The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, April 07, 2004

August 10 2003 and the way journalism works

If you get hold of Susan Moeller's study (PDF) of the reporting of WMD over three specified periods - and you most assuredly should! - and search on august 10 you'll find it crops up twice:
  • on page 72a:
    From the beginning of the 2003 calendar year until August 10, Pincus had 81 bylined stories relating to WMD, many written with other staff writers.

  • on page 73a:
    From May 29 to August 10, Pincus had 30 bylined stories that related to WMD, 14 of which were fronted - including three in papers on Sunday.

Walter Pincus that is, of course.

On first reading, these statements may suggest nothing more than their natural meaning.

Except - August 10 2003 lies within none of the three periods under review!

Now, I can't be certain that somewhere in Moeller's 100 page report, she doesn't explain the significance. If so, she manages to do it without mentioning the date.

And (a much less persuasive piece of evidence!) it's passed me by each time I've read it.

A piece by Harry Jaffe from the September 2003 issue of the Washingtonian (cited by Moeller) tells of Pincus' travails with WaPo editors over WMD.

There is even a quote from Dana Priest, decrying Pincus' treatment:
It was ridiculous. Many of the stories were buried. Editors continually undervalued what he does.

The turning point [1] seems to be a piece - U.S. Hedges on Finding Iraqi Weapons - of May 29 2003, written with (first-named) Karen DeYoung, and put on the front page.

On August 10 2003, WaPo fronted a piece [2] - Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence - written with (also first-named) Barton Gellman, on Iraq's nuclear weapon programme. (Or rather the lack of one.)

Ari Berman in Nation, after outlining Pincus' earlier travails, called it (September 17 2003)
a 5,663-word front-page report that will likely be considered the magnum opus of the intelligence fiasco...

(Pincus also cropped up in my February 10 piece on Michael Massing's NYROB article on the media and Iraqi WMD.)

So, where's the beef?

As it turns out, only a couple of thin slices:
  • The record now shows the significance of August 10 as used by Moeller (no Pulitzer expected!); and

  • One has identified (this scarcely rocket science, either) something that feels odd to the layman (ie, me!), a particular article as some kind of milestone or reference point: a discrete phenomenon, rather than a mere undifferentiated element in the stereotypically continuous phenomenon of news.

    Of course, one thinks of the news of a particular day, perhaps of the treatment by a particular writer of a particular event. But, so far as I can recall, August 10 wasn't a significant date in the Iraqi WMD story. Its significance is that WaPo decided to put Pincus' piece on the front page that day.

  1. Jaffe says so. Moeller says (p73a):
    From February 5 to May 29, Pincus had only three front-page stories - out of 38 bylined pieces.

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