DUE respect to the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, who was polite
to me when we spoke on the phone earlier this year, I had to laugh at
his 3000-word "We Fucked Up on Iraq" piece that came out last
Aug. 12 piece, entitled "The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story; Prewar
Articles Questioning Threat Often Didn't Make Front Page," was
the latest in what is likely to be a long series of tepid media mea
culpas about pre-war Iraq reporting. The piece comes on the heels of
the New York Times' infamous "The Bitch Set Us Up"
piece from this past May, in which that paper implicitly blamed hyperambitious
hormone-case Judith Miller for its hilarious prewar failures.
Kurtz article was a curious piece of writing. In reading it, I was reminded
of a scene I once witnessed at the New England Aquarium in Boston, in
the aqua-petting-zoo section on the second floor.
petting pool contained a sea cucumber. Now, anyone who has ever made
it through seventh-grade science class knows what a sea cucumber does
when threatened. Unfortunately, some parent unleashed a sixth-grader
on the pool unattended. The kid started fucking with the sea cucumber,
poking and prodding it like crazy. So the sea cucumber pulled out its
only defense mechanism, turning itself inside out and showing its nasty
guts to the poor kid, who immediately thought he'd killed the thing
and ran away crying. Later, when I made another turn through the same
area of the aquarium, the cucumber had reconstituted itself and was
sitting in its usual log-like position.
is hard to imagine a better metaphor for these post-invasion auto-crucifixions
our papers of record have been giving us lately.
Post piece featured an array of senior and less-senior reporters
who let us in on the shocking revelation that stories questioning the
Bush administration's pre-war intelligence claims were often buried
deep in the news section, while Bush claims ran on the front. Revelations
included the heartwarming Thelma & Louise tale of Walter
Pincus and Bob Woodward teaming up to get Pincus' WMD skepticism piece
into the paper just days before the country went over the cliff into
Iraq. In fact, the second paragraph of the piece is devoted to this
tale of editorial foxhole heroism:
ran only after assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, who was researching
a book about the drive toward war, "helped sell the story,"
Pincus recalled. "Without him, it would have had a tough time getting
into the paper." Even so, the article was relegated to Page A17.
a lot of Kurtz's article is devoted to such backdoor compliments, with
numerous reminders throughout the text that the Post, relatively
speaking, did a better job than most papers on Iraq. Much of the piece
was framed in this "But on the other hand…" rhetorical format,
in which admissions of poor performance surfed home on waves of somber
self-congratulation. Some examples:
published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely
on the front page.
was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight
looks strikingly one-sided at times.
media critic Michael Massing: "'In covering the run-up to the
war, The Post did better than most other news organizations…' But
on the key issue of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the paper was
generally napping along with everyone else."
The Post's reputation for helping topple the Nixon administration… the
paper's shortcomings did not reflect any reticence about taking on the
Bush White House.
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..."
Woodward: "We did our job but we didn't do enough."
the Post wasn't reassuring readers of its competence, it was
offering excuses—lots of them. The list is really an extraordinary one.
According to Kurtz's interview subjects, the Post was slow on
Iraq because: a) Walter Pincus is a "cryptic" writer who isn't
"storifyable"; b) there is limited space on the front page,
and executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. likes to have health and education
and Orioles coverage and other stuff there; c) the paper got a lot of
depressing hate mail questioning its patriotism whenever it questioned
the Bush administration; d) their intelligence sources wouldn't go on
the record, while Bush and Powell were up there openly saying all this
stuff; e) the paper had to rely on the administration because Bob Woodward
and Walter Pincus had no "alternative sources of information,"
and particularly couldn't go to Iraq "without getting killed";
f) the paper, including Woodward, was duped by highly seductive intelligence-community
"groupthink"; g) too many of the dissenting sources were retired
from government or, even worse, not in government at all; h) stories
on intelligence are "difficult to edit"; g) there was "a
lot of information to digest"; h) the paper is "inevitably
a mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power"; i) a flood
of copy about the impending invasion kept skeptical coverage out [Note:
This is my favorite. We're already covering the war, so it's too
late to explain why we shouldn't go to war.]; and finally, j) none
of it matters, because even if the Post had done a more thorough
job, there would have been a war anyway.
how Downie put that last excuse:
who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical
of the media's coverage…have the mistaken impression that somehow if
the media's coverage had been different, there wouldn't have been a
like an editor with a firm grasp of metaphysics. "It doesn't matter
what we write, the universe is still going to keep expanding…"
problem with these newsprint confessions is not that they are craven,
insufficient and self-serving, which of course they are. The problem
is that, on the whole, they do not correct the pre-war mistakes, but
actually further them. The Post would have you believe that its
"failure" before the war was its inability/reluctance to punch
holes in Bush's WMD claims.
I marched in Washington against the war in February 2003 with about
400,000 people, and I can pretty much guarantee that not more than a
handful of those people gave a shit about whether or not Saddam Hussein
had weapons of mass destruction. That's because we knew what the Post
and all of these other papers still refuse to admit—this whole thing
was never about weapons of mass destruction. Even a five- year-old,
much less the literate executive editor of the Washington Post,
could have seen, from watching Bush and his cronies make his war case,
that they were going in anyway.
God's sake, Bush was up there in the fall of 2002, warning us that unmanned
Iraqi drones were going to spray poison gas on the continental United
States. The whole thing—the "threat" of Iraqi attack, the
link to terrorism, the dire warnings about Saddam's intentions—it was
all bullshit on its face, as stupid, irrelevant and transparent as a
cheating husband's excuse. And I don't know a single educated person
who didn't think so at the time.
story shouldn't have been, "Are there WMDs?" The story should
have been, "Why are they pulling this stunt? And why now?"
That was the real mystery. It still is.
didn't need a named source in the Pentagon to tell us that. And neither
did the Washington Post.