Peace journalism case study: US media coverage of the Iraq War
Marianne Perez de Fransius
Peace Is Sexy, Sweden
The peace journalism model can give journalists and their audiences a fuller understanding of conflict and alternatives to violence. In this way, journalists can avoid falling prey to political war rhetoric veiled in peace and humanitarian language or other military tactics. As Philip Hammond notes, ‘American military muscle was thus to be given new meaning in the post-Cold War era, no longer as a guarantor of the West’s freedoms against the menace of communism but as the steel fist inside a humanitarian velvet glove’ (2007: 38). In coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War, the ‘velvet glove’ appeared in the form of American and British political leaders claiming that an invasion of Iraq was necessary to protect their populations from the threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and to bring freedom and democracy to the people of Iraq; that argument was barely questioned by the mainstream media.
Galtung offers some concrete points in his vision of peace journalism and war journalism, as interpreted by Lynch and McGoldrick. Essentially, Galtung is calling for journalists covering conflicts to use conflict analysis skills. Just as health journalists have some specialized knowledge of medicine and medical issues in order to better write stories, journalists covering war, violence and conflict should know how to analyze a conflict properly.
In order to better understand what conflict analysis is, let us examine the most recent American invasion of Iraq. We look at how war journalism reported it and how it could have been understood differently – and more accurately – through the lens of peace journalism using the tools of conflict analysis. We will do this by systematically analyzing each of the items in Galtung’s peace journalism-war journalism table, a paired example approach. This analysis will serve both as an in-depth exploration of Galtung’s journalism table and as a demonstration of alternative avenues for reporting war. Examples come from various American media including the New York Times, National Public Radio (NPR), Newsweek, and smaller media.
1 War and violence orientated – peace and conflict orientated
War journalism (WJ): Focus on conflict arena, 2 parties, 1 goal (win) war. The conflict was portrayed as the USA versus Iraq, more precisely, George W. Bush versus Saddam Hussein. This is epitomized by Newsweek’s cover on 30 September 2002 with portraits of Hussein and Bush and, between them, the headline ‘Who Will Win?’. It presumes that the only two actors are Bush and Hussein and they have the same incompatible goal: win the war (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2005: 7).
Peace journalism (PJ): Explore conflict formation, x parties, y goals, z issues. This view assumes a wider perspective of the conflict, looking at Bush and Hussein, as well as the various persons and groups within their governments and states, political and military allies, the military-industrial complex, the Kurdish minority in Iraq, United Nations weapons inspectors, French and German heads of state, protestors opposed to the invasion … PJ also examines each party’s goals and issues. For Bush, an analysis would question if Bush’s goal was really to deflect the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, or if it had something to do with securing oil for ‘the American way of life’, landing big contracts for corporations or building up a long-term American military presence in the Middle East. Issues Bush was facing included decreased popularity, a lagging economy and possibly a psychosis of fear induced by September 11.
WJ: General zero-sum orientation. This is the belief that only one party can win and that both parties aim to win. This view is based on classical international relations game theory. The outcomes are limited to: 1. Bush wins, Saddam loses; 2. Saddam wins, Bush loses. The zero-sum orientation tends to be the default reporting style, as illustrated by the Newsweek cover and headline cited above.
PJ: General ‘win, win’ orientation. This orientation considers that if the parties work together they can enhance both their positions. Regarding oil, one possibility would have been for Iraq to give the USA full access to its reserves, ensuring the American supply and allowing Iraq to maintain control over it, even making a profit from the sales. In this way, the USA would be assured of its oil supply and Saddam Hussein would retain control of his oil fields. This proposal was actually suggested by Hussein prior to the invasion, but was ignored (Risen, 2003: 1). If mainstream journalism had the win-win orientation, a very different public discourse would have ensued around the above proposals, potentially avoiding an American invasion.
WJ: Closed space, closed time; causes and exits in arena, who threw the first stone. This type of coverage was especially evident when the US administration started beating on the war drums. On 12 September 2002, George W. Bush addressed the United Nations General Assembly in an effort to convince fellow heads of state that Iraq posed a threat to world security (Miller and Gordon, 2002). Little mention was made of previous US–Iraq entanglements. Coverage only delved into the past to demonstrate links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. The invasion was portrayed as the only possible course of action as a result of Iraq’s supposed weapons program.
