Mea Culpas at the Washington Post


Even as the bombs were dropping on Najaf, Nasiriya and Kut, the Washington Post was ladling out heaps of remorse for its abysmal coverage in the lead up to the war.

“We did our job but we didn’t do enough, and I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder,” opined veteran Bob Woodward

Following a tradition established by the New York Times, the Post offered soothing bromides to assuage their guilt, producing a lengthily front page story apologizing for its role in misleading the American people to war.

One can only hope that the Iraqis whose lives have been ruined or whose family members have been killed will receive a copy for their sacrifice. Perhaps, it could be used as a blanket after their homes are turned into rubble by the latest “coalition” bombing raids.

The war in Iraq was as much the Post’s invention as it was Bush’s or Cheney’s. Presidents don’t lead the charge to war….the media does. The best Bush could have done was stand in front of the camera and thump his chest. It takes a well-oiled propaganda machine to whip the public into war fever.

Noam Chomsky calls it “manufacturing consent”, the manipulating of information to produce support for (otherwise) unpopular policies.

At the Post they just call it “a good day’s work.”

Buried in the rambling, prevaricating 3000 word mea culpa, Thomas Ricks admits, “The paper was not front-paging stuff. Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?”

Yeah, why worry? No one at the Post would be dragging around in the dessert in 120 degree heat getting shot at by the natives.

No one at the Post would have family members vaporized by errant coalition missiles or “trigger-happy” MP’s. Ricks remarks manifest the cavalier attitude towards the suffering generated by this “unnecessary” war. It’s also a tacit admission of the Post’s servility to Washington powerbrokers….”We’re going to war, why worry about it?”

“The result was,” as the Post admits, “coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times.”

One sided?

Along with the New York Times, the Washington Post is perhaps the most widely syndicated news in the country. Their stories not only inform the national debate (on any given topic), but also establish the rationale for military action. The apocryphal stories that appeared on the front page of the Post were the basis for an illegal invasion and countless deaths.

Perhaps, the editors of the Post would like to disguise (with false modesty) the fact that the case for war can only be made with the complicity of American media elites. It is the “Judith Millers” who adroitly bend the facts to make aggression seem like the only option.

It’s clear that the Post understood the effect of leading with stories that supported the Administrations allegations: “The front page is a newspaper’s billboard, its way of making a statement about what is important, and stories trumpeted there are often picked up by other news outlets. Woodward, for his part, said it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly if weapons were ultimately found in Iraq. Woodward said of the weapons coverage: ‘I think I was part of the groupthink.’” (Post)

Absent from “backpedaling Bob” Woodward’s lighthearted approach to news gathering (“It was just groupthink”) is any mention of the dissenting or skeptical voices that were at “full throat” before the war, but scrupulously omitted from the pages of the Post.

Also, absent was any debate on the inane assumption that weapons “in and of themselves” (without any proof of aggressive intent) are reason for military action. (a notion that is still unchallenged by any western media)

Once again, this illustrates how the media has shifted the debate on the legitimacy of “preemption” (“unprovoked aggression”) further to the right. (If lethal weapons alone were the criteria for vindicating hostile action, the US and Israel would be in grave danger.)

Instead, “from August 2002 through the March 19, 2003, launch of the war, The Post ran more than 140 front-page stories that focused heavily on administration rhetoric against Iraq. Some examples: “Cheney Says Iraqi Strike Is Justified”; “War Cabinet Argues for Iraq Attack”; “Bush Tells United Nations It Must Stand Up to Hussein or U.S. Will”; “Bush Cites Urgent Iraqi Threat”; “Bush Tells Troops: Prepare for War.” (Post)

It would be interesting to know whether Bob Woodward considered this plethora of stories just more innocent “groupthink” or a concerted effort to feed the pre-war hysteria.

Regardless, we can see by its own admission that the Post contributed immeasurably to the propaganda campaign that misled the American public about the imaginary Iraqi threat.

And, what happened when a reporter finally came forward and produced a story that reflected skepticism about the Administrations claims: “In October 2002, (Thomas) Ricks, a former national security editor for the Wall Street Journal who has been covering such issues for 15 years, turned in a piece that he titled “Doubts.” It said that senior Pentagon officials were resigned to an invasion but were reluctant and worried that the risks were being underestimated. Most of those quoted by name in the Ricks article were retired military officials or outside experts. The story was killed by Matthew Vita, then the national security editor and now a deputy assistant managing editor.” (Post)

So, the few stories the Post actually produced that veered from “saber-rattling” of the Bush claque were quickly run through the office shredder and consigned to the ash heap.

Undoubtedly, just another oversight. Or as one of the Post editors blithely summarized, “Overall, in retrospect, we underplayed some of those stories.”

Conversely, stories that seemed to lack any credibility were boldly printed on the front page.

“On Dec. 12, 2002, investigative reporter Barton Gellman wrote a controversial piece: “U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent from Iraqis.”

The story, attributed to “two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report” to the Bush administration “and its source,” said in the second paragraph that “if the report proves true” — a whopper of a qualifier — it would be “the most concrete evidence” yet to support Bush’s charge that Iraq was helping terrorists.” (Post)

In other words, any story that registered disbelief was abandoned, but even the most far fetched story (like Gellman’s) that supported an invasion was slapped up on the front page.

Is this what the editors at the Post call “underplayed”?

How is this any different from the way FOX News “underplays” their coverage?

Similarly, any of the prominent members of the Administration could make whatever assertions that supported their case for war and be assured of a spot on page one. As reporter Karen DeYoung averred, “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power. If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said.”

The Forth Estate is frequently chided for being the “stenographers to power,” but it’s rare when someone (like DeYoung) accepts that moniker with such apparent pride.

No Regrets

Rather than wrapping up their feeble apology with some well deserved humility, the Post article withers into an apathetic disclaimer that absolves them of any responsibility:

“Whether a tougher approach by The Post and other news organizations would have slowed the rush to war is, at best, a matter of conjecture.” (Post)

“People who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical of the media’s coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war. They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media’s coverage had been different, there wouldn’t have been a war.” (Post)

What?

So, after providing the reader with a 3000 word article detailing the months of shoddy reporting and warmongering hype (including the myriad misleading headlines) the Post is shrugging its shoulders and denying any responsibility for the war?

Unbelievable.

Their concluding remarks can only be construed as a blanket disclaimer that absolves them of all accountability.

What fools we are to think that those who are entrusted with “maintaining the institutions of democracy through an informed public” have any responsibility to report the truth.

The Post may succeed in convincing its readership that it is blameless, but the soaring body count in devastated Iraq tells a different story.

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