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the press' reporting on wmd

Who got it wrong, who got it right, and how FRONTLINE fared.

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A Washington Post story

Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller has come to symbolize the media's credulous reporting on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Miller has been criticized for pre-war stories, including at least one which relied on Iraqi defectors opposed to Saddam, and her embedded reporting on the ultimately fruitless hunt for weapons after the invasion.

But there is plenty of blame to go around. A March 2004 report by the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies examined the media's coverage of weapons of mass destruction before the war and just after. It concluded that, on the whole, the media tended to lump together all types of WMD, gave too much credence to the administration's arguments and failed to air dissenting views.

Two months later, the editors of The New York Times published an editors' note assessing the paper's Iraq coverage. "In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged," the editors wrote. "Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged -- or failed to emerge." The notes did not name names, but most of the specific stories cited were written or co-written by Miller.

Daniel Okrent, then-public editor of the The New York Times, went further in his column on the paper's mea culpa. His summary could have applied to many other media outlets: "Some of the Times coverage in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines; and several fine articles ... that challenged information in the faulty stories were played as quietly as a lullaby."

According to the New York Review of Books' Michael Massing (subscription required), the Washington Post's coverage of Colin Powell's February 2003 speech before the United Nations fell into a similar pattern: front-page stories and editorials praised the presentation, while a skeptical article by Joby Warrick ran on page A29. A month later, two articles by Post writer Walter Pincus (one co-authored by Dana Milbank) received similar placement, on pages A17 and A13.

The onset of war did little to revive the skepticism of many reporters who covered the hunt for WMD. The liberal media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) documented reports by news teams ranging from Fox News to NPR trumpeting the discovery of banned weapons, then having to issue retractions.

Some media was more dogged in challenging the administration line on WMD. The Times editors' note singled out newspaper chain Knight Ridder for praise. Indeed, Knight Ridder reporters Warren Stroebel and Jonathan Landay received an award from the Senate Press Gallery for their work. But Knight Ridder, which was acquired by rival McClatchy in 2006, did not own a New York or Washington paper, and its reporting did not carry the heft of the Times' or the Post's with the general public.

Nonetheless, some reporters from those papers got the story right. In January 2003, the aforementioned Joby Warrick wrote a page-one story questioning the Bush administration's claims about Iraq's nuclear program; Bob Drogin and Maggie Farley had a similar story on the front page of the Sunday L.A. Times that weekend. And in October 2002, Post White House correspondent Dana Milbank, who later collaborated with Walter Pincus on the eve of war, wrote an article titled "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable", evaluating the president's statements on Iraq and other issues.

New York Times military reporter Michael Gordon, who co-authored with Judith Miller the controversial Sept. 8, 2002 story about Iraq's nuclear program, revisited the topic in a more critical light in January 2003. Times writers Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker wrote on the Pentagon's internal intelligence group in October 2002. Also that month, Times intelligence reporter James Risen cast doubt on the assertion that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, Czech Republic.

Despite these prominent critical stories, the bulk of the media coverage in the lead-up to the war largely accepted the administration's case for war. Months after the war had begun, however, Knight Ridder's Jonathan Landay helped break another major story: that between October 2001 and May 2002, Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC) had placed its defectors and intelligence in 108 news stories.

Judith Miller, again, is perhaps the most notorious recipient of INC "product" -- she e-mailed Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns, perhaps hyperbolically, that Chalabi had "provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper" -- but the list included stories run in many elite media outlets, and on FRONTLINE.

In November 2001, FRONTLINE and The New York Times collaborated on an investigation that yielded Chris Hedges' Nov. 8 cover story "Defectors Cite Iraqi Training for Terrorism" and the FRONTLINE report "Gunning for Saddam."

The article and a segment of the documentary cited two Iraqi defectors, provided by the INC, who said they had worked at an Iraqi government training camp at Salman Pak, south of Baghdad, that had been training Islamic terrorists since 1995. Both the story and the documentary identified the defectors' interviews as having been arranged by the INC, and both featured quotes from American officials casting doubts on their claims.

But in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the INC and its information were discredited. In 2003, FRONTLINE interviewed Chalabi for the report "Truth, War and Consequences" and asked him about the INC and its defectors. His response was, "We're in Baghdad now;" in other words, misinformation didn't concern him.

In November 2005, FRONTLINE placed editors' notes on the discredited interviews with the two INC defectors, as well as on the interview with Khidhi Hamza, a former Iraqi nuclear scientist whose claims about Iraq's nuclear program also have proved to be unfounded.

In the March/April 2006 issue of Mother Jones, Jack Fairweather revisited the INC's misinformation campaign -- and its funding from the U.S. State Department. He also reported that not only had the Times and FRONTLINE been fed misinformation, but that one of the defectors, who claimed to be an Iraqi lieutenant general, may have been an impostor. In response to the article, FRONTLINE's executive editor Louis Wiley Jr. acknowledged the misinformation and the possibility that the defector could have been an imposter. He concluded:

"'Gunning for Saddam' was one of the first broadcast reports to give the American people an early look at the forces pushing for war against Iraq. Airing less than two months after 9/11, while attention was focused on Al Qaeda and Afghanistan, this FRONTLINE correctly anticipated what was coming next. And, for this, perhaps we deserve some credit."

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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