Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have a simplistic, if terrifying, presence in the public’s imagination—as instruments of doom that threaten Americans where they live. Since September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and other administration officials have used WMD threats as powerful tools of public persuasion and as forceful rationales for policy initiatives. And many members of the press have stenographically reported the White House’s homeland security arguments without independently attempting to verify the ostensible evidence behind those arguments. Why has the WMD story been so difficult for the press to investigate and tell?

President Bush set the tone for an apocalyptic approach to the WMD issue, not only through his administration’s insistence that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD that posed an urgent and immediate threat, but also through his identification of WMD as an integral part of the 21st century terrorist arsenal. In his “Mission Accomplished” speech onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, President Bush declared that “with the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan, we have removed allies of al-Qaeda, cut off sources of terrorist funding, and made certain that no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein’s regime.”

In an article that appeared in The Washington Post on the day the President gave this speech, reporter Mark Leibovich noted the hyperbole: “The nation is being trained to consider terrorism only in its most apocalyptic forms,” he wrote. “Many sociologists, scenario planners, and counterterrorism experts believe the government and the media are too focused on extreme menaces—namely the terrorist attacks that involve weapons of mass destruction.”

Press Coverage of WMD

A recent study that I authored, “Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” conducted by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), at the University of Maryland and released in March, evaluated how the American and British press covered events related to weapons of mass destruction. The study assessed press coverage of WMD during three critical periods of time: May 1998, when nuclear tensions escalated between India and Pakistan; October 2002, when Congress approved military action to disarm Iraq and when revelations about the North Korean nuclear weapons program surfaced, and May 2003, when combat operations in Iraq were officially said to have ended and the hunt for WMD’s escalated.

This study was based on reporting by four U.S. newspapers (The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post); two British papers (The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian); three newsweeklies (Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The Economist), and two radio programs (“Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio).

In May 1998, the study found, most news organizations made careful distinctions between acts of terrorism and the acquisition or use of WMD. During the height of the South Asian nuclear tests that month, for example, few stories emphasized potentially dramatic risks, either by indicating that a nuclear holocaust threatened or that India or Pakistan’s nuclear weapons’ programs would aid and abet terrorists. (Although, with the more recent revelations about A.Q. Khan, perhaps this should have happened.) Because the Clinton administration did not represent the Indian and Pakistani tests as a national security crisis for the United States, news organizations covered the regional situation in measured tones. Neither India nor Pakistan was reflexively categorized as a “rogue” country as a result of its detonation of nuclear devices, nor did the tests prompt the labeling of either country as “evil.” News stories cited White House’s statements that Clinton was “deeply distressed,” and reports quoted Clinton calling the testing “a terrible mistake,” a relatively mild rebuke when compared to his successor’s labeling of North Korea as an “evil” regime. The comparative calm over what could have been represented as a WMD crisis was reflected in a Newsweek headline referring to Russia that dismissed the South Asian tests, “If You Really Want to Worry, Think Loose Nukes.”

Terrorism Is Rarely Investigated

By October 2002, however, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s constant linkages of terrorism and WMD and Iraq had engrained these three as a triple threat. The press accepted that linkage. Both the U.S. and U.K. media in the study tended to repeat the Bush administration’s formulation about the “war on terror” and its assertions that a core objective of this war is to prevent WMD from falling into the hands of terrorists. All “terrorism” ended up being conflated. For example, Rumsfeld’s characterization of North Korea as a “terrorist regime,” for its export of nuclear technology, was quoted frequently, but what he meant by the words “terrorist regime” was seldom explored. Nor was North Korea’s “terrorism” contrasted to al-Qaeda’s or that of Saddam Hussein.

Press reporting on the President amplified the administration’s voice. In front-page and top-of-the-news stories, the press led with the President’s analysis. When alternative perspectives were presented as part of their coverage, that evidence and analysis tended to be buried. When Bush told Americans they were vulnerable to WMD in the hands of terrorists, reporting of these statements by the press served to magnify such fears by highlighting the notion that Americans were at risk at home (rather than the case that nuclear and chemical material, in particular, are greater threats to citizens of the regions that have developed weapons programs—such as Iran and Iraq, South Asia, and the countries of the former Soviet Union). The net effect was that the coverage not only disseminated but also validated the administration’s message. Investigation and analysis of the evidence behind his statements tended to be rare—and was typically buried when it appeared—as did serious coverage of alternative voices and policy options.

