If you dig back through the misty, water-colored memories of how the press covered the run-up to the Iraq War, perhaps you will recall, "The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story," by Howard Kurtz. Published on August 12, 2004, Kurtz makes a thorough examination of his own paper's pre-war coverage, in which he dug down into how prominently stories got played by the Washington Post, with special attention to how the Post provided its readers with insight into the extant skepticism of the White House's pre-war claims and justifications.
Along the way, Kurtz gets on-the-record statements from a veritable who's-who at the Post: then-executive editor Len Downie, assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks, and reporters Walter Pincus, Karen DeYoung, Dana Priest, and Barton Gellman. That's A-team access, and through Kurtz, they spin a tale that is, on balance, one of regret, concern, and recrimination. Bob Woodward even laments: "I think I was part of the groupthink."
In fact, there's only one voice in the article that tends to cut against the grain:
Liz Spayd, the assistant managing editor for national news, says The Post's overall record was strong.
"I believe we pushed as hard or harder than anyone to question the administration's assertions on all kinds of subjects related to the war. . . . Do I wish we would have had more and pushed harder and deeper into questions of whether they possessed weapons of mass destruction? Absolutely," she said. "Do I feel we owe our readers an apology? I don't think so."
And, hey! In other news, guess who got a promotion last week!
The Washington Post named Elizabeth Spayd and Raju Narisetti as managing editors of the paper Tuesday, noting both will report to Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli. Spayd is reportedly the paper's first woman managing editor.
A release states the pair "will share responsibility for The Post's award-winning journalism, whether in print, online and on mobile devices, and they will lead the integration of The Post's print and online newsrooms."
It adds that, "Spayd ... will oversee the gathering, editing and production of news. Her brief will include political, general, business, foreign and metropolitan news, as well as The Post's news desk and the print newspaper's day-to-day production.
Spayd may not have felt that her paper's readers were entitled to much at the time Kurtz interviewed her for his article, but those readers had, nevertheless, been registering strong objections to the Post's coverage. In June, then-ombudsman Michael Getler was willing to openly acknowledge these failings. In a column, "Looking Back Before The War," he sets the foundation for Kurtz's later examination, chronicling the tendency of the paper to run "stories that did challenge the official administration view...inside the paper rather than on the front page," and a chronic underreporting of "public events in which alternative views were expressed." Getler provides an extensive list of examples. He uses the word "dismaying" to describe his assessment.
Kurtz expands on Getler's concerns extensively, pointing out specific instances where stories were misplaced and pulling statements from similarly dismayed Posties:
"The paper was not front-paging stuff," said Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. "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?"
In retrospect, said Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., "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."
Across the country, "the voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones," Downie said. "We didn't pay enough attention to the minority."
When national security reporter Dana Priest was addressing a group of intelligence officers recently, she said, she was peppered with questions: "Why didn't The Post do a more aggressive job? Why didn't The Post ask more questions? Why didn't The Post dig harder?"
Again, the only one who doesn't sound a note of regret over any of this was then-assistant managing editor for national news Liz Spayd. And given the incidences here of questionable story placement, a lack of attention to dissenting opinion, and a lack of aggression, it's troubling that Spayd will forthwith be tasked with "oversee[ing] the gathering, editing and production of news" with a foot in both the print and online side.
What's also troubling is that Spayd plays a prominent role in the curious case of Walter Pincus, a WaPo veteran who was one of the Post reporters who did push for more questioning of administration claims, and who got much of the run-up right. Here's the section of interest, from the Kurtz article (emphasis mine):
But while Pincus was ferreting out information "from sources I've used for years," some in the Post newsroom were questioning his work. Editors complained that he was "cryptic," as one put it, and that his hard-to-follow stories had to be heavily rewritten.
Spayd declined to discuss Pincus's writing but said that "stories on intelligence are always difficult to edit and parse and to ensure their accuracy and get into the paper."
Downie agreed that difficulties in editing Pincus may have been a factor in the prewar period, because he is "so well sourced" that his reporting often amounts to putting together "fragments" until the pieces were, in Downie's word, "storifyable."
Some editors, in Pincus's view, also saw him as a "crusader," as he once put it to Washingtonian magazine. "That's sort of my reputation, and I don't deny it," he said. "Once I get on a subject, I stay with it."
Now, let's indulge in some speculation. If I'm playing the *POOF!* NOW I AM ON THE RECORD/*ZAP*! NOW I AM OFF THE RECORD game, I have to conclude that unnamed "editors" and "some in the Post newsroom" are really either Spayd or Downie, and, given the tenor of their responses, likely Spayd.
But perhaps that's neither here nor there. And maybe, now, Spayd is of the mind that the Post readership was deserving of some consideration over the paper's faulty coverage. But it's worth pointing out that over a year after Kurtz's deep examination, Michael Getler still felt compelled to return to the subject of Iraq. And when he did, he didn't speak any easier about it:
Iraq, in particular, has proved impossible for me, along with many readers, to put aside and move away from. I keep coming back to it, in part, because readers keep coming back to it but also because I cannot think of a story in the past 40 years that offers more warning signs for journalism and for the role of the press in our democracy.
Getler also specifically cites that nagging pre-war coverage:
Editors up and down the line are the key to this and, in my view, at times are the weak link between reporters and readers. Reporters are as good as they've ever been. But editors set the tone. They should be experienced and as informed as reporters. They need to contribute to, and transmit, the sense that there are very important stories out there -- whether war or health care or budget deficits or other subjects that affect our lives and future -- and that there is a determination and commitment to get to the bottom of them in a timely fashion.
The prewar Iraq situation also provided a unique test because the subject was complicated and classified. The administration was enormously skillful and disciplined at getting its message across while keeping other things secret. It made effective use of our concerns and reactions to the scary post-Sept. 11 world. Some journalists or news organizations may have been intimidated by the atmosphere. I don't think The Post was.
Rather, it seemed to me that editors didn't have their eye on, and didn't go for, the right ball at the right time. It's a lesson that ought to be etched in the culture here as deeply as Watergate.
Let's hope it stays etched in the culture, now that Spayd is playing a bigger role in it.