The President, Press and Weapons of Mass Destruction: 'Why Has the WMD Story Been So Difficult for the Press to Investigate and Tell?'

By Moeller, Susan | Nieman Reports, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The President, Press and Weapons of Mass Destruction: 'Why Has the WMD Story Been So Difficult for the Press to Investigate and Tell?'


Moeller, Susan, Nieman Reports


Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have a simplistic, if terrifying, presence in the public's imagination--as instruments of doom that threaten Americans where they live. Since September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and other administration officials have used WMD threats as powerful tools of public persuasion and as forceful rationales for policy initiatives. And many members of the press have stenographically reported the White House's homeland security arguments without independently attempting to verify the ostensible evidence behind those arguments.

Why has the WMD story been so difficult for the press to investigate and tell?

President Bush set the tone for an apocalyptic approach to the WMD issue, not only through his administration's insistence that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD that posed an urgent and immediate threat, but also through his identification of WMD as an integral part of the 21st century terrorist arsenal. In his "Mission Accomplished" speech onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, President Bush declared that "with the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan, we have removed allies of al-Qaeda, cut off sources of terrorist funding, and made certain that no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein's regime."

In an article that appeared in The Washington Post on the day the President gave this speech, reporter Mark Leibovich noted the hyperbole: "The nation is being trained to consider terrorism only in its most apocalyptic forms," he wrote. "Many sociologists, scenario planners, and counterterrorism experts believe the government and the media are too focused on extreme menaces--namely the terrorist attacks that involve weapons of mass destruction."

Press Coverage of WMD

A recent study that I authored, "Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction," conducted by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), at the University of Maryland and released in March, evaluated how the American and British press covered events related to weapons of mass destruction. The study assessed press coverage of WMD during three critical periods of time: May 1998, when nuclear tensions escalated between India and Pakistan; October 2002, when Congress approved military action to disarm Iraq and when revelations about the North Korean nuclear weapons program surfaced, and May 2003, when combat operations in Iraq were officially said to have ended and the hunt for WMD's escalated.

This study was based on reporting by four U.S. newspapers (The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post); two British papers (The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian); three newsweeklies (Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The Economist), and two radio programs ("Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on National Public Radio).

In May 1998, the study found, most news organizations made careful distinctions between acts of terrorism and the acquisition or use of WMD. During the height of the South Asian nuclear tests that month, for example, few stories emphasized potentially dramatic risks, either by indicating that a nuclear holocaust threatened or that India or Pakistan's nuclear weapons' programs would aid and abet terrorists. (Although, with the more recent revelations about A.Q. Khan, perhaps this should have happened.) Because the Clinton administration did not represent the Indian and Pakistani tests as a national security crisis for the United States, news organizations covered the regional situation in measured tones. Neither India nor Pakistan was reflexively categorized as a "rogue" country as a result of its detonation of nuclear devices, nor did the tests prompt the labeling of either country as "evil." News stories cited White House's statements that Clinton was "deeply distressed," and reports quoted Clinton calling the testing "a terrible mistake," a relatively mild rebuke when compared to his successor's labeling of North Korea as an "evil" regime. …

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