PJ: Open space, open time; causes and outcomes anywhere, also in history/culture. Journalists could have considered alternatives to the invasion, examined proposals put forth by Iraq, France, Germany and the United Nations, considered what the likely outcomes would be of an invasion, and recognized it as a militaristic ‘steel fist inside a humanitarian velvet glove’ (Hammond, 2007: 38). Journalists could have asked tougher questions about the contradiction of using massive military force to uphold civil liberties.
WJ: Making wars opaque/secret. This point is probably the most closely related to how journalists act as an extension of the Department of Defense by parroting official statements and adhering to the news agenda set by the DoD’s Public Affairs Office. The reasons for the US invasion of Iraq were kept secret, and most reporters echoed the official weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and regime change arguments (Boot, 2003). The extent to which there were cover-ups and secrecy has become clearer since then with evidence that relevant intelligence information had been kept from Congress and the American people, that there was a deliberate misinformation campaign, that the Iraq–Al-Qaeda link was fabricated.
PJ: Making conflicts transparent. While the DoD must certainly have some legitimate reasons for keeping some information top secret, it is also the public’s right to know how their tax dollars are being spent. It is the job of journalists to insist the government address citizens’ concerns. This policy may seem counter-intuitive in the classic international relations approach in which conflicts are viewed as a high-level poker game, with each player hiding his cards and anteing, raising the stakes and bluffing, based on assumptions about the others’ strategy and psychology. In contrast, the school of conflict transformation tries to foster as much communication and dialogue as possible amongst the parties. Galtung, however, is particularly careful to not bring the parties together too soon. Rather, he begins by working with each party individually so that it can fully understand what its needs and position are in the conflict.
WJ: ‘Us-them’ journalism, propaganda, voice for ‘us’. This is perhaps most easily seen in journalists covering the military beat. It comes out clearly when we see that the number of US soldiers is meticulously counted and reported, whereas the number of Iraqi dead is based on guesswork. Furthermore, there is sloppiness in distinguishing between Iraqi civilians, soldiers and freedom fighters. It is as if it doesn’t really matter who was killed since they are just Iraqis. ‘Roadside Blasts Kill U.S. GI, 11 Iraqis’ (AP, 2006) offers typical coverage: ‘bombings[…] killed a U.S. soldier and at least 11 Iraqis’. The story goes on to offer a few details about the soldier, but makes no attempt to discuss the Iraqi victims.
PJ: Giving voice to all parties; empathy, understanding. This precept of peace journalism already exists to an extent in so-called ‘human interest pieces’; for example, looking at the effects of war on the life of a particular Baghdadi family or delving into the role of the Kurdish minority. While most attempts are earnest, there is a danger of these pieces having an Orientalist tone with the reporter deliberately picking the most exotic stories because they are the most provocative and then treating the interviewees as subjects, or even objects, to be studied and observed. Genuine empathy and curiosity create openings through which these voices can be heard. Journalists who write this kind of story would greatly benefit from Marshall Rosenberg’s techniques in non-violent communication.
WJ: See ‘them’ as the problem, focus on who prevails in war. This was evident when Secretary of State Colin Powell made his presentation at the UN on Iraq’s WMD program and argued for a US invasion. Blame was squarely placed by the administration – and supported by the American press – on the Iraqi government. Patriotic journalism was filled with estimates on how long it would take for American troops to prevail and bring order and justice to the world. Stories on the US’s military tactics for toppling Saddam Hussein appeared as early as April 2002, nearly a year before the American invasion happened (Shanker and Sanger, 2002). Offering such coverage, so early prior to the actual military intervention, in effect acts as publicity for the military point of view. Such coverage legitimizes and reinforces it, making war seem logical and inevitable.
