Wednesday, July 1, 2009

How The Press Failed In Its Job In The Lead-up To The Iraq War

The Summer 2009 issue of Democracy Journal includes a piece by Leslie Gelb and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati of the Council on Foreign Relations. In it they review and critique the media coverage of the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and Newsweek, what they term “the elite media,” of four events surrounding the beginning of the Iraq War. Those are the congressional vote on the use of force, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations, President Bush’s mission accomplished speech, and the capture of Saddam Hussein. Gelb and Zelmati were inspired to write this piece because they didn’t feel there had been any comprehensive evaluation of the reporting leading up to the war. They believe that a democracy depends upon good information from the press, especially when one is considering whether or not to go to war. Overall, they found that the media did a mediocre job at best. Only occasionally did they question the reasons for the war or analyze the situation in Iraq. The most common form of reporting was simply to repeat the administration’s claims, and quote one or two experts who may or may not agree with the White House. The press only began critiquing the war when it was obvious things were going badly, which was too little, too late. In doing so, the media let the American public down, never giving them a full picture of what the arguments for and against the invasion were, and its consequences.

Gelb and Zelmati reviewed 576 stories and pieces by columnists on four events, the October 2002 Congressional debate an authorizing the use of force, Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech to the United Nations advocating for war, President Bush’s mission accomplished speech in May 2003, and the capture of Saddam Hussein on December 13, 2003. Each article was ranked 0-5. 0 was completely slanted towards the administration, 1 was somewhat biased, 2 reported statements by officials and experts, 3 raised some questions, 4 had fundamental doubts about the administration’s claims, and 5 did the best job reporting both the critics and the White House’s responses. Obviously they were privileging stories that questioned the White House, but they did that because those critics turned out to be right. On average they thought a story should rank a 3.0 or better on Iraq since it was such an important issue facing the country at the time. Too many times, in the press’ attempt to be neutral however it simply ended up supporting the administration by focusing mostly on what government officials said with little to no questioning.

The first two events largely received the same type of reporting. In October 2002 Congress debated whether or not to authorize the use of force against Iraq. On February 5, 2003 Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations arguing that the Security Council should pass a resolution allowing an attack on Saddam Hussein. In both cases the press mostly repeated the White House and Powell’s claims with little to no questioning. Powell’s speech especially was widely praised. A piece by Michael Gordon in the New York Times said that the Secretary had silenced the critics for example. Few asked whether Iraq really had weapons of mass destruction or were working with Al Qaeda, and even less went into what would happen in Iraq after an invasion. The articles that did mention critics usually had them at the end of the pieces. Columnists at the time were overwhelmingly advocating for the war. Coverage of the Congressional debate received a 2.0, while Powell’s speech got a 1.77, the lowest score of the study.

On May 1, 2003 President Bush gave his mission accomplished speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier. Again, the press mostly repeated Bush’s remarks. Reporting on the problems then occurring in Iraq after the invasion was largely not included in the articles. Skepticism was growing however, but it mostly came from reporters in Iraq. Those in Washington were still basing their stories off of government officials. Columnists at this time were also beginning to raise questions, but were only marginally better than the regular stories. For that, the columnists received a 2.36 score, while the press overall got a 2.12.

The final event was the capture of Saddam Hussein on December 13, 2003 in his home of Tikrit. This time the press coverage was notably different from the other three times. Stories mentioned the insurgency and the reconstruction in Iraq. Many reports were also questioning whether the war was really over or not. For the first time, the media was using more Iraq reports than ones from Washington, which played a large part in changing the tone. What was still missing was any real discussion of the claims the White House made leading up to the war. Because of their questions however, the press received its highest score with a 2.24.

Overall, the reporting never reached the 3.0 standard set by Gelb and Zelmati. They believe that the elite print press should be held to the highest standards. They are the largest outlet for in-depth reporting, questioning, and analysis about decisions that affect the country. Gelb and Zelmati believe that one of the biggest problems with them is institutional. The first job of a reporter is to tell what’s going on. The main way they do that is to report what the government says. The authors argue that editors need to push their staff to bring in more critics in their reporting to provide more of a debate on leading issues in the country. A way to compensate for that is to also use more overseas reporters during foreign policy crises since they are obviously removed from Washington. Another major problem is that many stories emphasize politics over policy. Many reporters simply don’t know enough about any given issue to really go into depth about it, but anyone can talk about Democrats versus Republicans and liberals versus conservatives. In the lead up to the war, that’s what many in the press did.

Eventually the media did change its tone, coming to criticize the White House and its handling of the war, but the study believes they went too far in the other direction. Gelb and Zelmati think this led the media to miss the importance of the Surge when it was launched at the beginning of 2007. When Bush changed policy, the press underreported its effects. They mostly focused just on the increase in troops, and not the new tactics used. They also did not connect the operation with Moqtada al-Sadr’s cease-fire, the emergence of the Anbar Awakening, the creation of the Sons of Iraq, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki becoming a real leader, all of which helped end the sectarian war, and created a new status quo.

Gelb and Zelmati finish by calling for the media to do a better job questioning the government when important decisions come up. This is unlikely to happen as the major media outlets are facing declining sales, and more emphasis upon making profits as a result. A push to make money usually does not contribute to more in depth reporting. The methodology American journalists are trained in, and the culture in pressrooms is also not conducive to much analysis. It’s mostly getting out whatever the top story is as quickly as possible and relying upon proven sources, which usually come from the government. Also, when it comes to war group think usually sets in and the media supports the White House initially. Even now that the media is much more critical of the war, it doesn’t matter much because Iraq has largely disappeared from American reporting. It seems that the press has failed again in the process. It did not give the public the information it needed to assess going to war, and it is doing the same now on what Iraqi is like, and what that means for the U.S. since it is expected to have a major presence in the country for the foreseeable future.


Gelb, Leslie with Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati, “Mission Unaccomplished,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2009


Anonymous said...


I am writing an article for Huffington Post on rejoicing in Iraq due to withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. I have few questions. Can you please answer my questions?


Joel Wing said...

Yes. Send me your email. Comments are moderated so it won't show up in the blog

Chris Cameron said...

Hi JW, Chris Cameron here following your link from the comments in the NPR article....

What I never understood about the media is we have a clear case where they stood back and became the government lapdog, yet seven years later that lesson is not learned.

They still follow the governmental power in charge's line on their policies.

It is the same damn thing. They keep failing through fawning, one side or the other.

I may be conservative but I want objective news dammit. I should not have to read a million sources and news articles to get both sides of the story.

It doesn't serve liberals or conservatives well if the media doesn't have the cajones to just print the facts and let all of us decide for ourselves.

We need to get the writers out of the media to make way for the actual reporters of news.

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