Going It Alone: Accolades Now Come to Knight Ridder for Its Prescient Reports Expressing Skepticism about Claims That Iraq Had Weapons of Mass Destruction

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When the New York Times apologized to readers May 26 for not being "more aggressive" in examining the administration's decision to invade Iraq, editors couldn't help but give a nod to a less-vaunted news organization that had been beating the Times on the story for some time: Knight Ridder's Washington bureau.

The contrast in coverage was stark at times. On September 8, 2002, the Times proclaimed in a front-page headline, "U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts." Knight Ridder had two days earlier proclaimed, "Lack of hard evidence of Iraqi weapons worries top U.S. officials." Knight Ridder continued with headlines like "Troubling questions over justification for war in Iraq" and "Failure to find weapons in Iraq leads to intelligence scrutiny," even as most other major media outlets sang a tune more in line with the Bush administration.

It wasn't until February that Michael Massing bestowed some of the first accolades on Knight Ridder, writing in The New York Review of Books: "Almost alone among national news organizations, Knight Ridder had decided to take a hard look at the administration's justifications for war."

A few weeks earlier, Knight Ridder Washington reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay received the Raymond Clapper Memorial award from the Senate Press Gallery for their coverage of the sketchy intelligence used to justify war with Iraq.

For about a year-and-a-half, the pair had filed compelling stories on the issue and, on many occasions, it seemed like they were banging the drum alone. It wasn't until earlier this year, when it became increasingly apparent Hussein had not been stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, that other news outlets grew more critical of the administration.

Strobel says their conclusions came from a lot of extra digging and source-building they were forced to do without the red-carpet access to high-level officials that some of the nation's top media outlets enjoy.

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"Knight Ridder is not, in some people's eyes, seen as playing in the same ball field as the New York Times and some major networks," Strobel says. "People at the Times were mainly talking to senior administration officials, who were mostly pushing the administration line. We were mostly talking to the lower-level people or dissidents, who didn't necessarily repeat the party line."

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Those sources, Knight Ridder Washington Editor Clark Hoyt adds, were "closest to the information."

"I'm not saying we didn't have any top-level sources," Strobel says, "but we also made a conscious effort to talk to people more in the bowels of government who have a less political approach to things."

Their effort paid off in the fall of 2002, when a story critical of the administration's case for war generated a small, but encouraging, response. "We got two or three unsolicited calls from people in government saying, 'You're asking the right questions. Keep it up,'" Landay recalls.

With three of Knight Ridder's newspapers in cities with military bases providing a large number of troops for the war--Lexington, Kentucky; Macon, Georgia; and Fort Worth, Texas--Landay says the chain had a special obligation to the story.

At first, Hoyt says, Knight Ridder papers gave Landay and Strobel's stories inconsistent play. But "as time went by, the play got better and better."

And the heat, hotter.

"As the pressure built on the administration and their case got shakier and shakier, there was obviously a lot greater stress, and there was some shouting that was done at us over the telephone," Hoyt says. Some of those calls came from well-known names in high places, Bureau Chief John Walcott adds, declining to drop any names.

Around that time, the White House turned up the pressure, Strobel says, and "tried to freeze us out of briefings."

Landay adds: "I think this administration may have a fairly punitive policy when it comes to journalists who get in their face. …