Issue #13, Summer 2009

Mission Not Accomplished

Meet the press—and see why it failed at several critical points during the Iraq War.

Long after the Iraq War went south, when its failures could no longer be minimized, the elite newspapers and weeklies finally got around to offering sound analyses and asking the Bush Administration tough questions. It took them long enough–not until after December 2003, by which time the war was underway and its damage irreversible.

And yet the elite print press still hasn’t managed a serious evaluation of its own reporting in the early years of the war. There have been discrete examinations, focused on a specific newspaper or subject, such as Howard Kurtz’s review of The Washington Post’s pre-war reporting and The New York Times’ evaluation of its WMD coverage. But there has been no comprehensive effort to look at all the pre-war print reporting and draw conclusions about its successes, as well as its failures.

This article presents just such an appraisal, in the hope that journalism centers, and especially the elite press itself, will deepen their inquiries. The stakes could not be higher: Our public debate and our democracy hinge in good measure on how well our most prestigious print outlets cover matters of war and peace.

The "elite press" here includes three daily newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal) and two weeklies (Time and Newsweek). As of 2008, they collectively reach around ten million people in print and millions more online, including the most influential government, business, media, and community leaders. Major articles in the elite press can trigger further attention on television news and in Congress. The five publications chosen here are, to a large extent, the ultimate centurions of our democracy.

We evaluate their performance in the early years of the Iraq conflict at several key moments. We looked at 576 news and opinion stories in all–104 articles written during the 2002 Congressional vote on the prospective use of force, 193 written during Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation of Iraqi transgressions at the United Nations, 113 written during President George W. Bush’s "Mission Accomplished" speech, and 166 written immediately after Saddam Hussein’s capture. It is certainly fair to choose other early moments or to extend the timeline to the famous "surge" period. But the inquiry here is arbitrarily restricted to the early years.

Our findings may surprise both the media’s critics and defenders: In covering the early years of the war, the elite print press did not embarrass itself to the degree widely assumed–nor did it distinguish itself. Only episodically did our best news outlets provide the necessary alternative information to Administration claims, ask the needed questions about Administration policy, or present insightful analysis about Iraq itself. For the most part, the elite print press conveyed Administration pronouncements and rationale without much critical commentary.

We have objectified our judgments of stories with the following system:

0: A story is entirely slanted, suppresses skepticism, and is completely supportive of the Administration line

1: A story is somewhat slanted to the Administration’s side, with skeptical and questioning sentences over-weighted by supportive ones

2: A story dutifully reports both sides by balancing experts or political leaders

3: A story raises questions about official statements and events and generally projects skepticism

4: A story casts fundamental doubt on Administration explanations, policies, and claims

5: A story casts fundamental doubt and then reports the Administration’s reaction to such doubt

On matters of war and peace, an article with a score of 3.0 represents an acceptable level of skepticism. He said/she said reporting, while perhaps adequate when the stakes are lower, does not suffice when so much is on the line. Journalists ought not to be stenographers. In our evaluation process, we have penalized those stories that merely relayed the assertions of official Washington and its critics; conversely, we looked favorably upon those that held all assertions up to the light of scrutiny and fell on the side of the critics. For the critics were right.

Unfortunately, I was not one of them. On subjects as sensitive and important as war and peace, people in glass houses should be careful how they throw stones. I was a strong supporter of the Iraq War. I was sure Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons because he had used them against Iran and Iraqi Kurds. He had also attacked Iran and Kuwait. And I believed that he either had or was close to achieving nuclear weapons capability, and I favored getting rid of him before that day. I would have waited for more help from our friends and allies, as President George H.W. Bush did in the first Gulf war. And I would have limited the attack to the southern Shiite portion of Iraq, while we held onto the already protected Kurdish region in the North. This would have cut Hussein off from his oil supplies and, I believe, led to his ouster by the Iraqi military.

But for all the ands, ifs, buts, and maybes, the fact was I didn’t look hard enough at the country, its history and culture, the WMD facts, and above all, whether the Administration had thought through what to do with Iraq after defeating Hussein’s army. What’s more, I knew at the time that I wasn’t taking a hard enough look at these matters. To remedy this, I started two Council on Foreign Relations task forces on our policy toward Iraq, just before and after the outbreak of war.

I started seriously questioning the war within months of the fall of Baghdad, when it became obvious the Bush Administration had no idea what to do after its swift victory. My questioning soon hardened into opposition when it was clear that Hussein did not have WMD. But that was too little, too late. The same can be said for the print press.

