Media Takes Critical Look at Prewar Intelligence Coverage
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
TERENCE SMITH: Last week the Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz examined the paper’s coverage of the administration’ prewar claims about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.
Kurtz’s story, written on his own initiative, found that skeptical reporting on Iraq’s alleged arsenal was often relegated to the inside pages while assertions made by the administration landed on the front page.
That led to coverage that, in hindsight, looks strikingly one-sided.
Within the Washington Post ranks of national security and military writers, 39-year veteran Walter Pincus stood out as a skeptic whose reporting was frequently underplayed by editors.
Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward told Kurtz, “We should have warned readers we had information that the basis for this was shakier.” And military correspondent, Tom Rick, said there was an attitude among editors “look, we’re going to war.
Why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?” The Post story is the latest in a series of reassessments by news organizations of their pre-war reporting.
The New York Times reconsidered its work this past May and like the Post, found its coverage flawed and insufficiently skeptic.
In a note that the Times placed on page a-10, the editors said, “we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been.
In some cases, information that was controversial then and seems questionable now was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in reexamining the claims as new evidence emerged or failed to emerge.”
The Times’ editorial page also gave its work a second look. The Post’s editorial page, a staunch supporter of the Iraq war, has so far not reconsidered its writings on the top.
Lesley Stahl of CBS News 60 Minutes took another look this past March at information given to her in early 2002 by Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exiled leader who supplied intelligence to the U.S. over the course of many years.
She found that virtually every assertion made by Mr. Chalabi and reported on 60 Minutes, had been wrong.
The editors of The New Republic, which also supported the Iraq War, went back earlier this year and asked themselves on the magazine’s cover, were we wrong? Their answer?
Our strategic rationale for war has collapsed. Our moral one has not.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now to discuss coverage of the run-up to the war in Iraq is Len Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post.
And Michael Massing, journalist and author of a forthcoming book “Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq”.
Welcome to you both.
Michael Massing, in the research you’ve done for your book and the articles you’ve done and the New York Review of Books, you’ve had a chance to look broadly at the reporting of news, American news organizations in this period before the war.
Did they ask the right questions? Did they ask enough questions?
MICHAEL MASSING: I think not. I think that if you look at how the press performed in the months leading up to the war, we have a case of one of the most serious institutional failures of the American press since, I think going back to the early days of Vietnam.
I think the weapons of mass destruction issue typified an attitude in which the media really, basically, went with the flow. There was a conventional wisdom.
Reporters and editors for the most part went along and just, as the Washington Post article said, did not challenge the administration and its supporters with sufficient skepticism.
TERENCE SMITH: Len Downie, what is your view of that?
LEONARD DOWNIE: Our reporters were challenging the administration as our article pointed out, we did have a lot of that reporting. I didn’t put it on the front page often enough. Collective senior editors here didn’t always do that.
I don’t think it was because we were overly trusting of the administration. I think it was because we were focused on the question of is there going to be a war? How is it going to be fought; is there a plan for the occupation afterwards? If you look at our stories, a lot of our coverage was focused on that.
And we weren’t paying enough attention in terms of front-page play on the underlying assumptions that the administration had given us about going to war including the existence of WMD.
TERENCE SMITH: Was there, Len Downie, a reason why those stories that did question those assumptions ended up inside and that the administration views generally ended up on page one?
LEONARD DOWNIE: Well, administration views ended up on page one because it was the administration deciding whether or not we were going to go to war.
If you recall and it has been reinforced by the reporting of Bob Woodward’s most recent book, the administration was not telling us that they were going to war as soon as they had decided.
They decided it long before they made that clear to the American public.
So we are constantly examining their public declarations and speeches being made by the president, the vice president and so on to see if, in fact, they were committing the country to war which I think, was good accountability reporting.
What we did not place in the front page enough at the same time were the voices which were in many cases anonymous and not on the record and obviously not people in the same public offices at that time, retired generals rather than active generals who were warning that perhaps this was not a wise war.
