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David Warsh: The Newspapers and the War in Iraq

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David Warsh:

The Newspapers and the War in Iraq: Like many others in the commentary business, I went back last week and read what I was writing around the time of the US invasion of Iraq. I was not very happy…. I was a reluctant endorser of what I understood to be the Bush Administration’s aims for the war, though by the end of the year, in "Texas against the World", I had, like many others, turned around.

Reading over my clips from 2003 I noticed… I was forming my views… from the newspapers that I read…. Over thirty years, [Wall Street Journal op-ed] editor Robert Bartley built his fief into the single most powerful venue in the print media, championing supply-side economics in the 1980s and the Whitewater investigations in the  ’90s, before stepping down in 2002 to write a column…. Equally interesting in September 2001 was what was going on uptown, at The New York Times. A new executive editor, Howell Raines, had just taken charge, determined to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Joseph Lelyveld, by “trigger[ing] news” instead of merely reporting it when it happened…. Aggressive reporting, especially by Judith Miller, helped set the stage for the war. As Times public editor Daniel Okrent later wrote, “To anyone who read the paper between September 2002 and June 2003, the impression that Saddam Hussein possessed, or was acquiring, a frightening arsenal of W.M.D. seemed unmistakable.”  Nor was Miller the only Times reporter whose stories proved useful in making the case for going to war….

[I]t seems to me that belly-bumping between Howell Raines and the WSJ played a large part in overriding what otherwise might have been the instinctive caution of an institution with memories of how it had led the way into Vietnam…. The Times got its Pulitzer Prizes in 2002, but the WSJ got the war that it wanted the following year.

As it happened, Raines quit the Times under pressure from his boss in May 2003, just as the Iraq invasion was turning into an occupation. The proximate cause was concern about the fabulist Jayson Blair, who had risen rapidly under Raines, although the Miller stories probably had something as well….

And The Washington Post? The enthusiasm of its editorial page for the war has been widely noted, but I don’t have a clue where it was coming from…. Some think the Post played a more influential role in than either of the other papers. I doubt it, but then I don’t live in the District.  In an editorial last week, the Post was unrepentant: “For the first time in decades, contemporary Iraq poses no threat to its neighbors, and parts of the country are flourishing. But violence continues, the central government appears to be crumbling, and the United States, by failing to live up to its promises of partnership, is tipping the country toward deeper trouble.”

What’s wanted, eventually, is a close consideration of the dynamic among the Times, the WSJ and the WPost in those years, apart from the vision of their role as a passive sounding board upon which various factions of the Bush Administration played out a dangerous fable. This is most definitely not the sort of thing that a public editor does, even when there is a public editor to act as after-the-fact conscience. (The Post recently eliminated its in-house critic’s position.) Memoirs, oral history, close textual analysis, scholarship will all play a part.  An analysis of the role the newspapers played in fomenting the war won’t be forthcoming anytime soon.

But this much is clear already. Once Raines was out, the delirium that had troubled the Times subsided…. [T]he editorial page of the WSJ  remains on its forty-year toot…

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