The Story of the Press and the Iraq War

War Authorization Vote

In early October 2002, Congress debated granting Bush authority to wage war against Iraq, based on his expansive claims about Baghdad’s nuclear ambitions and purported terrorist connections. Rather than critically evaluating the Administration’s claims about Iraqi threats, the press mainly repeated those claims and gave little voice to skeptics. Too few stories questioned the evidence regarding Iraq’s purported WMD or links to terrorism. Even fewer examined plans for handling post-Hussein Iraq, or how a U.S. invasion might affect the balance of power in the Middle East. The elite media’s posture of neutrality amounted to little more than deference to the Administration’s position.

Many stories gave excessive attention to Bush’s personality in the battle to persuade Congress, rather than to the substance of his arguments. In part, this is to be expected, given the constitutional power of the President and Bush’s popularity after 9/11. Yet the result was to give him virtual carte blanche. The media gushed over Bush’s televised address on October 7, where he brought his case for war to the American people.

The Post ran an article the following day, "Bush Cites Urgent Iraqi Threat," by Karen DeYoung, which effectively amounted to an amplification of the President’s claim that, because Hussein possessed chemical and biological weapons and was pursuing nuclear ones, he was "a grave threat to peace."

The article credited Bush for delivering a "sober and thoughtful address," and did not engage with critics until near the end. In a later review that the Post conducted of its war coverage, written by Howard Kurtz and published in the summer of 2004, DeYoung acknowledged the problem with this approach:

If there’s something I would do differently–and it’s always easy in hindsight–the top of the story would say, ‘We’re going to war, we’re going to war against evil.’ But later down it would say, ‘But some people are questioning it.’ The caution and the questioning was buried underneath the drumbeat.

Other outlets gave the president a similar benefit of the doubt. The New York Times played into Bush’s cult of personality by giving intense and favorable coverage to what the headlines blared as "The President’s Speech." Written by David Sanger and published October 8, 2002, it included just one brief mention of skepticism, and it waited until the end to note that most Americans were, according to polls, against near-term unilateral military action. Another article, "Stern Tones, Direct Appeal," by the Times’s Todd Purdum, which appeared the same day as the Sanger piece, began by approving the surface aspects of the speech, while waiting until near the halfway point to note that the President "did not so much offer up new evidence against Iraq as weave together known facts." Similarly, The Wall Street Journal published a piece on October 9, "CIA Says Iraq on Brink of War Would Use Terror," while barely considering the possibility that perhaps war was less, not more, advisable based on the finding contained in the headline. The resolution passed the House three days after Bush’s speech, and the Senate shortly followed.

News stories should have been talking about the difficulties of post-war occupation, of nation-building and its attendant costs. Instead, potential difficulties were glossed over. In one of the Times’ key articles on the military planning of Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "Rumsfeld Orders War Plans Redone for Faster Action," the secretary’s plans–for fewer troops above all else–were described at length. Yet despite an acknowledgment in the first paragraph that the troop levels Rumsfeld wanted would be lower "than thought possible–or even wise–before the Sept. 11 attacks," criticism of Rumsfeld’s plans did not appear until the end. And even then, the concerns were summarized and generalized.

One notable exception was Peter Slevin’s piece for The Washington Post, "Undefined U.S. Plans for Post-Hussein Iraq Stir Questions," which included this prescient quote, from "a senior Arab diplomat in Washington":

If you win militarily, we will have to live with the consequences of instability or chaos, either because Iraq is divided or you have a series of coups d’état or an imbalance between Iraq and Iran.

The opinion columnists, meanwhile, more or less uniformly favored the Administration’s claims. Post columnist Richard Cohen’s "Ready for War," published the day of the vote, did just that while invoking the memory of World War II:

In listing his reasons for (probably) going to war against Iraq soon–the threat of weapons of mass destruction, the nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its flouting of international law–President Bush the other night failed to mention the most important one: Now’s the time.

Just as the attack on Pearl Harbor enabled President Roosevelt to go to war against Germany as well as Japan, so did the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 give Bush the opportunity to do what three administrations–his, his father’s and Bill Clinton’s–had wanted to do for some time. The attacks galvanized the nation and altered the political climate. Hussein hadn’t changed any. America had.

Cohen was echoed by his Post colleague Jim Hoagland, who on October 13 wrote about several survivors of totalitarian regimes whose stories helped convince him to support the war. As for those who were skeptical about the Administration’s post-war plans, Hoagland countered: "There is covert racism submerged today in much of the argument over ‘the day after’ in Iraq and the Persian Gulf."

During this critical period, as Bush made his case for war to the nation, the elite media quietly transmitted the Administration line. We have assigned a score of exactly 2.0 for their overall coverage–the perfect picture of "either/or" journalism. That’s not good enough when the stakes are so high.

