When the New York Times apologized to readers May 26 for not being "more aggressive" in examining the administration's decision to invade Iraq, editors couldn't help but give a nod to a less-vaunted news organization that had been beating the Times on the story for some time: Knight Ridder's Washington bureau.
The contrast in coverage was stark at times. On September 8, 2002, the Times proclaimed in a front-page headline, "U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts." Knight Ridder had two days earlier proclaimed, "Lack of hard evidence of Iraqi weapons worries top U.S. officials." Knight Ridder continued with headlines like "Troubling questions over justification for war in Iraq" and "Failure to find weapons in Iraq leads to intelligence scrutiny," even as most other major media outlets sang a tune more in line with the Bush administration.
It wasn't until February that Michael Massing bestowed some of the first accolades on Knight Ridder, writing in The New York Review of Books: "Almost alone among national news organizations, Knight Ridder had decided to take a hard look at the administration's justifications for war."
A few weeks earlier, Knight Ridder Washington reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay received the Raymond Clapper Memorial award from the Senate Press Gallery for their coverage of the sketchy intelligence used to justify war with Iraq.
For about a year-and-a-half, the pair had filed compelling stories on the issue and, on many occasions, it seemed like they were banging the drum alone. It wasn't until earlier this year, when it became increasingly apparent Hussein had not been stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, that other news outlets grew more critical of the administration.
Strobel says their conclusions came from a lot of extra digging and source-building they were forced to do without the red-carpet access to high-level officials that some of the nation's top media outlets enjoy.
"Knight Ridder is not, in some people's eyes, seen as playing in the same ball field as the New York Times and some major networks," Strobel says. "People at the Times were mainly talking to senior administration officials, who were mostly pushing the administration line. We were mostly talking to the lower-level people or dissidents, who didn't necessarily repeat the party line."
Those sources, Knight Ridder Washington Editor Clark Hoyt adds, were "closest to the information."
"I'm not saying we didn't have any top-level sources," Strobel says, "but we also made a conscious effort to talk to people more in the bowels of government who have a less political approach to things."
Their effort paid off in the fall of 2002, when a story critical of the administration's case for war generated a small, but encouraging, response. "We got two or three unsolicited calls from people in government saying, 'You're asking the right questions. Keep it up,'" Landay recalls.
With three of Knight Ridder's newspapers in cities with military bases
providing a large number of troops for the war — Lexington, Kentucky; Macon, Georgia; and Fort Worth, Texas —
Landay says the chain had a special
obligation to the story.
At first, Hoyt says, Knight Ridder papers gave Landay and Strobel's stories inconsistent play. But "as time went by, the play got better and better."
And the heat, hotter.
"As the pressure built on the administration and their case got shakier and shakier, there was obviously a lot greater stress, and there was some shouting that was done at us over the telephone," Hoyt says. Some of those calls came from well-known names in high places, Bureau Chief John Walcott adds, declining to drop any names.
Around that time, the White House turned up the pressure, Strobel says, and "tried to freeze us out of briefings."
Landay adds: "I think this administration may have a fairly punitive policy when it comes to journalists who get in their face. And if you talk to some White House reporters, there is a fear of losing access." He says that fear may have played into the relatively uncritical approach of news organizations like the Times.
Another likely factor in that equation were the calls for national unity following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. "Many other news organizations were willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, particularly in the post-9/11 environment," Strobel says. "We were not."
The Times' editor's note, which acknowledges Knight Ridder in its seventh paragraph, applauds the chain's efforts to examine "the failings of American and allied intelligence" in Iraq, adding, "it is past time we turn the same light on ourselves."
The note suggests a variety of reasons for the paper's failings, everything from the faults of "individual reporters" (without naming any) to editors "perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper" to a lack of proper follow-ups, especially when key sources for several Times accounts were later found not to be credible.
The Times declined to elaborate on the editor's note.
Susan Moeller, a University of Maryland journalism professor who has studied the way various news organizations covered questions about weapons of mass destruction, says a "patriotic bounce from 9/11" is one of the best ways to explain the disparity in stories. When most of the media covered reports of WMD in North Korea, news outlets made clear the uncertainty of those claims. With Iraq, it was more or less stated as fact that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction "and the question is, 'What do we do with them?' " Moeller says.
Few, if any, covered Iraq differently, but, Moeller says, "Knight Ridder was among them."
"We felt they were ahead of the curve with some of their stories," says Carl Leubsdorf, Washington bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News and a member of the panel that judged entries for the Clapper award. "They sort of set the ball rolling about whether the CIA had provided proper information to the administration and whether the administration made proper use of it."
Strobel says it has been a "dream story" to cover. It's also the most important story any reporter can cover, Hoyt adds.
"Anytime the nation is about to go to war and commit itself to something that drastic, there ought to be a full and open examination of a case and everything ought to be out there for people to see and make judgements about," Hoyt says. "That really was not the case here."
"I think the failure of the media in general in covering this story," Landay says, "is as egregious as the intelligence failure."
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