PJ: See conflict/war as problem, focus on conflict creativity. In the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, there was a lack of coverage in the mainstream media of the anti-war protests that took place worldwide. The 15 February 2003 anti-war protests were the largest ones ever on record with estimates varying from eight to 30 million protestors worldwide. Such a huge event received relatively little coverage, particularly in the USA. Furthermore, there was little coverage of the protesters’ point of view and their arguments against this specific war and war in general.3 A search in the New York Times (NYT) archive for the terms ‘protest’ and ‘Iraq’ for the month of February 2003 yielded six stories covering the national protests on 15 February 2003, six covering the protests abroad and one story giving both the domestic and international perspective. All these stories appeared on 16 February 2003.
WJ: Dehumanization of ‘them’; more so the worse the weapon. Consistently, Iraqis are given the epithet ‘insurgent’ or ‘terrorist’. Ross Howard believes these terms are emotional and such ‘words take sides, make the other side seem impossible to negotiate with. Call people what they call themselves’ (2004: 16). While most journalists wouldn’t question the use of the term ‘terrorist’, some consideration of the term and its connotations sheds light on how demonizing and dehumanizing the term is. In fact, since the war in Iraq, both the BBC and Reuters have made editorial decisions to stop making unattributed use of the term.
PJ: Humanization of all sides; more so the worse the weapon. This was done to a certain extent when the US military’s use of white phosphorus in Fallujah was made public. Stories, however, tended to center more on the use of white phosphorus and the controversy within the military rather than on the Iraqi suffering.4 Similar coverage existed with the Abu Ghraib torture incidents. More could be done to humanize and empathize with the victims.
WJ: Reactive: waiting for violence before reporting. Interest in Iraq only began when the war and violence were imminent. Coverage is still dominated by updates on the number of people killed or bombs detonated (AP, 2006). Occasionally there is a report on Iraqi elections or the growth of democracy, but the nation-building frame is not reinforced as much as the war frame.
PJ: Proactive: prevention before any violence/war occurs. Peace proposals and anti-war protestors could have received more serious coverage. Iraq, the United Nations, France and Germany all made proposals to prevent war and violence (Erlanger, 2002; Risen, 2003: 1), but these were not given much credit by the American press. Had they considered these alternatives more seriously, perhaps the administration would have been more deliberate in its decision to invade Iraq.
WJ: Focus only on visible effect of violence (killed, wounded and material damage). Reports on the Iraq War count the dead, the wounded, the bombs detonated and the buildings and tanks damaged (AP, 2006). In Galtung’s terms, the focus is on direct violence.
PJ: Focus on invisible effects of violence (trauma and glory, damage to structure/culture). There is almost no coverage of structural or cultural violence. The extent of this type of reporting is on post-traumatic stress disorder of returning soldiers.5 Mainstream media has almost no stories on the damage done to family structures (Sengupta, 2004), to cultural institutions, the implications of a disrupted school education, etc.
2 Propaganda orientated – truth orientated
WJ: Expose ‘their’ untruths / help ‘our’ cover-ups/lies. Perhaps the greatest cover-up of the American invasion of Iraq was the alleged connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and the WMD dossier. Allusions that Iraq supported Al-Qaeda began appearing in August 2002 (Erlanger, 2002; Janofsky, 2002). This assertion is now considered bunk (Jehl, 2005). The New York Times reported on 25 September 2002 that Britain had confirmed intelligence that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons (Hoge, 2002). It turns out that this claim was based on ‘flawed intelligence assessments’ (New York Times, 2004). Iraqi denials of a WMD program were deemed untrue (Sanger, 2002).
PJ: Expose untruths on all sides / uncover all cover-ups. The extent to which the administration distorted the truth becomes clearer and clearer with each passing day. Unfortunately, the information comes at a time when it is too late to avert war. Furthermore, the efforts to expose all the untruths and cover-ups were diverted by the Department of Justice’s whistle-blower investigations, which attempted to place blame on insiders who leaked information about the cover-ups, rather than on the administration’s cover-ups (On the Media, 2006)
3 Elite orientated – people orientated
WJ: Focus on ‘our’ suffering; on able-bodied elite males, being their mouth-piece. Embedded reporters served primarily this function – to report on the war from the point of view of young, virile soldiers. The DoD’s tactic of allowing American reporters to experience the war with troops on the ground made it easy for journalists to see first hand the suffering of American soldiers. While certainly they witnessed what happened to the Iraqis, because the reporters were protected by and mobilized with the American troops, their ties were much stronger there (Meyers, 2010).
