On the WAR Path

By Mitchell, Greg; Strupp, Joe et al. | Editor & Publisher, January 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

On the WAR Path


Mitchell, Greg, Strupp, Joe, Astor, Dave, Editor & Publisher


As public opinion swirls, the press must dig deeper for answers to key questions surrounding the likely attack on Iraq

Smooth ramp-up to war, or slippery slope? Now that the Super Bowl and Golden Globes are over, Americans are finally ready to debate an attack on Iraq. Yet, as Michael Getler, The Washington Post's ombudsman, observed recently, "Whatever was proper, there now seems, to me at least, a sense of unreality about this moment" and, worse, "as a citizen, and a consumer of news, I don't feel prepared." Much of the fault for this rests with the officials planning the war, who have not fully explained the reasons for it, but no small measure also resides with U.S. newspapers.

Now, with polls showing rising doubts about the wisdom of a war at this moment, E&P examines some of the issues the press should -- indeed, must -- confront before the bombs start falling. Also, we describe some surprising views from the boardrooms, from the editors' lairs, and from the journalistic trenches.

The story so far

Nearly everyone E&P talked to last week, on all sides of the issue, agrees the prelude to war has been exceedingly difficult to cover. "It is much tougher these days because the desire to control is greater," observes David Halberstam, who first came to fame covering the Vietnam War for The New York Times. "I think the press has done well asking questions. But most people who have Vietnam in their bones are uneasy about this war."

Phil Bronstein, who covered the Persian Gulf War for the San Francisco Examiner and now edits the San Francisco Chronicle, says: "News is managed more than ever by very smart and shrewd people. We've done a relatively good job of getting through that, but there is a lot we don't know and a lot we are not finding out. A lot of questions are being asked, but they are not being answered."

Still, press coverage overall has been "as aggressive as you can be on a subject that is complicated and closely held," says Bill Keller, columnist for The New York Times. "I think newspapers have learned their lesson from the Gulf War: not to let yourself be too dependent on the military handlers." Howell Raines, the Times' executive editor, explains, "We approach this story with the full knowledge that the military is not always forthcoming."

This has led to a reliance on leaks, making Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post's media critic, nervous: "I continue to be amazed at all the specific leaks about timing and war plans. Sometimes the press is all but sending Saddam an AOL instant message on the week and time an invasion might take place."

As with so many press issues, where you sit depends on where you stand, politically. Those who favor a pre-emptive strike on Saddam Hussein tend to feel coverage so far has been fine (with a few caveats), while opponents of a quick war find fault.

Washington Post Writers Group columnist George F. Will, for example, believes newspaper coverage "has been amazingly thorough," adding that he doesn't think any major questions or issues have been missed in a "long, stately march to what is in essence an optional war." This is all the more surprising, he tells us, because "newspapers have been used by two groups of people: the Bush administration sending signals to Saddam Hussein, and opponents of the war -- in timeless Washington fashion -- using the press as a bulletin board for their anxieties."

Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, agrees "coverage has been like always, some hits and some misses, but, by and large, an American newspaper reader has a pretty good idea what is going on -- the debate, the stakes, the risks. There has been very good coverage." Even the antiwar movement, he says, has "gotten ample space, in The New York Times for sure."

Others with more doubts about the war express considerable criticism of the press' performance. …

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