The war in Iraq lasted less than a month. Post-war conflicts and issues will undoubtedly last for years. But the expected American military victory was, as advertised, swift and skilled. Of course, as Gulf Wars I and II show, it helps to fight the Iraqis. So the United States needs to be careful in absorbing a sense of certainty about battlefield success. North Koreans would probably fight a lot harder.

The American news-consuming public, in the end, was also well served by the Pentagon’s new policy of allowing hundreds of reporters to be “embedded” with U.S. forces for the duration of the conflict. This was a bold gamble by the Bush administration and by news organizations as well, who could not be sure how it would work and who worried that their correspondents might wind up under such tight military control that they would not be able to do their jobs properly.

As it turned out, the access and ability to file also was as advertised. The coverage presented by major newspapers, in my view, was excellent. No punches were pulled, or restrictions imposed, even when things went badly—as was shown, for example, in reports about the repulsing of the first attack by Apache helicopters by Iraqi ground fire. Readers and viewers were able to watch a war unfold in real time. Good use of experienced journalists in Washington, Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere provided context for the firsthand slices of combat reportage we were getting from the embedded correspondents on the frontline.

The conflict also helped ease three decades of acrimonious relations between the military and the media that was part of the legacy of Vietnam, when reporters could go wherever their courage took them. Ever since President Reagan took a page out of Margaret Thatcher’s beat-the-press playbook in Britain’s 1982 war in the Falkland Islands, U.S. military restrictions had gravely narrowed the ability of the American press to carry out its role as independent observer of this country at war. This was the case in Grenada, Panama, the first Persian Gulf War, and Afghanistan.

Now, not only may coverage of combat be better in the future, there will also be a trained corps of correspondents to report on conflict. Since President Nixon ended the draft in 1973, the number of reporters who have served in the military has steadily diminished.

Reporting Before the War

“Examining Press Coverage of the War”
In time, stories from the war that were missed will probably surface: a better account of Iraqi casualties; reports on what the CIA—which seems to have its own army and air force—was doing, and what some of the other Special Forces were up to.

It would be a mistake, however, if the success of the war, and the success at covering it, were to be the only lessons taken away from this conflict by American news organizations.

The more important, more difficult, but more worthwhile area of scrutiny lies in the very long run-up to the war. This period of more than a year roughly spans the moment in December 2001, when Osama bin Laden is thought to have escaped the assault on Tora Bora in Afghanistan, to the moment in March 2003 when the first American bombs fell on a building in Baghdad where it was thought Saddam Hussein was hiding and from where he also might have escaped.

Here are some questions and observations I think about as I look back over that period:

  • The Bush administration, very soon after Tora Bora, began to talk much less about bin Laden and much more about Saddam Hussein. Did American news organizations pick up on this transition quickly enough and prominently enough?
  • There was never any substantive evidence that linked Iraq and Saddam to the September 11th terrorists attacks or to bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. Yet public opinion polls continually showed that Americans sensed or thought there was a connection. So the administration made its case, including the idea that Saddam was a threat to the United States, even though there was not much to support it. The question for news organizations is whether these claims were reportorially tested and challenged sufficiently. Were news organizations inhibited to some degree in challenging for fear of seeming unpatriotic after September 11th? Or did the administration understand the connection in the public mind that ran from September 11th to Afghanistan to Iraq better than did the media?
  • Somewhere along the line, did U.S. intelligence get politicized? Was the evidence really there that Saddam indeed had all these chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting his nuclear program? What exactly was the evidence? The United States told the world it had hard intelligence. 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?
  • The administration’s new policy of preemptive war was, of course, frontpage news when it was unveiled last September. But did it get the in-depth attention and follow-up from the press that one might expect for such a bold policy in this new post-September 11th era? Were news organizations slow to realize that war, rather than just the use of force as a threat, was, in fact, very likely?
  • What about the reporting of dissent? The anti-war movement that formed with respect to a preemptive war against Iraq was underreported and underplayed for quite a while in this country. Were news organizations slow to sense and take seriously the dissent on Iraq because there had been almost no dissent to going after bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan after September 11th?
  • Early Congressional hearings, the few that were held, also received relatively little attention, as did some of the commentaries by both Republican and Democrats challenging the administration’s course in the initial build-up toward war. Why was that? Did these public events and statements not have much news value? Or were some news organizations not alert to the transition in policy and differences between Afghanistan and Iraq and to surfacing of dissent about the turn of policy toward Iraq?
  • Later on, did the press too easily adopt administration language in reporting about, for example, “coalition forces,” or “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” or “weapons of mass destruction,” while eliminating the term “fedayeen” from the description of Iraqi combatants once the conflict started?

“Readers Question Editors’ Judgments About War Coverage”
– Excerpts from a column by Michael Getler
It is impossible to generalize about “the media.” They are far too diverse these days, encompassing in the public mind everything from talk radio to the very best daily newspapers. But certainly one can say that when it comes to what could be called the “serious” press in this country—the newspapers, wire services, and major television news operations that develop and drive coverage and devote major resources to that coverage—the actual war in Iraq was a modern high point in informing the public. There was also, to be sure, a lot of tough, probing coverage by individual news organizations before the war.

Whatever one thinks of this war, it is unique and very important in many ways. It is almost certain to change a region, and it might change the world. It has rattled some old alliances, reinforced the most important one with Britain, and formed some new ones. It has expanded the role of the United States abroad and altered the way it is perceived around the world. The war grew out of a new and still controversial policy and was driven by a very determined President. The lingering question in my mind is not whether the press recorded the outcome well. We did. Rather, the question is whether we in the press paid attention enough, probed enough, and asked enough questions early enough before the war began.

Michael Getler is ombudsman for The Washington Post. He was formerly the executive editor of the International Herald Tribune. Before that he was deputy managing editor of The Washington Post.

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