PJ: Focus on suffering all over; on women, aged, children, giving voices to the voiceless. Again, this is somewhat achieved with human interest pieces. Another interesting development was the attention Cindy Sheehan brought to the grief of parents who lost their children in Iraq. While Sheehan’s empathy extends to grieving Iraqi parents, little has been done by the American media to cover their stories, or the countless other voiceless sufferers. A search in the NYT archive generated no stories of Iraqi parents who lost their children in the war, but did turn up one human interest piece on Baghdadi teenage girls’ difficulties in pursuing their education and going out alone (Sengupta, 2004). Most of the 82 other stories that turned up in the search focused on American suffering and the loss of American parents.
WJ: Give name to their evil-doers. From the beginning, Saddam Hussein was characterized as the primary evil-doer. The US military even went so far to print a deck of cards with the 52 most wanted Iraqis (Van Natta and Jehl, 2003). Some journalists even referred to captured Iraqi leaders according to their position in the deck (Worth, 2003).
PJ: Give name to all evil-doers. Any reference to the Bush administration’s violation of international laws and treaties was considered either unpatriotic or fanatically liberal. The media could do much more to examine this and previous administrations’ record of unwarranted violence around the world. By failing to do so, violence is legitimized. In a typical story, ‘The roots of Abu Ghraib: A President beyond the law’, Anthony Lewis (2004) presents the administration’s case for defying domestic and international law in about 710 words and only devotes about 115 words to criticism of the policy. Furthermore, criticism comes in the guise of a reference to Justice Lewis Brandeis and his 75-year-old plea to lead by example. The media should be more assertive in its denunciation of egregious and illegal conduct.
WJ: Focus on elite peace-makers. Aside from Cindy Sheehan’s voice, the voice that has received the most coverage for withdrawing troops from Iraq has been Congressional Representative John Murtha’s (Stout, 2005). Only when a respected legislator emphatically requested withdrawal of troops was the proposition seriously entertained in the mainstream media.
PJ: Focus on people peace-makers. There is limited coverage of peace groups working in the USA to end the war. Members of the Christian Peacemakers Team only appeared in the media when their members were kidnapped (Kayal, 2006). The mainstream media mentioned nothing about other grassroots peace teams that have gone to Iraq or Iraqi organizations and individuals working for peace, such as the Muslim Peacemakers Team, Women for a Free Iraq and Iraqi Organization for the Defense of Journalists. Even the alternative media is disappointingly silent in its coverage of Iraqi peace groups.
4 Victory orientated – solution orientated
WJ: Peace = victory + ceasefire. This understanding of peace stems from a classic international relations view and the lack of journalistic training in conflict analysis. It disregards the efforts necessary before and after a ceasefire agreement is signed. Indeed, it attempts to make peace an event and give it a date. This view does not take into account basic needs on either side and therefore fails to see that a ceasefire is likely to be breached with rising frustrations. On 2 May 2003, the day following Bush’s announcement that ‘major combat’ was over, NYT’s Michael Gordon (2003) wrote, ‘American forces are operating in a netherworld between war and peace’. For over eight years after that, American forces were in limbo. Gordon’s understanding of peace was quite misguided.
PJ: Peace = non-violence + creativity. Galtung’s equation for peace means that peace is not simply the absence of violence, it is actively engaging in non-violence, and doing so requires creativity. In his vision, journalists create the space for and propose non-violent solutions for conflicts. But, in order to do so, journalists need to be properly trained in conflict analysis and transformation. It begins by understanding that peace is something that needs to be worked at constantly, not just in order to negate war, but to actively engage in peace.
WJ: Conceal peace initiative, before victory is at hand. This relates to the WJ understanding of peace: it only comes when there is a victory and ceasefire. Coverage of the Iraq War is devoid of any mention of peace initiatives, most likely because journalists do not see any. While there are public calls for troop withdrawal, there has been no mention of American–Iraqi reconciliation.
