Toothless Watchdogs  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   August/September 2004

Toothless Watchdogs   

The news media, WMD and Abu Ghraib

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


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

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 wrongheaded 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).

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. After a while, Strobel says, it became clear "they were all telling us the same thing." Hard evidence of WMD in Iraq was elusive indeed.

While the Knight Ridder stories were gobbled up by people opposed to the war and chattered about on Weblogs, they were rarely chased by the heavy hitters. It's an age-old phenomenon. As Strobel says, "while Knight Ridder is a great newsgathering organization with some great newspapers, the intelligentsia and the political process don't key off of our stories like they do with the New York Times or CBS News or the Washington Post."

And so the reporting did little to dent the Washington conventional wisdom, which, as is so often the case, was far off the mark.

Strobel found it frustrating that the stories were so roundly ignored by the big boys. He also says it was "scary" to be out there all alone for so long. But, he adds with a laugh, "it's not scary now."

Some attribute the media's long delay in unearthing the horrors of Abu Ghraib to the same post-9/11 reluctance to question the administration on matters of national security (see "Missed Signals"). But it's not clear that that's the case.

By then the climate had shifted dramatically. After the administration admitted that it had put out incorrect information about Saddam Hussein shopping for yellowcake uranium in Africa, the press went after the WMD-that-weren't story with a vengeance. The free ride was over.

Much of the abuse at Abu Ghraib took place between October and December of 2003. But the story didn't erupt until CBS' "60 Minutes II" aired its photographs on April 28. That's a troubling delay, given that serious questions had arisen about the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, and an Associated Press piece on November 1 focused on alleged abuse at three Iraqi prisoner-of-war camps including Abu Ghraib.

The WMD blind spot is a vivid reminder of how valuable that watchdog role is, and how serious the consequences are when the watchdogs don't watch very closely. Says Strobel, "Many other news organizations were willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, particularly in the post-9/11 environment.

"We were not."

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