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American Journalism Review
Flaws in the System  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   October/November 2004

Flaws in the System   


Flaws in the System

I read with great interest Steve Ritea's "Going It Alone" piece in the August/September issue of AJR. The article rightly praises Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay of the Knight Ridder chain for their excellent reporting challenging the administration's claims vis--vis Iraq's pre-war stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. As you note, Strobel and Landay displayed the traits of good reporters everywhere: appropriate skepticism of received wisdom, dogged research and willingness to challenge authority.

But their success also points to three more systemic flaws in much mainstream reporting on issues concerning the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and related delivery systems. One fundamental weakness of much reporting is ignorance -- reporters with little background in the intricacies of atomic physics or biological weapons dispersal or the experience of weapons inspections are unlikely to be able to challenge what they hear from administration or intelligence officials supposedly "in the know." A second is the competition for scoops from administration sources with limited access to classified information, providing the administration with a golden opportunity for unchallenged spin. A third common fault is that, perhaps because of deadline pressures, many reporters (unlike Landay and Strobel) don't take the extra step of asking outside experts to evaluate controversial claims. A veritable cottage industry of experts on nonproliferation proves another valuable check against groupthink on intelligence assessments -- journalists and editors would be well-advised to take advantage of them.

Miles Pomper
Editor, Arms Control Today
Washington, D.C.

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