PJ: Highlight peace initiative, also to prevent more war. PJ looks into ongoing proposals for reconciliation, transformation and reconstruction. While military correspondents plot troop movements and achievements (Gordon, 2003), peace correspondents should be abreast of peace initiatives and create a space for public dialogue. This can prevent escalation of war and future conflicts resorting to violence.
WJ: Focus on treaty, institution, the controlled society. Galtung clarifies, ‘The classical war-based approach end[s] typically with a ceasefire agreement, possibly with a capitulation, based on the winner-loser idea. The point, then, is to control the loser’s society so there is no mischief’ (2006). This type of coverage can be seen in pieces after Hussein’s capitulation in which the American military presence in Iraq is necessary in order to bring order and democracy to Iraq. The slogan of instilling democracy has so far just been a pretext for maintaining US control of Iraq for defense or economic reasons. Indeed, true democracy cannot be implemented with bullets, especially foreign ones, over ballots.
PJ: Focus on structure, culture, the peaceful society. The task of PJ is to help unveil a culture of peace. Instead of justifying control of a society, it should report on initiatives that rebuild the structures and cultures of society in a peaceful way. As John Paul Lederach states, in all societies there are always individuals or groups with visions of peace. Grassroots organizations, women’s associations and religious groups are but a few examples of those working on shifting from cultures and structures of violence to those of peace. Often their stories are remarkable and their work inspiring (1997: 94).
WJ: Leaving for another war, return if the old flares up again. In the USA, the war drums started beating for an attack on Iran shortly after Bush declared victory (Gordon, 2003). It seems that the novelty of Iraq has worn off and it is time to turn to another escalating conflict. The question is: will journalists learn from their mistakes in covering Iraq or will they fall into the same propaganda traps and blinded understanding of the conflict? Of course, Iraq will not be completely forgotten, because when something goes awry in the ‘democracy building’ process, the media will shift its glare back to Iraq.
PJ: Aftermath: resolution, reconstruction, reconciliation. This begins with reporting on the active work of peace building. With a better understanding of conflict, journalists would understand the importance of transformation, reconstruction and reconciliation. Peace does not come when a head of state declares the end of a war or signs a treaty. Rather, it is an extensive and exciting process which should engage all levels of society in implementing a vision for their state. Reconstruction and reconciliation in themselves are rife with conflict which when properly addressed can be generative and constructive. There are many stories to be uncovered at this stage of a conflict.
This article gives an introduction to peace studies and compares and contrasts war journalism with peace journalism by presenting a case study of mainstream coverage of the Iraq War and alternatives to that reporting. A peace journalism approach would have opened up alternative ways for transcending the conflict between the United States and Iraq by bringing in more varied voices and points of view into the public conversation. This alternative is both comprehensive and viable (Lynch et al., 2011: 15) and can used for coverage of any subject journalists wish to cover. With the advent of social media and wider access to the internet giving more individuals the ability to replicate and disseminate information, some elements of peace journalism are already becoming prevalent, notably making conflicts transparent, giving voice to all parties, humanization of all sides, exposing untruths on all sides, focusing on suffering all over including on women, the aged, children and the voiceless.
While peace journalism presently exists largely in alternative media, Lynch et al. argue that peace journalism can help bridge the gap between mainstream and alternative media by giving mainstream journalists a chance to ‘wise up’, by providing activists an opportunity to move their messages from alternative to mainstream media, by democratizing the acquisition of content and by highlighting the calls for structural reform in mainstream media (2011: 28). According to Lynch et al. (2011: 20–21), the Hindustan Times responded to the 2008 Mumbai attacks with expanded peace journalism coverage, demonstrating that it is possible to undertake, even under duress. With the economic model of mainstream journalism being tested more and more, peace journalism may transcend the structural conflicts mainstream journalism faces daily.
On Iraq, journalists didn’t fail. They just didn’t succeed
Paul Farhi covers the news media for The Washington Post.
For much of the past decade, the American news media has chastised itself for how badly it performed in the months leading up to the war in Iraq. The 10th anniversary of the conflict, in particular, offered article after article this past week condemning the media’s “failure” to challenge the Bush administration’s rationale for the war, plus plenty of mea culpas by journalists.
