Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

“Why did the press fail in its pre-war reporting?”

Posted by metaphorical on 10 February 2007

Gilbert Cranberg asks all the right questions—11 of them, as it happens—concerning “why the press failed in its pre-war reporting” of the Iraq war.

Cranberg spent 33 years at The Des Moines Register, during its heyday as one of the best newspapers in the country. For a while he was in charge of its editorial pages; I think he had that gig during the three years I was at the University of Iowa. He also taught journalism at the university and is still there as an emeritus professor.

I’ve reproduced them all below, but his choice of a top question is particularly interesting:

Q. Why did the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau’s “against-the grain reporting” during the build-up to war receive such “disappointing play,” in the words of its former bureau chief?

Knight Ridder got top marks, in hindsight, for questioning the justifications for war before the fact. It calls to mind their excellent coverage of Katrina as well. It’s no surprise, then, but vastly disappointing, that in corporate media’s inexorable merging into fewer and fewer larger and larger corporations, K-N has been broken up like the Oakland A’s of the 1970s. Bits and pieces were swallowed up by other companies, other parts are floating around, unanchored, and their survival is in doubt. It’s impossible to believe that the individual pieces will retain the quality and integrity of the whole.

To see how extraordinary K-N’s coverage was, contrast it with some of Cranberg’s other questions, which ask about the guilliblity of the NY Times, the Washington Post, and, as it turns out, the Associated Press, about which Cranberg asks this:

Q. Why did the Associated Press wait six months, when the body count began to rise, to distribute a major piece by AP’s Charles Hanley challenging Powell’s evidence and why did Hanley say how frustrating it had been until then to break through the self-censorship imposed by his editors on negative news about Iraq?

I hadn’t known the AP had done that; indeed, Cranberg’s questions raise issues I wasn’t even aware of.

Here are all of them:

Q. Why did the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau’s “against-the grain reporting” during the build-up to war receive such “disappointing play,” in the words of its former bureau chief?

Q. Why did the press generally fail to pay more attention to the bureau’s ground-breaking coverage?

Q. Why, on the eve of war, did the Washington Post’s executive editor reject a story by Walter Pincus, its experienced and knowledgeable national security reporter, that questioned administration claims of hidden Iraqi weapons and why, when the editor reconsidered, the story ran on Page 17?

Q. Why did the Post, to the “dismay” of the paper’s ombudsman, bury in the back pages or miss stories that challenged the administration’s version of events? Or, as Pincus complained, why did Post editors go “through a whole phase in which they didn’t put things on the front page that would make a difference” while, from August 2002 to the start of the war in March 2003, did the Post, according to its press critic, Howard Kurtz, publish “more than 140 front-page stories that focused heavily on administration rhetoric against Iraq”?

Q. Why did Michael Massing’s critique of Iraq-war coverage, in the New York Review of Books, conclude that “The Post was not alone. The nearer the war drew, and the more determined the administration seemed to wage it, the less editors were willing to ask tough questions. The occasional critical stories that did appear were…tucked well out of sight.”

Q. Why did the New York Times and others parrot administration claims about Iraq’s acquisition of aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons when independent experts were readily available to debunk the claims?

Q. Why did the Times’s Thomas E. Friedman and other foreign affairs specialists, who should have known better, join the “let’s-go-to-war” chorus?

Q. Why was a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace accusing the administration of misusing intelligence by misrepresenting and distorting it given two paragraphs in the Times and 700 words in the Post (but deep inside), with neither story citing the report’s reference to distorted and misrepresented intelligence?

Q. Why did Colin Powell’s pivotal presentation to the United Nations receive immediate and overwhelming press approval despite its evident weaknesses and even fabrications?

Q. Why did the British press, unlike its American counterpart, critically dissect the speech and regard it with scorn?

Q. Why did the Associated Press wait six months, when the body count began to rise, to distribute a major piece by AP’s Charles Hanley challenging Powell’s evidence and why did Hanley say how frustrating it had been until then to break through the self-censorship imposed by his editors on negative news about Iraq?

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