Toothless Watchdogs: The News Media, WMD and Abu Ghraib

By Rieder, Rem | American Journalism Review, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview

Toothless Watchdogs: The News Media, WMD and Abu Ghraib


Rieder, Rem, American Journalism Review


The Senate's take on the CIA's performance in the run-up to the war in Iraq was devastating.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report "refutes every major weapons assessment laid out in a key 2002 intelligence estimate provided to lawmakers before the war and cited by Bush administration officials to justify publicly the case for an invasion," according to the Washington Post.

The panel slammed the CIA for being too cautious when it came to inserting actual spies into the country and too reticent about the caveats that should have accompanied its wrong-headed conclusions.

But the CIA is hardly the only institution that didn't cover itself with glory during this episode. The news media, with a few--very few--exceptions, also stumbled badly.

That, of course, is hardly breaking news (see "Miller Brouhaha," August/September 2003). But this was a significant failure on the part of the press, and it's important not to lose sight of what happened, and why. There are important lessons to be learned, lessons that might prevent a similar breakdown in the future.

The failure, of course, came in the context of 9/11. The terrorist attacks traumatized the United States and triggered an understandable impulse toward national unity. That, in part, explains the media's uncharacteristic lack of skepticism about the Bush administration's assertions about weapons of mass destruction. The Bush team's success in wrapping its policies in the flag and its aggressive assaults on dissenting voices are also part of the story.

Then, too, getting a clear picture was not an easy assignment. The world of WMD is a murky one. Much of the information is classified. Nevertheless, it was possible to approach the story in a much less parrot-like manner. And some did. Knight Ridder's Washington bureau distinguished itself with far less credulous coverage (see Drop Cap, page 16).

One of the keys to its success was old-fashioned gumshoe reporting. Rather than rely on top officials, reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay cultivated sources at a variety of levels in the intelligence community, the uniformed military and the diplomatic corps. Often these were people closer to the information and less committed to echoing the party line; some had serious reservations about the administration's policy. …

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