Post-Iraq Syndrome


With all 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 3,000-word "We Fucked Up on Iraq" piece that came out last week.

Kurtz's 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.

The 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.

The 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.

It is hard to imagine a better metaphor for these post-invasion auto-crucifixions our papers of record have been giving us lately.

The 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:

...his piece 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.
Quite 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:
The Post published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page.
The result was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times.
Quoting 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."
Given 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.
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..."
Bob Woodward: "We did our job but we didn't do enough."
When 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.

Here's how Downie put that last excuse:
People 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 war.
Nothing like an editor with a firm grasp of metaphysics. "It doesn't matter what we write, the universe is still going to keep expanding..."

The 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.

Right. 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.

For 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.

The 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.

We didn't need a named source in the Pentagon to tell us that. And neither did the Washington Post.

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