Follow the Leader: In Reporting on Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Media Too Often Take Their Cues from the President

Article excerpt

I showed "All the President's Men" in my journalism ethics class the other day, and the lesson that most students took away from the movie and the related Watergate case study was that good journalism is another name for dogged persistence, that ferreting out the facts is the essential journalistic challenge. There is that scene, in the beginning of the movie, where Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein grabs Robert Redford/Bob Woodward's copy to rewrite it--because Woodward garbled his prose and buried the lead.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The movie's--and my students'--assumption about writing news stories was that with practice the process becomes well-nigh automatic: Start with the most important fact and work down from there. That approach is the most efficient and the most objective.

Efficient it may be. Objective it is not. A recent study I conducted on how the American and British media covered the issue of weapons of mass destruction documented just how much writing matters and how adherence to certain journalistic conventions can lead to unbalanced coverage.

The study evaluated both the number and qualitative aspects of stories during three periods of intensive WMD coverage: May 2003, when combat operations in Iraq were officially said to have ended and the hunt for WMDs escalated; October 2002, when Congress approved military action to disarm Iraq and when revelations about North Korea's nuclear weapons program surfaced; and May 1998, when nuclear tests escalated the tensions between India and Pakistan. The study examined the reporting of four U.S. newspapers (the Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post) and two London papers (the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian), as well as three newsweeklies (Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and The Economist) and National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."

Again and again, breaking-news conventions caused journalists to lead with the most "important" news--which often in the case of WMD meant reporting what the president had to say. Following a major speech by President George W. Bush on October 7, 2002, for example, the New York Times' front-page story led with a lengthy reiteration of Bush's warning to the country: "President Bush declared tonight that Saddam Hussein could attack the United States or its allies 'on any given day' with chemical or biological weapons. In a forceful argument for disarming Iraq or going to war with that country, he argued that 'we have an urgent duty to prevent the worst from occurring.' ... [H]e said, 'confronting the threat posed by Iraq is crucial to winning the war on terror.'"

A British paper, the Daily Telegraph, also led its next-day paper with Bush's charges: "Saddam Hussein is considering using unmanned aircraft to attack the United States with chemical or biological weapons and has worked hand-in-glove with al-Qa'eda, President George W. Bush said last night."

The media amplified the administration's voice through their coverage of the president and by leading with what he had to say. When Bush told the country that Americans were vulnerable to WMD in the hands of Saddam Hussein, the media effectively magnified those fears. The "job" of reporting White House, Pentagon or other official administration statements had the effect of further validating those messages.

Such reportage would have been less problematic if conspicuous attention had been given to fact-checking the administration's assertions or to voices offering alternative evaluations or policy options. But those stories, when they existed, were often buried, or their criticism was more implicit than explicit. Prominent critical articles, such as an October 22, 2002, page-one Washington Post story by reporter Dana Milbank, headlined "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable," were rare.

Yet the dilemmas inherent in covering the president went beyond the question of how to report Bush's messages without de facto endorsing them. …