Dereliction of Duty
The failures of the media during the Iraq War should not be assigned exclusively to the reporters. Editors deserve blame, too. A response to Leslie H. Gelb and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati.
The war in Iraq is now more than six-and-a-half years old. We don’t know how it will end. But we do know how it began. We know now that this country was led into a long, costly, and controversial war based on premises that were stated publicly with great certainty yet turned out to be false.
The study by Leslie H. Gelb, with Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati, in Democracy (“Mission Unaccomplished,” Issue #13) is a valuable addition to the material that has been accumulating in the public domain about how the press performed, or failed to perform, its role in challenging these premises. It focuses on what the authors call “the elite print press”—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and Newsweek—and makes several important observations and recommendations. It notes, accurately in my view, that “the elite print press did not embarrass itself to the degree widely assumed—nor did it distinguish itself.” And it also points out that, aside from some newspaper-specific articles in the Times and the Post, “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.” I agree with that, too, and the authors make some recommendations about the importance of getting this done and how it might be accomplished, as well as some internal policy suggestions for news organizations.
That said, I have a few criticisms of their study: It would have been better to have a more detailed examination of pre-war reporting, which was the crucial time for the press, rather than the hundreds of stories about events after the war began. I also felt the piece needed to deal in some fashion with television, which is where most Americans get their news and which is a huge megaphone for any administration’s simplified, scary message. As the essay said, there were some attempts—rather good ones, I thought—at the Times and Post to report on their own failures. But there was nothing like that for television.
But the more important point is that any study that relies on an academic, article-rating system—which Gelb and Zelmati’s does admirably—inevitably misses the culture of newsrooms that can contribute to failures. Gelb and Zelmati end their study with some recommendations and approaches, but I think the most effective one—thorough, no-punches-held internal investigations—is right under the nose of each news organization.
The war dominated my life as ombudsman at The Washington Post from November 2000 until October 2005. I wrote 19 columns before the war about criticism from readers—always adding my own critical assessments, even if they were not mentioned by readers—about pre-war coverage. As the war unfolded, I wrote dozens more columns. In my last one, on October 9, 2005, I came back to Iraq once again “because I cannot think of a story in the past 40 years that offers more warning signs for journalism and for the role of the press in our democracy.” I ended by saying, “It’s a lesson that ought to be etched in the culture here as deeply as Watergate.”
I should say at this point the Post is an excellent paper, and it also did some excellent reporting before the war—more than you might think. But I also had a catbird seat watching it stumble and, while my observations are necessarily about the Post, they may be more broadly applicable. From where I sat, there were two newsroom failures, in particular, at the root of what went wrong with pre-war reporting. One was a failure to pay enough attention to events that unfolded in public, rather than just the exclusive stuff that all major newspapers like to develop. The other was a failure of editors and editing up and down the line that resulted in a focus on getting ready for a war that was coming rather than the obligation to put the alternative case in front of readers in a prominent way. This resulted in far too many stories, including some very important ones, being either missed, underplayed, or buried. Let’s start with the second problem, which is in many ways the more distressing.
Gelb and Zelmati focus on the reporters, but the editors deserve as much, if not more, focus. Granted, I don’t think a lot more critical front-page stories in these “elite” newspapers would have stopped the march to war. But that should not be the concern of editors. It is also true, of course, that you can’t put every story on the front page. But the front page displays a newspaper’s best judgment about what issues matter that day, and when you appear continually to fail to grasp the significance of stories, especially as the country is getting ready for war, you let down your readers.
Reporters get the bylines, and the scandals tend to get their name, whether it’s the Post’s Janet Cooke, or the Times’s Jayson Blair, or USA Today’s Jack Kelley, or CBS’s Dan Rather. But it is the editors who are the gatekeepers, who need to be on top of things and challenge reporters. They need to be experienced and informed so that when they gather around story conference tables to decide what goes on Page A1, they are able to argue with authority about the value of their stories. They need to understand that in extreme national circumstances, stories based on anonymous sources must compete with and be treated equally at times with the pronouncements of a president.
Many of the important stories at the Post that were buried were based, by necessity, on sources speaking on the basis of non-attribution. There is often no other way. Even the pre-war stories from what was then Knight Ridder Newspapers’ Washington Bureau, the ones that got so much praise from critics of the other papers, relied almost exclusively on anonymous sources. The Gelb-Zelmati paper indeed includes some good recommendations about editing, but the problem, in my view, runs even deeper.
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