McClellan Right: Press Too Deferential

When Bush’s former press secretary admits that the administration used a “political propaganda campaign” to sell its case for war and calls the mainstream media “deferential, complicit enablers” – as Scott McClellan does in What Happened – it’s time to examine just how badly the press failed.

I have quantified the extent of complicity exhibited by The New York Times in the lead-up to war. By coding more than 6,300 comments by all sources used in 1,150 stories about Iraq between August 20, 2002 and the war’s outbreak the following March, I have created a data set that tells us where and how the newspaper went wrong.

It may surprise readers to learn that the Times did quote sources frequently on the potential costs of the war, the dangers of unilateralism, the benefits of working through the United Nations, and the wisdom of waiting until weapons inspections were completed and diplomacy was exhausted. All of these themes have robust representation in the coverage. The Times also frequently quoted sources who questioned whether the administration had the evidence that Iraq posed an imminent threat or whether it had justified the use of force. In the eight months studied, the Times ran more than 400 comments from a variety of sources questioning the administration’s depiction of Iraq as an urgent threat.

Where the paper failed was in challenging the administration’s two most incendiary rationales for the war: that Saddam Hussein’s government was pursuing a nuclear weapons program and that he was likely to pass weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda or some other terrorist organization that, in turn, might attack the United States.

In its coverage of these core issues – so central to the administration’s justification for the invasion – the Times ran three pro-administration comments for every one that questioned the administration’s evidence or reasoning. The New York Times editors were right to apologize for the newspaper’s lack of rigor on these two critical issues.

Did the Times fail to challenge the administration because these allegations were based on intelligence that was difficult to second guess? This excuse would be easy to swallow except that, as political writer Michael Massing has pointed out, another news chain – namely Knight Ridder – ferreted out the inconsistencies in the administration’s arguments by finding mid-level experts within the bureaucracy and not passively accepting high-level official statements at face value. John Walcott, Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau chief, told Massing how “we began hearing from sources in the military, the intelligence community, and the foreign service of doubts about the arguments the administration was making…These people were better informed about the details of intelligence than the people higher up in the food chain, and they were deeply troubled by what they regarded as the administration’s deliberate misrepresentation of intelligence, ranging from overstating the case to outright fabrication.”

In addition to the Times’ lack of journalistic rigor, it was ill-served by an elite debate that collapsed five months before the invasion. Once Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq on October 11, 2002, Capitol Hill fell virtually silent on the issue. To its credit, the Times turned to foreign leaders, especially Europeans, to balance the administration’s view. Between October 12 and the start of the war, 77% of pro-administration statements within all front-page stories about Iraq came from administration sources, while an astonishing 68% of all critical statements about Iraqi policy came from foreign leaders. But the opinions of foreign leaders carry far less weight than those in Congress, who counted for only 3% of critical comments after the Iraq vote.

Counting all stories over the entire period studied – and thus including the congressional war debate – Congress still only accounts for 13% of all critical comments about Iraqi policy cited in the Times.

As these findings suggest, the institution that really failed in the lead-up to the war was Congress. Only Congress has the forum to investigate the administration’s account of intelligence. Yet only half a dozen representatives or senators even bothered to read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq sent to Capitol Hill about eight days before the war vote. Senator Bob Graham was among them, and found that the report “undermined many of the Bush administration’s arguments for war with Iraq.” It is only now, five years after the fact, that Congress has concluded in a newly released report from the Senate intelligence committee that the administration exaggerated the threat of Iraq’s putative weapons of mass destruction.

Yes, The New York Times was complicit in failing to question the claims of high-level administration officials. But at least it continued to cite skeptics, albeit less influential ones. Leaders of Congress, especially the Democrats, could have forced a far more robust debate. Instead, they got cowed and let the war happen.

Shoon Murray is an associate professor at American University’s School of International Service and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). She is currently working on a research project about presidential framing and press independence during the pre-war Iraq debate.