There’s no doubt that many news organizations, including this one, missed important stories, underplayed others that were skeptical of the administration’s case and acted too deferentially to those in power. A few instances — such as the New York Times’ September 2002 report hyping Iraq’s aluminum tubes as evidence of a reconstituted nuclear program — have become infamous. The Times and The Washington Post have publicly examined and admitted their shortcomings.
But “failure” grossly oversimplifies what the media did and didn’t do before the war, and it ignores important reasons the reporting turned out the way it did. As new threats loom, from Iran to North Korea, better understanding these circumstances can help us assess what happened and whether we’re better positioned today.
Thousands of news stories and columns published before the war described and debated the administration’s plans and statements, and not all of them were supportive. Reporters at The Post, the Times, Knight Ridder, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek periodically produced stories that challenged the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq.
Some of these stories — too many — were not given prominence and, in the case of newspapers, didn’t make the front page. But it wasn’t impossible for skeptics of the war to connect the dots.
Iraq’s supposed links to terrorists? “The CIA has yet to find convincing evidence” connecting Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, The Post reported on its front page in September 2002.
Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction? President George W. Bush’s assertion that Baghdad had revived its nuclear program was disputed in January 2003 by International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who told the U.N. Security Council that his agency had no evidence that the program had been restarted. “After 2 Months, No Proof of Iraq Arms Programs,” was how the Los Angeles Times headlined the story.
The Post also revealed in early March that key evidence for Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was apparently fabricated. “Documents that purportedly showed Iraqi officials shopping for uranium in Africa two years ago were deemed ‘not authentic’ after careful scrutiny by U.N. and independent experts,” the story said.
Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, and particularly reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, have been rightly lionized for their skeptical stories, produced long before the rest of the media raised questions. But other outlets eventually came around. The Post, for example, cast doubt on Iraq’s aluminum tubes in a front-page story in January 2003. “After weeks of investigation, U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq are increasingly confident that the aluminum tubes were never meant for enriching uranium,” reporter Joby Warrick wrote.
On the Sunday before the war’s start, Post headlines included these: “U.S. Risks Isolation, Breakdown of Old Alliances in Case of War,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms” and “U.S. Missteps Led to Failed Diplomacy.” The lead story in that day’s Post was “Audacious Mission, Awesome Risks; Bold War Plan Emphasizes Lightning Attacks and Complex Logistics.”
Perhaps it was too late by then. But this doesn’t sound like failure.
After reviewing 576 news and opinion stories before and immediately after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, former New York Times columnist Leslie H. Gelb came to a less damning conclusion. “The elite press did not embarrass itself to the degree widely assumed — nor did it distinguish itself,” he wrote in 2009. “Only episodically did our best news outlets provide the necessary alternative information . . . ask the needed questions . . . or present insightful analysis about Iraq itself.”
A decade later, it’s easy to forget the circumstances in which journalists worked in the months before the invasion.
The war drums began beating less than a year after Sept. 11, 2001, when the public was still receptive to the alarming statements about Iraq made by Bush and his advisers. On Sept. 8, 2002, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN that it was unclear when Hussein might acquire a nuclear weapon but that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
Such pronouncements, capped by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003, “turned everyone irrational,” says Walter Pincus, the veteran Post reporter who wrote a series of stories challenging administration claims.
Congress’s unwillingness to stand up to the president was critical, says Michael Getler, a former Post foreign-news editor who is now the PBS ombudsman. There were no hearings that could have featured skeptical government experts disputing the official line.
The field was tilted. Administration officials hogged media attention with scary, on-the-record statements. On the other side, there were few authoritative sources countering them. Even Al Gore believed that Iraq had WMDs, said Doyle McManus, who covered the period for the Los Angeles Times.“The consensus was universal,” he says.
“If you want to say the press failed, you have to ask, what was the press supposed to do?” says Gerald F. Seib, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. “Did we get to the bottom of the claims of weapons of mass destruction? No, but no one did, either, including the United Nations, with all of the resources it brought to bear on that question.”
Two prominent skeptics of the administration, ElBaradei and U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, helped level the imbalance somewhat. But they were never going to command as much credibility among Americans as those in office, Pincus says.