Powell at the United Nations

As the march to war grew more intense, Secretary of State Colin Powell made his historic pitch for invading Iraq to the UN on February 5, 2003. On the line was the credibility of both the United States and the UN. More than ever, the media had an obligation to ask probing questions about evidence, and in particular, the lack of a smoking gun. What did Washington really know about Iraq’s biological weapons program to support Powell’s histrionic presentation of an Iraqi "anthrax" vial to those assembled? For this period, we scored coverage at 1.77, the lowest score for the events studied. The media not only failed to marshal the kind of skepticism the moment required; it was outright deferential.

Powell’s powerful personality and peerless reputation surely colored the reporting. Michael Gordon concluded in the Times the day after the presentation:

Even the skeptics had to concede that Mr. Powell’s presentation had been an important milestone in the debate…Critics may try to challenge the strength of the administration’s case and they will no doubt argue that inspectors be given more time…But it will difficult for the skeptics to argue that Washington’s case against Iraq is based on groundless suspicions and not intelligence information.

Likewise, Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe and Daniel Klaidman enthused, "Battle-tested by countless military briefings, Powell was the embodiment of overwhelming force. In contrast to President George W. Bush’s vague if forceful sermons on good and evil, Powell fired a 76-minute salvo of detailed evidence with photos, tapes, sources, and place names."

Reporters failed to challenge the twisted logic Powell employed to drive his evidence: He effectively asked Hussein to demonstrate a negative, famously imploring him to disprove the existence of WMD in Iraq. Few pressed him for a smoking gun. One notable exception was a February 6 Wall Street Journal piece noting that "[t]he series of intriguing intelligence nuggets [in Powell’s presentation] included no smoking gun proving Iraq’s possession of such weapons."

Issue #13, Summer 2009
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As an admirer of Leslie Gelb, I'm disapointed by his research paper on fairness. I expected better.

The final rating describes the position of the major media a s "he said,she said". It ignores the fact that the choices of "he" and "she" greatly influenced the media into a gross bias in favor of the Administration.

The small press of the left and right produced columnists and reporters who were almost uniformly more skeptical and much closer to reality.

Perhaps Mr Gelb should pay more attention to the effect on journalists of the advantages of being well connected.

In order to keep their sources at the very top of the administration, (and the personal and career advantages that come from those relationships, the famous leading journalists became willing members of the administration's PR machine.

We ad Judith Miller working for Libby, but Greg Palast was ignored.

Furthwer. Any objective analysis should have considered that most public opinion was guided by local news outlets which had no independent reporting on national and international affairs. The AP wire served as a filtered news source so local papers and radio/tv stations repeated selected and biased reports as though they actually knew what was happening.

Example: When the pictures of the charred bodies of the "independent contractors" were posted with headlines and articles which described the Iraq population as murderers I suggested to the editors of my local paper that the "independent contractors"might be, in fact, mercenaries.

They looked up Blackwater and they were shocked.

They then went to the wire sources and found NOTHING so they had no story they could tell.

The resultant public fury and the assault on Falugia helped to shape of our mission in Iraq as a punishing occupation.

Jun 15, 2009, 6:44 AM

Did Leslie Gelb ever hear the name "Scott Ritter" before now? Why no mention of the scepticism that Mr. Ritter expressed on numerous college campuses in the days leading up to the Iraq war? Mr. Ritter never hesitated in calling out the Bush Administration's lies, providing accurate details about what Bush was lying about.

Jun 15, 2009, 7:53 PM

This research is welcome and overdue. The failure of skepticism and opposition was, as much as the Bush administration's actions, the cause of so many evils and mistakes. But I don't think Gelb and Zelmati address the heart of the matter, which is, how do we form institutions that perform well even in the context of that time.

The context was an overwhelming tide of a mob, sparked by the fear of a crisis, and stoked and fanned to great heights by populist politicians. It is the cause of disaster after disaster in nations throughout history. It's a well known formula that works; it creates irresistible political might and sweeps away dissent.

The 'elite media', the foreign policy experts, the public, the Democratic party all failed to stand up against the tide. These were not independent failures that by coincidence occurred at the same time; the media didn't fail due to a lack of technique, the experts for another reason. They were the predictable results of being swept up in that tide. The solution is not for individuals or institutions to learn their craft better -- whatever practices we establish will be swept away as we all conform to the next great tide (I hope not in my lifetime). The solution must be political: How do we contain the populists and their mob?

Jun 18, 2009, 5:09 PM
Substantive Knowledge:

The comment that reporting reflected a lack of "substantive knowledge" of the situation, background and options is especially telling. The United States has been "at war" for about eight years, but the level of understanding of what the armed forces are actually doing remains abysmal. Few items in the "elite press" have addressed the strategic imbalance in US defense policy. When imbalances are addressed, the context is almost always budgetary. Are there any military or defense reporters left in the "elite press"?

Aug 10, 2009, 7:52 AM

A book-length treatment of this topic by Mr. Gelb and Ms. Zelmati is a necesssity.

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