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
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