How poorly did the press corps do with Iraq!

MONDAY, MARCH 25, 2013

Paul Farhi, right and wrong: Yesterday, in the Post Outlook section, Paul Farhi considered the press corps’ performance in the run-up to war in Iraq.

In Farhi’s view, the press corps didn’t do as poorly as is widely said, though they also didn’t do well. We wouldn’t necessarily say he’s wrong in some of his overall judgments.

Let’s note two points on which Farhi is probably right, two points on which he seems to be wrong.

Would better coverage have affected the outcome? We’ll guess that Farhi is right in this judgment:
FARHI (3/24/13): 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.
We will guess that Farhi is right. It’s hard to imagine the kind of coverage which would have stopped the march to war. Of course, it’s also hard to imagine the American press corps creating any such coverage.

We’ll also guess that Farhi is pretty much right about this:
FARHI: In hindsight, The Post’s executive editor at the time, Leonard Downie Jr., says he regrets not giving [Walter] 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.
That’s true too, though we’re not sure it matters. There’s no way the press corps could have settled every factual question.

We’ll guess that Farhi is basically right about these and several other matters. But even now, ten years later, the logic of this matter is relentlessly bungled, even by our most ardent liberals. One example:

Farhi’s logic is badly wanting in this familiar, unfortunate passage:
FARHI: 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.
Sad! “Even Al Gore” believed that Iraq had WMD? We don’t know why Farhi sources McManus, since that’s what Gore said, in his own voice, in the high-profile San Francisco speech in which he urged against going to war with Iraq.

Even if Iraq did have WMD, Gore (and many others) said, that wasn’t a reason to go to war. Even today, this bone-simple logic is endlessly bungled, especially by the fiery liberals on The One True Channel.

In our view, Farhi is also “wrong” on a point of focus. In this piece, he is talking about the quality of mainstream reporting. He doesn’t discuss the screeching, hollering, keening and wailing which came from the press corps’ opinion brigade. From Thomas L. Friedman down through Chris Matthews, these people staged a series of loud nervous breakdowns, insisting on the need for war.

The reporting may not have been quite as bad as folk say. The punditry may have been worse.

We’ll examine such points all week. Many people seem to be misremembering the run-up to the war in Iraq. And alas!

Many of these afflicted persons currently play for our own “liberal” tribe. Even on The One True Channel, the hirelings can’t quite seem to recall the truth, the whole truth.

Dearest darlings, it just isn’t done! Corporate teamwork comes first!


  1. How self-serving is this Farhi essay? Well, let's see what names are named...Strobel and Landy are the only two named --they were the good journalists. Judith Miller? Michael Gordon? Never heard of them...just disappeared, apparently.

    So why does TDH nod approvingly at this exercise in career-building and corporate ladder-climbing on the pages of the Post?

    Further, TDH now broadcasts the claim "The reporting may not have been quite as bad as folk say." No factual support needed. Maybe cite a "study" done by war-supporter Gelb.

    Is it worth reciting this claptrap just to take a few shots at MSNBC programming? Was it worth feigning intellectual interest in the musings of Megan McArdle? Is there any bottom at this blog?

    1. "Is it worth reciting this claptrap just to take a few shots at MSNBC programming? Was it worth feigning intellectual interest in the musings of Megan McArdle?"


    2. Further, TDH now broadcasts the claim "The reporting may not have been quite as bad as folk say." No factual support needed. Maybe cite a "study" done by war-supporter Gelb.

      Broadcasting the claim that reporting may not have been quite as bad as folk say? How could one even support that? It's a matter of judgment, plainly. It's hardly some kind of major declaration, as it's qualified out the wazoo. That clearly wasn't the point of the post.

      Is there any bottom at this blog?

      Yes: you're it, anon.

    3. One could support that by specifying which "folk" is being referenced. But neither Farhi nor TDH have any interest in that...and maybe you could share your mindreading about the actual point of this post?

  2. There was never any evidence that Iraq actually had WMD at the time (they had had them before). The Bush administration never actually fabricated evidence, they just made unjustified claims and promises to provide actual evidence later. Surely the media could have figured out that the evidence was lacking (some of us did) - instead they accepted the false idea that WMD had been proven. Powell's UN speech was the prime example - it was all unsubstantiated claims, no evidence, but the editors and pundits swallowed it whole.

    Politicians use the media to gauge the public's reaction and to determine how to vote. If the media had been skeptical, the vote might have been different. Now whether media have ever been really objective or adversarial about jingoistic matters like this is another question. What was their role in the Spanish-American War? Even if they were immune to jingoism themselves, they sell papers or advertising slots by hyping events and stirring up passions, not calming them down.

