I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Calls to investigate the media's pre-war behavior

(updated below)

A new report by the Pentagon's Inspector General documents what everyone other than the hardest core Bush followers already knows: namely, that "Intelligence provided by former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith to buttress the White House case for invading Iraq included 'reporting of dubious quality or reliability' that supported the political views of senior administration officials rather than the conclusions of the intelligence community" (see update below). It is vitally important to ensure that those who were responsible for the deceit that led us into Iraq are identified and held accountable.

But that responsibility extends beyond Bush officials into most of the nation's most influential media outlets. Gilbert Cranberg, former Editorial Page Editor of The Des Moines Register and Tribune and Professor of Journalism at the University of Iowa, has published a superb article at the excellent Nieman Watchdog site (affiliated with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard), in which he calls for a serious and independent investigation into the profound pre-war failures of our media:

As the war in Iraq nears its fourth anniversary, and with no end in sight, Americans are owed explanations. . . An explanation is due also for how the U.S. press helped pave the way for war. An independent and thorough inquiry of pre-war press coverage would be a public service. Not least of the beneficiaries would be the press itself, which could be helped to understand its behavior and avoid a replay.

Cranberg urges an independent investigation rather than "self-policing":

Better a study by outsiders than by insiders. Besides, journalism groups show no appetite for self-examination. Nor would a study by the press about the press have credibility. Now and then a news organization has published a mea culpa about its Iraq coverage, but isolated admissions of error are no substitute for comprehensive study.

Cranberg identifies twelve highly relevant, unresolved questions to illustrate the type of areas in need of meaningful inquiry, including:

* Why did the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau’s “against-the grain reporting” during the build-up to war receive such “disappointing play,” in the words of its former bureau chief?

* Why, on the eve of war, did the Washington Post’s executive editor reject a story by Walter Pincus, its experienced and knowledgeable national security reporter, that questioned administration claims of hidden Iraqi weapons and why, when the editor reconsidered, the story ran on Page 17?

* Why did the Post, to the “dismay” of the paper’s ombudsman, bury in the back pages or miss stories that challenged the administration’s version of events? Or, as Pincus complained, why did Post editors go “through a whole phase in which they didn’t put things on the front page that would make a difference” while, from August 2002 to the start of the war in March 2003, did the Post, according to its press critic, Howard Kurtz, publish “more than 140 front-page stories that focused heavily on administration rhetoric against Iraq”?

* Why did Michael Massing’s critique of Iraq-war coverage, in the New York Review of Books, conclude that “The Post was not alone. The nearer the war drew, and the more determined the administration seemed to wage it, the less editors were willing to ask tough questions. The occasional critical stories that did appear were…tucked well out of sight.”

* Why did the Times’s Thomas E. Friedman and other foreign affairs specialists, who should have known better, join the “let’s-go-to-war” chorus?

* Why did Colin Powell’s pivotal presentation to the United Nations receive immediate and overwhelming press approval despite its evident weaknesses and even fabrications?

* Why did the British press, unlike its American counterpart, critically dissect the speech and regard it with scorn?

* Why did the Associated Press wait six months, when the body count began to rise, to distribute a major piece by AP’s Charles Hanley challenging Powell’s evidence and why did Hanley say how frustrating it had been until then to break through the self-censorship imposed by his editors on negative news about Iraq?

These are all excellent questions, as are the others which Cranberg includes, as are many that are not on his list. And as he notes, none of this is particularly new, particularly when it comes to matters of war and the identification of an "enemy" by the government:

The shortcomings of Iraq coverage were not an aberration. Similar failure is a recurrent problem in times of national stress. The press was shamefully silent, for instance, when American citizens were removed from their homes and incarcerated solely because of their ancestry during World War II. Many in the press were cowed during McCarthyism’s heyday in the 1950s. Nor did the press dispute the case for the fact-challenged Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led to a greatly enlarged Vietnam war.

The press response to the build-up to the Iraq war simply is the latest manifestation of an underlying and ongoing reluctance to dissent from authority and prevailing opinion when emotions run high, especially on matters of war and peace, when the country most needs a questioning, vigorous press.

Much of this is just basic fear of challenging the prevailing wisdom and assertions of authority, as Elisabeth Bumiller infamously admitted and as almost certainly accounts for Joe Klein's willingness to express his allegedly anti-war views only in private. But the problems are also clearly institutional and have become ingrained in the national media outlets themselves. A truly probing examination of the media's extremely culpable pre-war behavior is, as Cranberg said, urgently needed -- both to prevent future debacles and to shine light on the true causes of our media's dysfunction.

UPDATE: The Post apparently made the embarrassingly sloppy mistake in its article on the Inspector General's Report of quoting from a previously report issued by Sen. Carl Levin, and not the Report issued by the Inspector General. They have appended a correction to the top of the article linked to in the first paragraph.

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