That left anonymous sources. Pincus and other reporters found people in the intelligence community who questioned the administration’s case. But those with the most knowledge about classified material were unwilling to be identified publicly. And while anonymous sources are fine for suggesting the presence of smoke, they don’t cinch the case for fire.
In hindsight, The Post’s executive editor at the time, Leonard Downie Jr., says he regrets not giving Pincus’s stories more prominence (most of them landed in the neighborhood of A18). But even Pincus recognizes that no one outside Iraq really knew precisely what was happening inside Iraq. “If there’s disagreement inside the government about what’s true and what isn’t, how the hell can the press determine what’s true?” he says.
Many critics of the media’s prewar reporting seem to believe that a more confrontational press could have stopped the march into Iraq. That’s wishful thinking. It not only assumes that journalists could agree on the facts, it also implies that the media could single-handedly override the president’s influence and that of other leaders.
Downie believes that no amount of media skepticism would have stopped the administration. “We were going to war,” he said.
Could it happen again? The months preceding the invasion were fraught with wariness about unknowable threats — some of which were, of course, exaggerated. We’re susceptible to the
same panic as rogue states such as Iran and North Korea allegedly move toward the development of nuclear weapons. Such conditions can breed demagoguery.
But the news media’s memories of Iraq can be useful if they stiffen journalists’ backbones. The prewar reporting wasn’t a disaster. But it wasn’t good enough. We should remember why, if only so we aren’t doomed to repeat it.
Duped on Iraq War, has press learned?
By Paul Waldman, Special to CNN
March 19, 2013 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
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To be fair to the news media, they were up against an administration using diabolically clever techniques. To take just one example, in the fall of 2002, the administration leaked a story to The New York Times' Judith Miller claiming that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes clearly intended for use in centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
The truth, as we later found out, was that there was no Iraqi nuclear program, and the tubes in question would have been virtually useless for one. They were meant for conventional rockets. But the administration knew the exclusive would be too juicy for Miller to pass up. Her credulous account, passing all the administration's false claims on as a "scoop," appeared on the Times front page on September 8.
Vice President Dick Cheney then went on "Meet the Press" that very day and said, "It's now public that in fact he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring, through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge." So the administration planted a false story in the Times, then cited the false story on NBC, using the Times' imprimatur to bolster its credibility. That is some Jedi-level media manipulation.
Hans Blix: Why invading Iraq was a terrible mistake
Every major news organization, from national newspapers to television networks to magazines, was complicit to some degree in selling the public a brief of false information, from Hussein's allegedly terrifying arsenal of weapons of mass destruction to the fictional links between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda.
It wasn't that you couldn't find journalists questioning the official story, raising doubts about the administration's claims, and doing the hard work to determine what the truth was. You always can. Whenever there's a story that the media as a whole get wrong, there's always a reporter somewhere who got it right. The problem was that those voices were so much quieter, pushed so far to the edge of the national debate.
Even within some publications there was a tension. One of the journalistic heroes of the pre-war period was Washington Post national security reporter Walter Pincus, who reported the lack of evidence for the administration's hype. But his articles were buried deep within the paper, while the front page blared scary stories about the fearsome threat from Iraq and the Post's editorial page beat the drums for war. Asked later why his stories were shunted to the back pages, Pincus responded, "The Post was scared."
Opinion: Why the war in Iraq was fought for Big Oil
And so were much of the media. When there's a war in the offing, the flags are waving and dissenters are being called treasonous, the media's courage tends to slip away. Which is particularly regrettable, since the time when the government is pressing for war should be the time when they are more aggressive than ever, exploring every possibility and asking every question, over and over again if need be. That's the time when government is most likely to dissemble and deceive. That was when we most needed the press, and when its failure was the most costly.
So the next time people in power propose a new war -- and they will -- journalists need to ask some important questions. What are the limits of our understanding of this country we might invade? What are the motivations of the people pushing for the action? What evidence is the government offering to support its claims? Are there knowledgeable people who disagree, and what are they saying? Which of the government's claims have I investigated myself, and which am I taking on face value? What are the potential consequences of military action, good and bad, and have I explored them in enough detail? And in the context of Iraq, which questions do I wish I had asked last time around?