  3. When asked why the administration was delivering few comments during the summer Andrew Card , the White House chief of staff who was coordinating the effort remarked: 'From a marketing point of view,you don't introduce new products in August.'' So the 'selling' began in September. Look at 3 of those advertisements for war: 1.On September 7, 2002 President Bush met with Tony Blair at Camp David. They were quizzed by reporters before the meeting on the subject of Iraq’s nuclear capability. “A report came out of the Atomic -- the IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need,” the President told them. Wow, pretty scary stuff, only six months from possessing a nuclear weapon! And emphatic too: “I don’t know what more evidence we need.” There was a problem however. Had the IAEA come up with a new and current report about Saddam’s nuclear capability? It might seem so, yet NOT ONE reporter asked for clarification. Was this a current report or an old one? It turned out later there WAS NO NEW REPORT. But it took a week for the press to uncover this, something which should have been challenged by any well researched member of the press on the scene. Later, the White House clarified that the President was referring to a report made by the IAEA in 1998, four years earlier. Okay, the report was not current but there was another problem. The IAEA said no such 1998 report ever existed. "There's never been a report like that issued from this agency,” said there chief spokesperson in Vienna. Yes, '“I don’t know what more evidence we need.” 2. Then on Sept. 8, 2002, Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press. Months before asserted that ‘it was pretty well confirmed’ that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer, Ahmed al-Ani in Prague. On this installment he is most remembered for slyly referencing the false NY Times story on Iraq’s importation of aluminum tubes for nuclear centrifuges, but Russert brought him back to his earlier assertion about Atta. "It's credible," Cheney asserted, thus connecting Saddam to 9/11. This was important because if Saddam could be connected to the hijackers and their devastating plot US military action could be justified. But the entire allegation was based on the testimony of one informant, someone with no intelligence training or experience, a young Arab student in Prague who had seen someone in a café and then six months later saw a picture of Atta on TV and said ‘That looks like the guy’. There was no other evidence connecting Atta to Ani or Saddam. No plane tickets. No entry record. No third party verification. In fact, to the contrary, the FBI had evidence that placed Atta in the US, if not exactly on the date of this alleged meeting, the evidence did prove he was here right before and right after this date. The CIA also expressed serious doubt that it could ever have taken place.
    Yet Dick Cheney felt comfortable making an emphatic and false assertion connecting Iraq to 9/11, knowing he would not be forcefully challenged by Russert. "It's credible" and “Its been pretty well confirmed.”

  4. 3. On Sept. 26, 2002 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed that he had. "bulletproof" evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaida members, including "solid evidence" that al Queda was sheltered in Iraq. He simplified everything for the American people conflating Ansar al-Islam and al Queda as one organization. He also hinted that Saddam allowed them to operate in Iraq. "It's very hard to imagine the government is not aware of what's taking place in the country." Surely Saddam was aware of their presence but might it also be accurate to state that the US was sheltering the group from Saddam by protecting its home base in a No Fly Zone? According to American intelligence Ansa al-Islam may have received financial support from al Queda in the past they were not a branch of al Queda. Its leader Mullah Krekor was a sworn and outspoken enemy of Saddam Hussein. But of course this might be just too complicated for the Press to explain to the American public. So much easier to just bleat out: Al Queda in Iraq! In the span of one month, there were three big lies. No IAEA report. No factual evidence placing Atta with Iraqi intelligence. A misleading mélange about al Queda’s presence in Iraq. And the press? For the most part, and with the notable exception of McClatchy, they jumped on board the Andy Card's 'marketing campaign.'

  5. I do not understand, the Washington Post did everything they could editorially to drive us to war in Iraq, everything including literally mock the reports of United Nations weapons inspectors, mock the reports of the IAEA inspectors, and this is supposed to be an accounting?

  6. the article by Paul Farhi was simply catering to the Washington Post editors and wishing away any actual remembering of the way in which we were bullied by the press as well as by political leaders to war in Iraq.

  7. Even if Iraq did have WMD, Gore (and many others) said, that wasn’t a reason to go to war. Even today, this bone-simple logic is endlessly bungled

    This is not simple logic; it's a judgment. In 2003 we didn't know what Saddam would do with a nuclear arsenal. As physicist Niels Bohr has pointed out, Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. Today, there's no way to ever know what Saddam would have done, if he'd remained in power and developed a nuclear arsenal.

    Going back in history, going to war unnecessarily has cost many lives. But, failing to go to war also has cost many lives. If we could re-run history, we'd have attacked Hitler in the 1930's and saved the 100 million killed in WW2. And, we'd have overthrown Lenin when he first took power, perhaps avoiding some of the over 100 million killed by the Communists.

    1. Today, there's no way to ever know what Saddam would have done, if he'd remained in power and developed a nuclear arsenal.

      Saddam could only have developed a nuclear arsenal if the US let him. Do you think the US would have allowed that?

    2. The general declaration: "I think Saddam has WMD" is worthless. What were the facts to support that declaration? And starting a war in the midst of UN inspectors on the ground, finding reluctant compliance by Saddam at ever turn, discovering that US intel was 'garbage after garbage' further exacerbates the offense. Its like going through a half-frisk with a suspect and then deciding 'What the hell..." and blowing his head off.

    3. Let's all argue like this revolting troll: I don't know that the guy walking down the street in my direction doesn't have a gun, and won't use it to shoot me. And even if he doesn't have one right now, he might get one some time in the future and shoot me. That justifies me shooting him first.

      Are all trolls this stupid?

  8. Andrew Sullivan is over on his blog claiming that even if Al Gore had become president, Al Gore would have gone to war with Iraq. Uh huh. Right. Because Al Gore would have had a cabinet full of hawks? Not really.