapegoat du jour and that questioning his writing is merely sour grapes — leftover anger from the W.M.D. debacle. This demeaning argument suggests that readers aren’t able to make cogent decisions about the validity of his writing but are, rather, too busy nursing old wounds."

And a man from Maryland: "If the Times editors were so anxious to demonstrate the tenuous nature of this story as you suggest, why was the story prominently placed on Page 1? I recognize that a journalist’s task is difficult. But we are dealing with a president with a clear track record on war and diplomacy. Times editors were enablers for the Iraq war. Have these editors learned nothing more than to insert mild caveats into administration propaganda that could potentially be used to lead us into another war?"

This made made me reflect on one night last month, just after the Gordon and Baghdad briefing articles, when an e-mailed memo arrived in my inbox. At least one news editor had seen enough.

That night, the first part of the PBS Frontline series on the media was aired, with distressing reminders of newspapers' complicity in the Iraq invasion. It showed Bob Woodward on Larry King's CNN show back then saying there was "almost zero" chance WMD would not be found in Iraq. In a new interview, Judith Miller said she did nothing wrong in her reporting back then, even if the reporting itself was wrong.

A few minutes after that, the e-mail landed in my "new messages" box.

It came from KSFR, a public radio station in Santa Fe, N.M. I don't know anything about the station, although I have been to Santa Fe a couple of times. It seems that the surge in "unnamed officials" had finally pushed News Director Bill Dupuy to take action. He wrote that "until further notice, it is the policy of KSFR's news department to ignore and not repeat any wire service or nationally published story" about Iran, North Korea, and other sensitive foreign areas if it quotes an "unnamed" U.S. official.

"What we have suspected and talked about at length before is now becoming clear. 'High administration officials speaking on the condition of anonymity,' 'Usually reliable Washington sources,' and others of the like were behind the publicity that added credibility to the need to go to war against Afghanistan and Iraq.

"This is a small news department with a small reach. We cannot research these stories ourselves. But we can take steps not to compromise our integrity. We should not dutifully parrot whatever comes out of Washington, on the wire or by whatever means, no matter how intriguing and urgent it sounds, when the source is unnamed. I am also calling on our colleagues in other local news departments -- broadcast and print -- to take the same professional approach."

The following day, President Bush at a press conference contradicted the still-unnamed officials at the Baghdad briefing, admitting, "I do not know" one way or the other if the Iranian government knew anything about the weapons in Iraq. But, to update Mark Twain, I'll add: An unnamed source's lie can dominate the Web while the truth is still putting on its boots.

article originally published at http://www.editorandpublisher.com.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey