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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Thursday, August 12, 2004

The Washington Post Iraqi WMD story - by Howie Kurtz

Search the Plawg on moeller (see top left), and you'll find that we've been here before, courtesy of the University of Maryland's Susan Moeller and her study.

Moeller, needless to say, was ignored by the Post [1]. One of the little people...

Since Moeller's work was published in March, we have had denials and squirming from the New York Times - wbose girl Judith Miller was, perhaps, the highest profile journalistic offender on Iraqi WMD [2]. And then that peculiar Editor's Note (May 26).

Meanwhile, the Times' big rival was keeping silence radio.

Until Executive Editor Leonard Downie and colleagues decide to front an extraordinary piece today by TV's Howard Kurtz, which discusses the Post's treatment of Iraqi WMD.

Kurtz's breathless lede is the story of Post stalwart Walter Pincus's article that was only rescued from oblivion (at least so far as the semi-oblivion of page A17) by intervention of Uncle Bob Woodward. Sounds familiar? Should be: the story first appeared in print (to my recollection) in Harry Jaffe's Washingtonian piece of September 2003 (April 7) [3]. The Pincus piece concerned ran, under hed U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms, on March 16 2003 [4].

Kurtz's is the Old, Old Story:
An examination of the paper's coverage, and interviews with more than a dozen of the editors and reporters involved, shows that The Post published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page.

He goes on
Some reporters who were lobbying for greater prominence for stories that questioned the administration's evidence complained to senior editors who, in the view of those reporters, were unenthusiastic about such pieces. The result was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times.

He actually gets a half-human-sounding expression of regret from Downie:
In retrospect we were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part.

A key question is the placement of pieces. Which matters not a jot to the perception of those of us who don't see a dead-tree Post from one year's end to the next [5], but matters mightily to the key breakfast-table consumers who might act on what they read.

Kurtz says that
...there is limited space on Page 1 -- usually six or seven stories -- and Downie said he likes to feature a broad range of subjects, including education, health, science, sports and business.

But, in the run-up to war?

Uncle Bob's excuse, on behalf of the paper, is that
it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly if weapons were ultimately found in Iraq. Alluding to the finding of the Sept. 11 commission of a "groupthink" among intelligence officials, Woodward said of the weapons coverage: "I think I was part of the groupthink."

All the journos had were USG sources, Woodward says:
Walter [Pincus] and I couldn't go to Iraq without getting killed.

So, there were no other expert sources anywhere else in the world who might have offered some commentary, explanation, context? Who might, for instance, have suggested technical questions to ask of USG sources to try to feel out the reliability of what the Post was being told?

Uncle Bob is clearly a guy who doesn't have to try too hard.

On the other hand,
In October 2002, 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.

We get some colour on Pincus [6]
a staff member for 32 of the last 38 years, whose messy desk is always piled high with committee reports and intelligence files. "The main thing people forget to do is read documents," said Pincus, wielding a yellow highlighter.

A white-haired curmudgeon who spent five years covering the Iran-contra scandal and has long been an expert on nuclear weapons, Pincus sometimes had trouble convincing editors of the importance of his incremental, difficult-to-read stories.

His longevity is such that he first met Hans Blix, who was the chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, at a conference in Ghana in 1959.

Jesus, this guy is paleolithic!

Kurtz highlights the coverage of Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council of February 5 2003. He quotes Karen DeYoung [7]:
"We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power," DeYoung said. "If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said." And if contrary arguments are put "in the eighth paragraph, where they're not on the front page, a lot of people don't read that far."

The ghastly oiks only have themselves to blame!

Of her and Pincus's February 6 piece (under hed Satellite Images, Communications Intercepts and Defectors' Briefings), he says
Not until the ninth paragraph did they offer a "however" clause, saying that "a number of European officials and U.S. terrorism experts" believed that Powell's description of an Iraqi link to al Qaeda "appeared to have been carefully drawn to imply more than it actually said."

Not that the Post skimped in its coverage of the Powell speech:
Downie said the paper ran several pieces analyzing Powell's speech as a package on inside pages. "We were not able to marshal enough evidence to say he was wrong," Downie said of Powell. "To pull one of those out on the front page would be making a statement on our own: 'Aha, he's wrong about the aluminum tubes.' "

Thus, the scourge of Nixon; true to the real motto of the United States: When in doubt, go along.

All this time, the Post ed board were cheerleading the war: and, Kurtz says,
These editorials led some readers to conclude that the paper had an agenda, even though there is a church-and-state wall between the newsroom and the opinion pages.

The Catskills' loss is the Post readers' gain.

Kurtz ends with a nice little piece of misdirection:
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.

He quotes Downie as saying that it wouldn't have.

Well, firstly, Downie would say that, wouldn't he. And, secondly, the complaints against media handling of the Iraq WMD business were not posited on the basis that proper handling could have averted the war (only a live broadcast of Saddam's suicide could have done that); but that the media knowingly aided and abetted the USG preparations for war, in utter dereliction of their obligations to their own customers.

  1. Confirmed by a search on the Post site's own engine.

  2. The most blameworthy? Of course not! It was the so-called grown-ups in the editorial chairs who actually let her garbage onto the columns of the Times. But, as they say, rank has its privileges - including seeing one's juniors scapegoated (by likes of Jack Shafer) for one's own fault.

  3. Pincus's role on WMD more generally discussed in Michael Massing's essential Now They Tell Us in the NYROB of February 26 (February 10).

    The Massing article is now behind the pay-wall: thankfully, a concerned citizen took action in time.

    Reading on to the end of Kurtz, one finds that there is a he said, she said between Woodward and Pincus on what exactly happened with the March 16 piece.

  4. And - give them their due - because the Post is not an outfit of Scrooges and chisellers, you can still read the Pincus piece on their site.

  5. What proportion of online Post readers actually notice the dead-tree page information (A3, B4, etc) that the online page includes? It took me ages to work out what those numbers actually meant!

  6. Let's not assume the guy is an oracle, though. He seems as addicted to anonymous sources as the rest of his colleagues - though, since his trade is intelligence, there's rather more reason for anonymity than, say, the inside dope on White House soft furnishings. But he was questioning the party line: that was his value.

  7. Who he describes as
    Reporter Karen DeYoung, a former assistant managing editor who covered the prewar diplomacy
    - isn't that some kind of reverse career move?


The E&P finds Kurtz saying it was all his idea.

And Kurtz has an online chat, too. Including this gem (in response to a question whether the paper had altered its coverage for fear of losing access to USG sources):
access is not really an issue here. Few reporters of any kind have particularly good access in this administration because of the way in which the White House tightly controls information. And access means little if all the top officials are simply spouting the party line.

And that explains the sewer-ful of USG anonymice crawling all over the Post every day, I suppose...

MORE (August 16)

Editor of the E&P Greg Mitchell has a longish piece criticising Kurtz's piece, and the Post's attitude to its WMD failings. Useful - but futile, of course.

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