By May 1, 2003, when the President made his “Mission Accomplished” speech declaring an end to major combat operations in Iraq, more journalists were seeking independent confirmation of the White House and Pentagon’s pronouncements. Still the press, as a whole, continued to show by how they reported these stories that the administration’s set of priorities was still the dominant narrative. If the White House characterized the WMD story as important, so, too, did the media. And when the White House ignored a story (or a particular angle on a story), the media were likely to do so as well. Russia’s loose nukes, for example, fell off the radar in favor of WMD stories that featured “rogue” states or terrorist groups.

The Bush administration’s message that a central objective of its war on terror was to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of American-hating terrorists made WMD a security issue of compelling importance and consistently catapulted this issue into the news. Yet seldom did news stories remind readers and listeners of the quotidian realities of terrorism—that box cutters and commercial planes were used on September 11th, for example, not vials of smallpox or dirty bombs. Nor were the real but often prosaic threats related to WMD—bio-security, for example, or fissile controls—a part of this reporting. WMD became a way to provoke a knee-jerk reaction: protect America.

Most journalists did not report evidence that might have helped readers and listeners challenge the Bush administration’s argument that WMD were inseparably part of a global terrorism matrix. The study noted that although the press usually reported individual “facts” about WMD accurately, they tended to represent nuclear, biological, radiological and chemical weapons as a single blurred hazard—a pattern of imprecision abetted by the White House’s obfuscations. Stories glossed over important differences between nuclear energy programs and nuclear weapons programs or between nuclear weapons programs and actual nuclear weapons. In the rush to coverage, substantial qualitative and quantitative differences between chemical and biological agents were also conflated. Most critically, journalists failed to recognize that these and other distinctions distorted reporting on the cost-benefit calculations to manage such risks.

The study also discovered that the priority news organizations give to breaking-news stories—and the inverted pyramid style of storytelling— gave greater weight to the administration’s point of view on WMD issues, at the expense of presenting alternative perspectives. Poor coverage of WMD appeared to result less from outright political bias on the part of journalists, editors and producers than from the journalistic convention of leading stories with the most “recent” and most “important” information as enunciated by the most “important” newsmakers. That tendency single-handedly ensured that the administration’s perspective on issues of national security and intelligence would lead the news—as long as the White House came out with a new message for each news cycle. This circumstance was reinforced by the lack of a strong political opposition in the fall of 2002 and into the spring of 2003.

What Distinguished Good Coverage

Despite these general failures in the press, the study found that not all journalists covered the WMD arc of stories similarly. The British media reported more critically on public policy than did their American colleagues—in part because there was consistent and vocal opposition among senior British political figures to some of the Blair government’s WMD policies—even though the media in both countries typically prioritized the same international WMD events.

“Revealing a Reporter’s Relationship With Secrecy and Sources”
– Barton Gellman
Yet among the news organizations studied and for the time periods investigated, there were U.S. reporters who demonstrated a consistent level of skepticism in their coverage of WMD events and issues. Reporters Barton Gellman, Walter Pincus, and Dana Milbank of The Washington Post; Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, and David Sanger and William Broad of The New York Times avoided verbatim coverage of White House statements (as did Warren Strobel, Jonathan Landay, and John Walcott of Knight Ridder and Dafna Linzer of The Associated Press, whose work was looked at for comparative purposes).

These reporters worked to include more voices, articulating different policy options, higher up in their stories. In the admittedly difficult WMD beat, they steered away from using unverifiable contentions of anonymous sources, including Iraqi exiles and defectors, and when they did use anonymous sources to shape a story, they identified the limitations and probable skew of such information. They explained the inherent uncertainties of intelligence gathering and distinguished between intelligence collection and intelligence analysis. Their stories made clear that evaluating a country’s WMD status with incomplete data was both an intelligence problem and a policy problem.

Yet before the summer of 2003, it was rare for even these reporters to probe deeply into the political choices that underlay the linkage among the events of September 11th, weapons of mass destruction, and Iraq in the war on terror. The stultifying patriotic climate not only prompted sympathetic coverage of White House policy by the American press, it silenced much of the political opposition that the media could have sought out to provide alternative voices and policy options. As a result, the American press did not act to check and balance the exercise of executive power, essential to the functioning of a civil democracy.

Susan Moeller teaches media and international affairs in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of “Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death” and is finishing a new book entitled “A Hierarchy of Innocence: Media and Public Policy in the Age of Terrorism.” This article is a revision of an earlier summary of findings in the online journal YaleGlobal. Read a PDF summary or download the full report at www.cissm.umd.edu.

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