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How the elite print press blew Iraq war coverage

By Dave Cook / June 15, 2009



What went wrong in press coverage before the Iraq war?

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Journalists were not skeptical enough of White House assertions. Think tanks and academics were too partisan to trust. And political reports took precedence over policy analysis.

So argues Leslie Gelb in the latest issue of “Democracy—A Journal of Ideas.”

It was only long after the Iraq War went south, “when its failures could no longer be minimized [that] the elite newspapers and weeklies finally got around to offering sound analyses and asking the Bush administration tough questions,” Gelb and co-author Jeanne- Paloma Zelmati write.

Avoiding future flaws

In their article, Gelb and Zelmati look at how the most influential print outlets did in covering the Iraq war and offer suggestions for preventing flawed coverage in the future.

Gelb is well positioned to offer such a review. He served as assistant secretary of state in the Carter administration, won a Pulitzer Prize for his work as a national security and diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, and was president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Internal critics are scarce

The elite print press (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and Newsweek) is better positioned to offer scrutiny of foreign policy than members of the administration, Gelb argues. “The reality is that advocacy and politics drive out skepticism from within,” he says. And think thanks and universities have “become party to, rather than an arbitrator of, major policy disputes,” he argues.

What steps would help the press report more effectively on major foreign policy decisions in the future?

Reporting new presidential statements “is a good procedure. It is also a strait-jacket,” Gelb and Zelmati say. Editors need to add stories that question presidential policy, they contend. Analytical stories leading up to the Iraq war “lacked the heft of alternative ideas” and “emphasized politics over policy." Both are flaws to be avoided.

“I have found over the years that if people don’t know substance, they talk politics,” Gelb quips. ‘Everyone is a political expert; it is the great leveler.”

Invaluable foreign bureaus

The authors argue that reporters should be left on beats longer to develop deeper expertise. Stressing on-the-scene reporting is also key.

“In general – and this point is essential – there was better reporting from the field than Washington," the authors said.