That's just a start, of course. Perhaps lessons have been learned, and the next time a president warns the American people that we have no choice but to invade another country or risk our doom, the press will do a better job of being skeptical, thoughtful and rigorous than it did 10 years ago. It couldn't do much worse.
From the Editors
The Times and Iraq
Published: May 26, 2004
Over the last year this newspaper has shone the bright light of hindsight on decisions that led the United States into Iraq. We have examined the failings of American and allied intelligence, especially on the issue of Iraq's weapons and possible Iraqi connections to international terrorists. We have studied the allegations of official gullibility and hype. It is past time we turned the same light on ourselves.
In doing so — reviewing hundreds of articles written during the prelude to war and into the early stages of the occupation — we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of. In most cases, what we reported was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time, much of it painstakingly extracted from intelligence agencies that were themselves dependent on sketchy information. And where those articles included incomplete information or pointed in a wrong direction, they were later overtaken by more and stronger information. That is how news coverage normally unfolds.
But 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 re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.
The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject matter, but many shared a common feature. They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on "regime change" in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks. (The most prominent of the anti-Saddam campaigners, Ahmad Chalabi, has been named as an occasional source in Times articles since at least 1991, and has introduced reporters to other exiles. He became a favorite of hard-liners within the Bush administration and a paid broker of information from Iraqi exiles, until his payments were cut off last week.) Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq. Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations — in particular, this one.
Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.
On Oct. 26 and Nov. 8, 2001, for example, Page 1 articles cited Iraqi defectors who described a secret Iraqi camp where Islamic terrorists were trained and biological weapons produced. These accounts have never been independently verified.
On Dec. 20, 2001, another front-page article began, "An Iraqi defector who described himself as a civil engineer said he personally worked on renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago." Knight Ridder Newspapers reported last week that American officials took that defector — his name is Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri — to Iraq earlier this year to point out the sites where he claimed to have worked, and that the officials failed to find evidence of their use for weapons programs. It is still possible that chemical or biological weapons will be unearthed in Iraq, but in this case it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that to our readers.
On Sept. 8, 2002, the lead article of the paper was headlined "U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts." That report concerned the aluminum tubes that the administration advertised insistently as components for the manufacture of nuclear weapons fuel. The claim came not from defectors but from the best American intelligence sources available at the time. Still, it should have been presented more cautiously. There were hints that the usefulness of the tubes in making nuclear fuel was not a sure thing, but the hints were buried deep, 1,700 words into a 3,600-word article. Administration officials were allowed to hold forth at length on why this evidence of Iraq's nuclear intentions demanded that Saddam Hussein be dislodged from power: "The first sign of a `smoking gun,' they argue, may be a mushroom cloud."
Five days later, The Times reporters learned that the tubes were in fact a subject of debate among intelligence agencies. The misgivings appeared deep in an article on Page A13, under a headline that gave no inkling that we were revising our earlier view ("White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons"). The Times gave voice to skeptics of the tubes on Jan. 9, when the key piece of evidence was challenged by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That challenge was reported on Page A10; it might well have belonged on Page A1.
On April 21, 2003, as American weapons-hunters followed American troops into Iraq, another front-page article declared, "Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert." It began this way: "A scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq's chemical weapons program for more than a decade has told an American military team that Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment only days before the war began, members of the team said."
The informant also claimed that Iraq had sent unconventional weapons to Syria and had been cooperating with Al Qaeda — two claims that were then, and remain, highly controversial. But the tone of the article suggested that this Iraqi "scientist" — who in a later article described himself as an official of military intelligence — had provided the justification the Americans had been seeking for the invasion.
The Times never followed up on the veracity of this source or the attempts to verify his claims.
A sample of the coverage, including the articles mentioned here, is online at nytimes.com/critique . Readers will also find there a detailed discussion written for The New York Review of Books last month by Michael Gordon, military affairs correspondent of The Times, about the aluminum tubes report. Responding to the review's critique of Iraq coverage, his statement could serve as a primer on the complexities of such intelligence reporting.
We consider the story of Iraq's weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.