August 13, 2004

Washington Post Rethinks Its Coverage of War Debate


The executive editor of The Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr., said in yesterday's newspaper that he and other top editors had erred before the war in Iraq by not giving front-page prominence to more articles that cast doubt on the Bush administration's claims that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

"We were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale,'' Mr. Downie said in a front-page article that assessed the newspaper's prewar coverage. "Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part.''

The Post article is one of several that have appeared in recent months in which news organizations have begun to publicly second-guess their coverage of the war. In May, The New York Times published a 1,220-word article in which the newspaper's editors acknowledged that in the run-up to war they had not been skeptical enough about articles that depended "at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on 'regime change' in Iraq whose credibility has come under increasing public debate.''

In late June, in an issue of The New Republic devoted to answering the question "Were We Wrong?'' an editorial acknowledged that "the central assumption underlying this magazine's strategic rationale for war now appears to have been wrong.''

News organizations are not restricting their hindsight to the war in Iraq, but also, in the case of The Herald-Leader of Lexington, Ky., looking at coverage of the civil rights movement four decades ago.

These journalistic mea culpas are being made in a news media landscape vastly different than it was just a few years ago, when newspapers were often reluctant to admit their errors. While surveys show that the public's generally low opinion of journalists and journalism has remained relatively constant, news organizations are now subject to more scrutiny, including by Web logs.

"One of the takeaways of this - both The Post's self analysis, and The Times's criticism of itself - is that they help demystify newspapers,'' said Jack Shafer, press critic of the online magazine Slate. "It shows readers, 'We are not oracles, we are not prophets, at newspapers.' ''

Among the examples cited yesterday in The Post of articles that, in hindsight, appear prescient but were played deep inside the paper at the time was one by Walter Pincus, a veteran investigative reporter. It ran on March 16, 2003, on page A17, under the headline, "U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms.''

Howard Kurtz wrote in The Post yesterday that the article, which questioned how much proof the administration had amassed of supposed Iraqi weapons stockpiles, "ran into stiff resistance from the paper's editors.''

Mr. Kurtz, the newspaper's media writer, added: "His piece ran only after assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, who was researching a book about the drive toward war, 'helped sell the story,' Pincus recalled. 'Without him, it would have had a tough time getting into the paper.' ''

"We did our job but we didn't do enough,'' Mr. Woodward said to Mr. Kurtz, "and I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder.''

For all of its contrition, Mr. Kurtz's article does not represent an official statement on behalf of The Post. In an interview yesterday, Steve Coll, the paper's managing editor, said that the idea for the article had been Mr. Kurtz's, and that he and Mr. Downie had recused themselves from editing it. Eugene Robinson, an assistant managing editor who is primarily responsible for the Style section, shepherded the article.

"We did not make a determination from our offices that we needed to commission an investigation into these issues,'' Mr. Coll said.

While Mr. Shafer and Michael Massing, a press critic and contributor to The New York Review of Books, applauded The Post just for undertaking such a review, regardless of its findings, Erik Wemple, editor of Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly, said he was left wanting more.

"My takeaway from it was, 'Hey, we didn't play things properly on the front page,' and to me that statement is not front-page news,'' Mr. Wemple said. "I think that minimizes dramatically the sort of mistakes The Post and the entire media made. They did not throw enough resources at the 'anti' argument.''

He added, "It's not just a placement problem.''

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