The front page of the Sunday, June 22 News & Observer carried a story by Washington Post reporter Daniel Williams headlined "Covert group forms in Iraq." Like most U.S. media accounts of the war, this one relied exclusively on information supplied by American and allied Iraqi officials. The premise: Former Saddam loyalists have formed a loose network called "the Return," whose mission is to undermine the occupation forces and drive them from the country. Members of the group were largely responsible for the recent attacks on American forces, Williams wrote.
Relegated to page 16 was another piece courtesy of the Post. Reporter Walter Pincus related how the Bush administration's claims of clear Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda, which were used last fall to win congressional and public support for the war, were contradicted by the U.S. intelligence community at the time. Drawing from a classified intelligence report that cast doubt on any such link, Pincus raised new concerns that the administration distorted or omitted pivotal facts to advance its agenda.
Readers had to search hard to find another, kindred article in the Sunday "Q" section, a heavily abridged reprint of an editorial from the English daily The Guardian. The scathing paragraph noted that American officials have cited civilian use of flares and other signals during U.S. military raids as proof of collusion with Ba'athist forces, justifying the use of force against them. In reality, The Guardian stated, the civilians were simply trying to warn their fellow citizens of the impending strike.
None of this may seem especially odd or worthy of comment. But consider the backdrop provided by another story The N&O ran the previous Sunday: A poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that a third of the American public believes the military has already found chemical and biological weapons in Iraq; those who favored the war are significantly more likely to hold that view than those who did not. Twenty-two percent think Iraq used such weapons during the war. The story also cited an earlier poll, taken just prior to the war, in which half the nation thought Iraqis were among the Sept. 11 hijackers.
By the way, for those who don't already know, all those Iraqi-related factoids are false.
Analysts had various explanations for the confusing of fact and fiction exposed by the poll. They mentioned the tendency of people to filter out information that conflicts with their beliefs; the memory loss and attention deficit disorder with which both the public and press are afflicted regarding news; and the lack of depth, substance or critical thinking in reporting. Asked on National Public Radio why he thought folks might be so misinformed about the weapons of mass destruction, the pollster who conducted the survey had a more succinct explanation. "There have been a whole series of headlines saying, 'Oh, it looks like we've found the smoking gun.' A day or two later, back on page 14, there's another story that says 'Oh, whoops, that doesn't turn out to really be the case.'"
So it could well be that a Saddam proxy called "the Return" is coordinating the opposition that is raising the American body count by the day. Or maybe The Guardian has it right, and the administration is floating the specter of Saddam to minimize what may become a serious and increasingly lethal grassroots challenge to our grand plan. For the average consumer scanning the Sunday N&O, however, relative placement and prominence dictate that the first interpretation is the one most likely to be absorbed.
Editors must make difficult decisions under great time pressure on how to play stories in their papers or newscasts. Gauging news value is a subjective exercise, to be sure, and is complicated by regional or local issues that may be pressing in one market and irrelevant in another. But that doesn't fully explain, for example, why the Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer chose to publish the poll story on page 1, whereas The N&O buried it on page 12. Not much can or should be made of a single placement decision, but at the very least an opportunity for the state's flagship paper to correct the record was largely wasted.
In contrast with its front-page coverage of the Jayson Blair scandal that brought down the two top news executives at The New York Times, The N&O has published nothing about a sister controversy now raging over Times reporter Judith Miller, whose many dispatches (both before the war and then as an embedded reporter with a military unit searching for banned weapons) from Iraq helped fan the flames of war--and public misperceptions. Miller's stories--with such headlines as "U.S. Analysts Link Iraq Labs to Germ Arms," "U.S. Experts Find Radioactive Material in Iraq" and "U.S.-Led Forces Occupy Baghdad Complex Filled With Chemical Agents"--were fed by sources with a pro-war agenda, then cited by those sources as evidence justifying the pre-emptive strike. And then, belatedly, found to be way overblown, or flat wrong.
One of her narratives, published by The N&O on April 21, led this way: "A scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq's chemical weapons program for more than a decade has told an American military team that Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment only days before the war began, members of the team said." The story went on to link al-Qaeda to Iraq and otherwise regurgitate the fundamental administration claims on which the war was based. Miller described the scientist, whom she was not allowed to interview, as standing in the distance, wearing a baseball cap, and pointing to spots in the sand where weapons material was allegedly buried. Interviewed on television newsmagazines following the story, Miller described the scientist and his claims as "more than a smoking gun ... a silver bullet."
Hell, even fuzzy-headed liberal Independent readers would have a hard time rejecting such seemingly compelling evidence, coming from an esteemed reporter with extensive expertise in chemical and biological weapons. But if any of her story ever actually panned out, that was the last anyone heard of it.
Later, Miller admitted in an e-mail obtained by the Washington Post that one of the prime sources for her stories had been exiled Iraqi leader Ahmad Chalabi, who is now angling to run the country with the backing of his U.S. partners. The perception in journalistic circles that Miller had essentially become a shill for the government has been fodder for a raging debate among media critics and inside newsrooms, but has also leaked into the pages of dailies across the country. Perhaps because it smacks too much of inside baseball, The N&O has not weighed in. But its own use of Miller's clips, however sporadic, begs the question of the paper's role in spreading misinformation--especially given that The N&O periodically reminds its readers of its impeccable ethics, good judgment and standing among the nation's elite publications.
To be fair, lambasting The N&O for its lapses is like charging a traffic violator with a capital offense. Even if it's a bit late to undo previous damage, the paper has been covering the question of whether the administration inflated claims of Iraqi nuclear and other weapons capabilities, and has reported the revelations that initial accounts of Jessica Lynch's heroic rescue were grossly inflated and inaccurate. In contrast, The Herald-Sun has published almost nothing about Lynch beyond the original, hyperventilating descriptions of commandos dodging bullets to snatch Lynch from the jaws of the enemy and other fabrications. Some of the deluded poll respondents may well use The Herald-Sun as their primary information source.
Far worse, of course, are the television networks and cable news channels, which serve as the sole news source for countless masses of citizens. In newscast after newscast, somber anchors have dutifully reported every faux weapons find and other self-serving administration claim in the constricted segments they have available. With no time to investigate unsubstantiated claims or develop stories, and little interest in airing fully fleshed pieces with nuance and context, TV news broadcasts have become the perfect propaganda vehicle. And they almost never issue corrections.
In a Columbia Journalism Review op-ed, Harper's Magazine publisher John MacArthur used Miller and other examples to conclude that "The American media failed the country badly these past eight months." The solution, he said, was for journalists and editors to exercise caution and responsibility and thus "never leave an accusation unanswered before the end of a news cycle."
The danger of not doing so, MacArthur pointed out, is best illustrated by comments made 20 years ago in the wake of a televised presidential debate. Responding to accusations that candidates Ronald Reagan and George Bush (that would be the elder, for you accuracy buffs) had distorted the words of their opponents, Bush press secretary Peter Teeley explained to the New York Times that, "You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it." If the statements turn out to be false, and if anyone chooses to correct them, Teeley said, "So what? Maybe 200 people read it, or 2,000 or 20,000."
Contact Burtman at