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Iraq War Media Failure Can Happen Again

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IRAQ MEDIA FAILURE
President George W. Bush speaks aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) | AP

NEW YORK –- Since “Mission Accomplished” proved to be anything but, the media has done plenty of hand-wringing and soul-searching over the run-up to the Iraq War.

Major news organizations have retracted or re-examined pre-war stories, while “liberal hawks” churned out mea culpas. There’s now a small canon of books and TV specials chronicling the press failure, including Michael Massing’s Now They Tell Us, Greg Mitchell’s So Wrong For So Long, and Bill Moyers’ “Buying The War.”

Such criticism is well-deserved, given that the U.S. media -- with a few notable exceptions -- helped promote the Bush administration’s flimsy case for invading a country that had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 terror attacks, thus beginning a nine-year war that killed more than 115,000 Iraqi civilians and 4,488 U.S. service members.

With the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion on Tuesday, journalists are again reminded -- and reminding each other in first-person essays -– of the media debacle a decade ago. But while there’s a tendency to look back on the pre-Iraq media drumbeat as a post-9/11 aberration, a number of the same institutional forces exist today that could combine for a similar media-driven rush to war.

Some prominent pro-war voices a decade ago still occupy high-profile perches on op-ed pages, cable news or Sunday show round-tables. In recent years, some Iraq cheerleaders have similarly sounded the drums for war with Iran, alongside reports laced with anonymous sources suggesting Iran’s nuclear program had passed the point of no return.

There’s also the nature of national security reporting itself, which relies heavily on confidential sources and has arguably become more difficult amid the Obama administration's unprecedented crackdown on leaks.

Several journalists who rightly scrutinized the Bush administration’s claims a decade ago told The Huffington Post in interviews that some of the same potential pitfalls exist when covering current issues surrounding war, drones and military intervention. Reporters, they said, need to remain vigilant when speaking with government sources -- especially when doing so under the condition of anonymity.

‘SAME GAME OF ACCESS GOING ON’

The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, whose more skeptical coverage often ran in the back of the paper a decade ago, said he's concerned that reporters “fall so much in love with quoting people that we don’t analyze what it is they’re saying.”

In the case of whether to intervene in Syria, for instance, Pincus said reporters shouldn’t simply allow government officials or politicians to talk of arming rebels or setting up a no-fly-zone “without either forcing those people -- or doing it themselves -- [to explain] what implications of those things are, as if they’re abstractions, as if they’re just going to happen.”

National security reporter Jonathan Landay, who along with his colleagues at McClatchy, then the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, are are often credited with some of the strongest pre-war reporting, said he's concerned about the impact on investigative journalism as the newspaper industry contracts. He said similar traps remain for reporters covering national security, which he considers the “toughest beat in town" because of its secrecy.

“There’s been some good investigative journalism over the past 10 years," Landay said. "But I’m concerned that there’s not as much of it anymore. You still have that same game of access going on, where you’re given information and you write it down as you’re told because you want to be able to maintain access and not take the time to check it out.”

Landay mentioned how the Obama administration, despite pledges of being the most transparent ever, hasn’t lived up to that promise. “Their idea of transparency seems to be controlled leaks by anonymous officials,” Landay said. “To me, that’s not transparency. Transparency is leveling on the record with the American people."

Landay said he's wondered whether Twitter -- if it had existed a decade ago -- may have helped promote Knight-Ridder's Iraq stories to a wider audience.

“What would have happened if there had been the kind of reporting by everybody else we had been doing?” Landay asked. “Would it have been so easy to have taken this country to war and see so many people lose their lives and so much blood and treasure expended -– for what?”

Mother Jones’ David Corn, who co-authored the 2007 book, Hubris: The Insider Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, told The Huffington Post that given how the “media failure in Iraq was so epic,” some may believe that past mistakes can't happen again. “But perhaps on a matter that has less national focus” as Iraq, he said, they can.

“Nowadays when we look at small interventions, either through the drone war or Libya or possible attack on Iran or something in Syria, it doesn’t have as widespread a national debate attached to it and thus it might be easier for some sort of repeat to happen,” Corn said

“A re-run, in a different way, remains possible,” Corn added. “When you look at drones, we can’t have a strong public debate about it because a lot of it is classified. The government and people supporting the policy will say, ‘we know.’ In essence, you have to trust us.”

LESSONS LEARNED?

Greg Mitchell, who edited Editor & Publisher magazine during the run-up to war, said in an email that “many mainstream media outlets have repeated mistakes of 10 years ago in quickly trumpeting claims of fresh findings of the Iranian nuclear threat.”

“Often they just leave it at that without presenting much in the way of counter views,” Mitchell continued. "Michael Gordon, who (most people forget) co-wrote with Judith Miller some of the bogus reports on Saddam's WMD, somehow retained his top reporting position at The New York Times and can still be relied on to periodically raise alarms about Iran. But unlike in the case of Iraq, Gordon and others usually move on quickly, without dwelling on the new scare reports or pushing the claims to Code Red. Either reporters, or editors, or both have indeed -- in most cases -- learned to be a bit more skeptical or at least cautious as the lessons of the Iraq WMD tragedy linger. For now."

Marcy Wheeler, a blogger who closely covers national security issues, recently suggested that The New York Times may have forgotten a lesson from pre-war coverage. On March 10, Wheeler challenged a front-page Times story on the killing of three Americans in drone attacks under the headline “Anwar al-Awlaki Is the New Aluminum Tube.” She wrote that Times reporters "Mark Mazzetti, Charlie Savage, and Scott Shane team up to provide the government’s best case -- and at times, an irresponsibly credulous one -- for the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and the collateral deaths of Samir Khan and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki."

The "aluminum tubes" reference was a provocative one, given that the Times front page September 2002 piece -- written by Gordon and Miller -- had claimed Iraq was on a “quest for nuclear weapons” and remains one of the most egregious examples of wrong pre-war reporting.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Wheeler said that while she respects the three Times reporters, she believed they presented the administration’s side without some details that would offer an alternative view. For that reason, Wheeler said she saw a comparison to the original “aluminum tubes” story, which “was not a matter of not having access to contrary information,” but “was a matter of choosing the administration spin on a particular story.”

In an email to The Huffington Post, Savage said that he and his colleagues “reached out separately to some three dozen current and former officials, vetting what they said against each other” in an effort to look for “signs of internal disagreement about the facts, law or policy narrative we were mosaicking together."

“We did not find any; perhaps there is still fire to be found, but the smoke alarm was silent in this go-around,” Savage said. “That said I agree we should have phrased some things with greater caveats.”

In an email to The Huffington Post, Shane said while he’s happy to hear criticism, “to suggest that the story painted a positive view of the administration's record seems to me a stretch, and so does the aluminum tubes comparison.”

Shane acknowledged, however, that reporting from that era still resonates today.

“I think it's fair to say that everyone who writes on national security at the NYT thinks about the lessons of the pre-Iraq War coverage and is wary of being too credulous when it comes to government assertions that are hard to check,” Shane said.

Around the Web

The Media's Iraq Failure – Reliable Sources - CNN.com Blogs

Iraq: Why the media failed - Salon.com

Bill Moyers Journal . Buying the War . Watch the Show | PBS

Media coverage of the Iraq War - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Media's Iraq Failure: 10 years later - YouTube

Bob Woodward's Biggest Failure: Iraq

Hans Blix: Iraq War was a terrible mistake and violation of UN charter

How a Misguided War Led to a Powerful Nonprofit Partnership