Prague, 8 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A recent article in an influential U.S. journal is highly critical of the country's two leading newspapers for failing to adequately educate the public in the run-up to last year's war in Iraq.
"One of the most insidious aspects of journalism here [is] the tendency of everybody to write similar stories to one another, to rely on the same people, and not attempt to go off and [chart] new territory."
The article, which appeared in last week's "New York Review of Books," faults "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" for not sufficiently challenging the U.S. administration's case that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Author Michael Massing accuses the papers of relying too heavily on official sources, ignoring dissenting viewpoints, and exercising self-censorship rather than risking the wrath of the administration.
It's a damning critique, both for what it says about the two newspapers in question and for what it says about journalism in general.
Massing, a frequent media critic and contributing editor to the "Columbia Journalism Review," spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from his office in New York. He describes what led him to write the story.
"The more I got into it, the more I was just struck by how, in the months leading up to the war, most of the top news organizations in the [United States] really did not do their job, in my view, which was to offer the American people good, independent analysis of the case that the administration was making for war," Massing said.
The issue of whether Iraq was hiding an arsenal of banned weapons was crucial in the decision to go to war. The U.S. administration of President George W. Bush based its claim for war at least partly on its stated belief that Iraq was hiding biological and chemical weapons and had begun to reconstitute its nuclear arms program.
That position was not widely debated, and in the end the war was supported by a majority of the population.
But in the 10 months since the end of major hostilities, no banned weapons have been found. Recently, the chief U.S. arms investigator, David Kay, said much of the intelligence on which the Bush position was based was simply "wrong."
Massing says in the months ahead of the war, coverage in both the "Post" and "Times" was heavily biased in favor of the administration. He says reporters relied too heavily on inaccurate intelligence sources close to the Bush administration, while often ignoring other, more critical voices within the intelligence community.
Part of the problem, he says, is what he calls the "pack mentality" of American journalism. By this he means journalists are often more interested in matching or beating the competition than in developing new sources and stories.
"One of the most insidious aspects of journalism here [is] the tendency of everybody to write similar stories to one another, to rely on the same people, and not attempt to go off and [chart] new territory,” Massing says. “Everyone wants to write what everyone else is doing, and it leads often to an echo chamber in journalism that I think is inimical to good journalism."
Massing says, in addition, the editors and reporters at the two papers were too timid. They were reluctant to criticize a popular president or to appear "unpatriotic" -- especially after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.
"I think [the timidity is more] a fear of being accused of being biased, having a political agenda, being unpatriotic. I think there's a tremendous fear [among journalists] -- I feel it myself when I write -- is [someone on the political right] going to [read my] article and start denouncing me as un-American? We're in a climate, I think, where political criticism is sometimes equated with lack of patriotism, and that is something that naturally is going to make people nervous," Massing said.
Massing says not all American news organizations fell into the trap of uncritically supporting the administration. He cites Knight Ridder -- a chain of 31 newspapers across the U.S. -- as almost unique among national news organizations in taking a hard look at the administration's case for war.
John Walcott, Knight Ridder's Washington bureau chief, tells RFE/RL his organization was aware early on of the dissenting claims within the intelligence community. His organization faced many of the same competitive pressures as the "Post" and "Times," but he says his group was careful to avoid falling into the "pack mentality." The secret, he says, was to focus on the story itself -- not on the competition.
"Journalists have a tendency -- probably everywhere -- to worry too much about what other journalists are doing, and I think that often can get you into trouble. What we tried to do was to keep our eye on the story, and worry about the story, and not worry about what anybody [else] was doing or not doing," Walcott said.
Walcott's experience suggests that far from alienating readers, the tough coverage may have won their respect.
Massing gives "New York Times" reporter Judith Miller -- one of the paper's chief writers on Iraqi weapons -- a chance to defend her coverage. In reply, she offers a relatively restrictive definition of journalism. She says she saw her job as simply reporting what the government thought of Iraq's weapons capabilities -- not evaluating or critiquing that position herself.
Walcott says Miller is only half right.
"This is not a choice [of one or the other]. That's a mistake. I think it is absolutely the responsibility of reporters in any free society to report accurately what the government says and does. The people are entitled to that. But the responsibility doesn't stop there," Walcott said.
The "Times" and the "Post" may have already gotten the message. Massing says since the end of the war, coverage has become more balanced. He says "The Washington Post” especially has been more aggressive in exposing the intelligence flaws ahead of the war and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.