It’s always been a tug-of-war between secretive government officials and those whose job it is—the press—to hold them and their actions accountable. In peaceful times, no elected leaders, no appointed administrators want their decisions rigorously examined, policies held up to criticism, or actions questioned. In times of war, government leaders evoke patriotism to shield against what they regard as press intrusion. Ask probing questions, push for unforthcoming answers, and journalists find government officials clamping down on access and public support of their mission diminishing.
This journalistic scenario—as well as many other issues of government/press relations—surfaced as the Bush administration prepared to fight the war in Iraq. On the following pages, journalists write about how well the press, both print and broadcast, performed. In their words, and in quotes excerpted from commentaries and articles published before and during the Iraq War, there is opportunity to think critically about how well the press did and what aspects of their coverage could use improvement.
Paul McMasters, the First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, describes how governmental news managers exploit the public’s low regard for the press and journalists’ timidity during times of national distress. “Unless and until the Washington press corps challenges the system of news manipulation, the risk is that the American press, in general, will become less and less a component of democratic decision-making and more and more an irrelevance to citizens seeking to serve as real partners in their own governance,” he writes.
Murrey Marder, former chief diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, explores consequences that have occurred when journalists have held back from probing policies and actions for which government officials should have been held more accountable. “There has always been a compelling need for the press to be on maximum alert, especially when war is in the air …,” he writes. “When war is near, the burden on the press is greater than usual to be skeptical about official pronouncements and to ask probing questions.” Yet, in the wake of the September 11th attacks, Marder observed that the administration, already unusually secretive, implied “a lack of patriotism to critics who questioned its restrictions on antiterrorist information,” and this likely influenced press interactions with the President.
Michael Getler, ombudsman for The Washington Post, praises, for the most part, news coverage of the Iraq War and the Pentagon’s decision to embed reporters with U.S. forces. Where he finds fault is in reporting that led up to the war. He raises questions and shares observations about what the public failed to learn because the press didn’t report it. For example, he writes: “The United States told the world it had hard intelligence [about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq]. The Iraqis undoubtedly had some capabilities. But were they exaggerated in the telling? Did news organizations press hard enough for answers and evidence to back up these claims?”
In a lecture he gave at the University of Kentucky, Bob Edwards, host of National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” criticized the White House press corps for its timid questioning of the President at his press conference before the war. In an article adapted from his lecture, he sets forth questions he would have asked and worries about why tougher questions weren’t asked. Sam Donaldson, who twice worked as ABC News White House correspondent, picks up on this theme by explaining how reporters on this beat can ask better questions. He advises, for example, “Don’t ask multiple part questions. Ask one question. Make it simple and pointed. … [Ask a multiple-part question] and the President has the option of answering part a, part b, part c, or none of the above.”
New York Times reporter Chris Hedges delivered the Nieman Foundation’s Joe Alex Morris, Jr. Memorial Lecture in March and spoke about his experiences covering war and, in excerpts from it, he speaks about how, as a reporter, he was “drawn into the world of war …. War’s sickness had become mine.” Nancy Bernhard, who teaches “Reporting From the Front” in Harvard’s Expository Writing Program, writes about how the Pentagon’s decision to embed reporters might change public perception about the role of the press. “[T]o the extent that it dispels the perception of journalists as spoilers, it opens a small window to more tolerance for genuine democratic debate.”
Danny Schechter, who writes the daily “news dissector’s” Weblog, describes the value of being able to immediately compare and contrast U.S. and foreign coverage of the war. Being saturated in this mix of coverage “forces me to conclude that much of what passes for journalism here is seen as nothing but propaganda by people in other countries, and by an increasing number of Americans, who are turning to international Web sites to find the kind of news they can no longer get here.” In a column we reprint, Rami G. Khouri, executive editor of The Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon, explains why using American or Arab media alone as primary sources of news and analysis doesn’t work. “[W]atch both sides to get a complete view of events on the ground and in people’s minds,” he says.
Gwen Lister, editor of The Namibian, also shares a column in which she wrote critically of U.S. policy and war coverage, expressing her view that U.S. reporters were being manipulated by their government. “It is evident,” she writes, “that objective journalism has been lost in the ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario, in which Iraq is openly referred to as ‘the enemy.’” From Thailand, Songpol Kaopatumtip, an editor at the Bangkok Post who writes a Web column called “Eye on the Thai Press,” shows us how media in his country reported on and editorialized about the war. From China, Yuan Feng, an editor with China Women’s News, describes how coverage of the war in Iraq “has unleashed the Chinese media and let them release their long-constrained impulse to act as real news media.” Television news, in particular, drew increased viewership. And from Germany, Martin Gehlen, a political writer at Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin, reports that “In its daily coverage, the German media’s focus was very much on the horrors of war and of the potential casualties of the air bombardments, the propaganda being put forth by both sides, and on the worldwide protests of the peace movement.”