In retrospect, I wish I had put more of those stories in the front page.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Massing, you argue in your most recent article that the press was, to use your word, “compliant” in this period particularly and reluctant to criticize the administration, but why, why do you think that was – if indeed that was the case, why was it the case?
MICHAEL MASSING: I think what we’ve seen is basically a period since 9/11 in which the public mood has put barriers in the place of the type of skepticism and independence that we look for in the press.
I think that when you have a powerful president backed by broad popular opinion, and then reinforced by this sort of cacophony of conservative voices — the Rush Limbaughs, the Bill O’Reilly’s, the Weekly Standard’s, Fox News and the like.
For journalists to actually go against that becomes very difficult. I think what we’ve seen is a failure of the press to really perform its historic role since Vietnam of really trying to stand up to those who are in power.
And I mean, that should be the job. Why are those stories on the inside pages? Why are they killed?
One Washington Post story by Tom Ricks seemed to me so important that Howard Kurz wrote about where he interviewed all these former military officers who had strong reservations. The story didn’t even make it into the inside pages.
I really think that we need a reassessment. And the one thing that I really applaud the Washington Post for what it did, but I feel the analysis of why it happened is lacking, and I wish that the Post would go deeper in trying to understand that.
TERENCE SMITH: Len Downie, do you think 9/11 was a factor in this or, as Michael Massing suggests, criticism from the right?
LEONARD DOWNIE: The part of his critique I disagree with is that we were somehow kowtowing or fearful of criticism of the right or fearful of a popular president.
That criticism continues to this day and as Mr. Massing’s pointed out in his most recent article in the New York Review of Books, the Washington Post and other major media organizations have done a lot of tough accountability reporting that has raised questions about a lot of the administration’s policies since the war began and continuing up until this date.
I think we’ve learned something from our failure to understand the problems with the WMD reporting at the outset, so if we were somehow fearful of that, we would be pulling our punches now. We weren’t pulling our purchases then. I think, as Mr. Massing points out in his critique of the reporting in Iraq itself. He says what goes on there is complicated. What goes on inside newsrooms is complicated as well. We did have 9/11. We did have the war on Afghanistan to cover. It was a difficult war to cover because journalists had to go there on their own and risk their lives to cover that war.
We had, during the run-up to the war, the Columbia Shuttle disaster, which occupied a lot of attention in newsrooms. There were a lot of things going on and I think that made it more difficult. Sometimes people confuse motive; that is to say whether or not we are pulling our punches, with just the workload we have and concentration.
I think the main problem American media have in this fast moving multimedia world is keeping our eye on the ball all the time or keeping several eyes on several balls all the time. And I think we took our eye of that particular ball during that particular period — I think we have been pretty tough since then.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Massing, what do you think of that explanation?
MICHAEL MASSING: Well, I think Mr. Downie’s right. I think the Washington Post has done a very good job, in many respects, since the war.
In fact, I have said that it has led the way to some degree. I feel that it is making up for some of its past mistakes but let me say that I think it is happening at a time when, in a way, it is almost – it’s not as hard to do. The president’s popularity has gone down.
The war is gone awry in many ways. Everybody is right writing this type of thing. And The Washington Post is doing it very well.
The test will be when once again we have a conventional wisdom, everybody sort of out there giving voice to a position, we need to do this, we need to do that.
Here’s what the president wants — when it’s difficult to do — when the conventional wisdom has congealed. That will be the test of whether the press has truly learned its lesson.
TERENCE SMITH: But you suggest, Michael Massing, in your article that this is in some ways this is a continuing problem, that when it comes to reporting on the recent terror alert or reporting from embedded reporters in Iraq that you still find this reporting to be, in your word, compliant. Is that right?
MICHAEL MASSING: Well, what I find is that there is a pack mentality that goes on. The Abu Ghraib scandal, for instance, at first nobody wanted to touch it. It was sort of a, people didn’t know what to do with it.
