. . . Thursday August 12, 2004

We (Should’ve) Told You So

Another major publication (this time the Washington Post) has come forward to indicate that they should have been more aggressive in covering the question marks surrounding the WMD stories during the build-up to the Iraq war. Not only were they soft in their coverage of the administration’s view of things. They also buried some stories that called the WMD charges into question.

Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. explains: “We were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration’s rationale. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part.”

Of course, that in many ways is the nature of today’s front page and cable news. All the heavy hitting is saved for the front page “news analysis” stories. Better to get to the bottom of the President’s political strategy and motivations for saying or doing something than to actually see if what is being said is true. It is the nature of the beast in today’s news culture. What do you know more about? The inside baseball strategies of the Bush and Kerry camps or the details about (and the holes in) the policies they push?

Think about the fact that we have small publications and fringe political groups that are dedicated to pointing out the lies and distortions in speeches and political ads. How did the mainstream press cede that role?

Another factor? The constant Republican pounding of the unpatriotic drum works. People feel it. And reporters feel it. Dana Priest explains that when someone wrote a skeptical story, it resulted in mountains of hate mail “questioning your patriotism and suggesting that you somehow be delivered into the hands of the terrorists.”

Being afraid to think and speak freely is the best way to deliver into the hands of terrorists. That’s the truth. But that’s not the trend and the Right owns the message.

It is important to note just how dangerous this trend has become. The purpose of the press in a free and democratic society is in large part to serve as a skeptical watchdog, another check and balance on our lawmakers and leaders. The decades of pounding on the myth of the liberal press and the years of tying patriotism to blind faith has taken a mighty toll.

When it comes to journalism, the skepticism is the patriotism. How did we manage to forget that?

Remember, we’re talking about a decision that is most serious one a president and an administration can make. And the most powerful members of the press felt hesistant about questioning the very foundation on which that decision is being publicly based.

These pressroom mea culpas are interesting and may start a dialogue on these matters. But the fact that they had these WMD-related stories and buried them points to something much broader than the coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq war. It points to the incredible success of the war of ideas and message control waged by the Right Wing for the last thirty years. Somehow, a large swath of the so called liberal press was transformed into the administration’s PR department, and it even gets down to the words and phrases used to describe certain trends, events and activities.

That marks a loss, not a gain, in the level of patriotism and American spirit we see in the pages of our newspapers. That’s the truth. But it may take a long time to make that truth self-evident once again.

Concentration is important!