Why the Media Slept

In case you missed it -- and care -- here's an excerpt from Tom Brokaw's and Ted Koppel's discussion on "Meet the Press" last Sunday with Tim Russert about whether the U.S. media should have done a better job in scrutinizing the administration's pre-war claims of WMD in Iraq.

Both of them seem to let the mainstream media off pretty lightly, citing the lack of evidence to counter the administration's claims and the lack of a vigorous debate coming from the Democratic side of the aisle.

Both of those excuses have some truth to them -- and it's obviously hard to prove the negative that Saddam Hussein had no WMD. But as we've learned from several post-war media mea culpas, most notably from the New York Times and Washington Post, some of the stories bolstering the WMD claims were very dubiously sourced and some of the stories raising questions about them got buried deep in the paper.

I have my own theory to explain -- in part -- why the media did such a perfunctory job on the issue of pre-war WMD. And it goes like this: News organizations were so preoccupied with the logistics of covering the war in Iraq that they failed to devote enough time and resources to reporting on whether the reasons given for the war were legitimate.

For one thing, Bush telegraphed his intention to go after Saddam Hussein far ahead of the actual invasion, meaning news outlets had plenty of warning that they were going to war. Producers and editors were very concerned that their reporters would be shut out of the conflict the way they were in Gulf War I (the Pentagon's embedding concept came as a major surprise), so they spent a lot of time trying to figure out how and if they were going to get battlefield access. There were understandable concerns that this would be a very dangerous war to cover, with Iraq thought likely to use chemical weapons in the field, so they had to spend time and energy getting their reporters properly trained. Then there was the task of deciding how many and who to send to cover the conflict. I interviewed a number of folks who were mapping out their news organization's coverage of the conflict and they were preoccupied with figuring out how to do it safely and effectively.

In a way, I think Bush's rock solid determination to go to war helped him avoid scrutiny of his motives. The media went straight to war planning and pretty much skipped war questioning. There's obviously a painful lesson in that.
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