Then suddenly those photos come up, it gets ratified as an important story. Everybody is on it. I mean the New York Times, I think for a month, had a front page story virtually ‘n’ stop. I almost thought it got too much. Then the transfer of power occurred in Iraq and the story dropped for like a month or more, it really was not on the front page very much.
Now suddenly with all the activity in Najaf and elsewhere, the press is going back and I even feel that now that we lack the basic tools, that the press is doing a good job on the day-to-day, play-by-play basis. But in terms of the underlying sort of tectonic changes that are taking place in Iraq politically, the press doesn’t have the tools.
There is more need to step back and tell the American people what is the significance of these day-to-day events.
TERENCE SMITH: Are news organizations doing that in your view, Len Downie? I mean, are they stepping back, are they asking the tough questions?
When a terror alert is announced by the administration or elevated, do they look at that in a analytical fashion, as well as a straight reporting information fashion?
LEONARD DOWNIE: Actually with the most recent terror alert, that’s precisely what happened.
The day after the alert made the front page, there were front page stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times pointing out that the information in which the alert was base was dated, that most of that reconnaissance of the financial institutions that led to the alert in Washington and New York had actually been accomplished before 9/11, and that there wasn’t much fresh activity, at least at that point reported by the administration — there was a lot of skepticism and questions raised about that particular alert.
But I do agree with Mr. Massing that, what I see is the main problem in reporting of this particular kind is dealing with conventional wisdom. We all suffer from that.
Citizens suffer from it, governments suffer from it and so does the media.
And thinking your way around the conventional wisdom is always a challenge to us, and it is a challenge we are trying to now meet in Iraq, it’s a challenge we are trying to meet with the so-called war against terrorism.
TERENCE SMITH: Len Downie, let me get your reaction to a quote in the Howard Kurz story from Karen de Young, a very distinguished editor and reporter at the Post who said, quote, “we are inevitably the mouth piece for whatever administration is in power.
If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said.” Is that the way you see your role?
LEONARD DOWNIE: We have an obligation to report what the president says or what the Congress says or what the Supreme Court says.
And then we have an obligation to test it and to question whether or not what was said was sound, was based on the facts, whether or not there is another part of the story that was not given out by government. I don’t think it makes us a mouth piece.
I think we’re required to report. I think our readers expect that. Our democracy depends on our reporting what government says and then our job is to question what government says. I think most of the time we do a good job on that. There are times when we’ve not.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Massing?
MICHAEL MASSING: Well, I think you put your finger on a key quote there. My eyebrows went up when I saw that mouthpiece quote as well. I’m very unsettled by that. I think that – one journalist at the Post actually when I was doing my research told me, he looked back nostalgically and said we used to do something called truth squading.
When a president gave a speech we put a number of reporters on it and the next day we would have here what was right, here what was wrong. Here’s analysis. And he was saying we can’t do that anymore. It’s seen as too confrontational.
I think the Colin Powell speech at the UN last year was a perfect case where that truth squading was needed. Instead, the Post did act as a mouthpiece, so did the rest of the media.
That was a moment of key frustration for me and again I hope if an administration official gives a speech that key in the future that the Post and other news organizations will put some stories on the front page side-by-side with a report on the speech itself which must get reported — that will give yours right then and there in real-time, both the speech and an assessment of it.
LEONARD DOWNIE: Well, we actually did that – if I can — for a second, with the Colin Powell speech.
We did it in two entire pages inside the paper in which we broke the speech down to six or eight parts – I can’t remember how many parts it was in — and had an expert on each of the areas analyze the evidence in which Colin Powell was making his assertions and it questioned a number of those assertions.
It didn’t appear on the front page because it literally took up two inside pages. And we did tell the reader on the front page that this analysis appeared inside.
I strongly believe in the truth squading. I believe we do it now. We often do it in the analyses that we present with presidential speeches. I don’t know which reporter felt that perhaps one of their truth squading pieces didn’t get the play it should get.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Leonard Downie, Michael Massing, thank you both very much.