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Should the Media Investigate Errors in its Coverage Leading Up to the Invasion of Iraq?

StoryFebruary 11, 2004
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Michael Massing

media critic and contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

As President Bush appoints a panel to investigate how the government misread Iraq’s weapons capacity, media critic Michael Massing argues the media, especially The New York Times, should examine its role in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. [includes transcript]

Last week President Bush appointed a panel to investigate how the government misread Iraq’s weapons capacity.

A provocative new piece in the New York Review of Books argues the media should consider examining its role in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The author of piece media critic is Michael Massing. He writes "In the period before the war, US journalists were far too reliant on sources sympathetic to the administration. Those with dissenting views — and there were more than a few — were shut out. Reflecting this, the coverage was highly deferential to the White House. This was especially apparent on the issue of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — the heart of the President’s case for war. Despite abundant evidence of the administration’s brazen misuse of intelligence in this matter, the press repeatedly let officials get away with it. As journalists rush to chronicle the administration’s failings on Iraq, they should pay some attention to their own."

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Massing joins us in the studio now. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

MICHAEL MASSING: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. It’s a very comprehensive piece that goes in detail into the pieces that led up to war, some might say, beat the drums for war. Can you lay it out for us.

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, I got interested in doing this — I can remember the specific point in mid September. This is of last year, 2003. I read an Op-Ed piece in the "New York Times" by David Phillips, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and it talked about the role that Ahmed Chalab, the Iraqi opposition leader had had in affecting judgments by the administration, the input that he had had, the pentagon and other parts of the administration that had unduly pushed them into policies that turned out to be unwise. It struck me — Here I am reading this on the Op-Ed page. I have seen nothing about this in the news pages of the "New York Times," and why was that? Why wasn’t such an important story, why did we have to read it on the Op-Ed page by somebody on the council of foreign relations. I happen to run into the "Times" editor and asked him about this and asked him about this, why hadn’t the news section run this types of information about Chalab, and his answer was, well, some of our reporters were very reliant on Chalab for information, and so, they weren’t going to write critically about him. That was an interesting revelation. I began looking at this story and the role that Chalab had had. That’s where it gone. That little by little, the more I looked at the coverage. We are talking about December, 2002, to March of 2003, I was just more and more struck by how weak the reporting had been. How reliant it was on administration sources. One of the most striking things I had found was how many dissenting sources there were out there. People have tried to say that the press really did what it could at the time.

There weren’t that many alternative sources of information, but what I have found was that certain news organizations, and I single out Knight-Ridder newspapers which owns 31 newspapers, they had a team that really did set out to look at what the administration was saying, and what alternative voices were saying. We’re talking about people at — in the military, people in the intelligence services, and the diplomatic corps, who actually had access to information and intelligence and felt the administration was misleading the public.

I just began to analyze what leading newspapers and "The New York Times," the "Washington Post" and others did. I just came away very sort of dismayed at how weak the coverage was, and how little effort there was to actually take what the administration was saying and analyzing it. So, you found just one story after another beginning most notably on September 8, 2002, when "the New York Times" led the newspaper with a story about how Iraq was actively seeking these high strength aluminum tubes, which the story claimed were going to be used for centrifuges for enriching uranium, a key step on the way to producing a nuclear weapon. And the "Times" article basically took this information, and ran with it, and the headline and the lead were all about how this was evidence of Iraq’s active efforts to find a nuclear weapon. This got picked up immediately by the administration on all of the talk shows.

Condoleezza Rice used one key line from there. Most of your listeners and viewers probably aren’t aware, but the famous line, "We don’t want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud", originally appeared in "the New York Times," quoting an anonymous official. That became the prevailing line of the administration. It came by way of the "New York Times."

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush used that line —

MICHAEL MASSING: President Bush used it also.

AMY GOODMAN: — In a key speech right before congress voted on authorizing the war.


AMY GOODMAN: This piece was written by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon.

MICHAEL MASSING: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, once the piece came out, the response and — the response to the lack of dissent on this piece?

MICHAEL MASSING: Yeah. In a way, the follow-up to the piece is what I found most interesting. I talked to — made contact with David Albright, a former weapons inspector in Iraq. He took a hard line on Iraq and he felt that Saddam Hussein was trying to get weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we had to work hard on him. He had sources in the intelligence community. He runs a small think tank in Washington. When the article came out, he just felt that the record —- as much as he felt Saddam Hussein was a threat, he felt that the record had to be set straight. There were many dissents about what the aluminum tubes were intended for. He actually talked at length with Judith Miller the days after this piece came out and said, look, some people are claiming these tubes are for a nuclear program, but many experts who have examined them believe that they are not, that in fact they are intended for conventional artillery rockets, which is what the Iraqi regime itself claimed. He had many long conversations with Judith Miller about this, saying you have to do a follow-up and talk about this; if you are going to be fair. A follow-up did appear five days later, by Miller and Gordon, but it had only the slightest mention of the dissent on this; and in fact, it mentioned it only in such a way as to shoot it down, and to say, well, more senior officials feel that, in fact, these tubes are intended for nuclear programs. This is symptomatic he found, of what happened throughout -—

AMY GOODMAN: Albright was very angry about this?

MICHAEL MASSING: Yes. I quote him in my article about how he feels he was flabbergasted that after all of the conversations he had, in describing — these are specialists who have ties to the Department of Energy and also the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. He was furious. He felt that the "Times" made a conscious decision to ice out the critics. Not the "Times" but these reporters. And that it was just irresponsible of them to do that and it showed that they very much were fastened onto this particular line about Iraq seeking a nuclear weapon. Let’s remember that the nuclear issue was the key one. Most people felt they had some — had in some form of biological and chemical weapons, but that itself wasn’t enough to jolt the American people into supporting the administration. The administration itself, the White House, Pentagon pushed the nuclear issue, and "The New York Times" gave a major boost to that effort and other papers followed along.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Massing, who has a major piece in the New York Review of Books. It’s headline is, "Now They Tell Us." So let’s go on from "The New York Times" beating these drums for war, icing out the dissent, to the other papers, picking up and going from there.

MICHAEL MASSING: Well, there are — I would talk about two aspects. One is most other newspapers were similar to this. Albright did get to one other — when the "Times" would not sort of pay any attention to what he was saying, he made contact with another reporter, Joel Warrick at the "Washington Post." It is an interesting phenomenon. Warrick was an environmental reporter for a long period. He did not have all of these sort of high-ranking sources in the intelligence community, and he actually had to go out and do legwork. He began talking around. He found out that defectors were not credible sources. He used few of them. When Albright came to him with this information, and a draft report that he was doing about the dissent, Warrick ran an article about that. Unfortunately, it appeared on an inside page, wasn’t that long, didn’t get that much attention; but, as I note, it was one of the first articles to mention that there were dissents, and that people who were dissenting from the administration line were feeling pressure to — to not talk about that.

To me, that was significant because there you have — I went back and I tried to document all of these cases in which there were dissents that appeared, but they were usually buried in stories; they were put on the inside pages, and it was — the official stories like that one, about the aluminum tubes that got on the front page, and as I mentioned earlier, it was — one organization, Knight-Ridder. Really — they decided early on — they were hearing from their sources in the — in the intelligence and military communities that there was a lot of upset over this, that a lot of them felt that the information coming in to the intelligence agencies was not supporting the claims the administration was making, and they set out to do a hard analysis of this, and in my mind, they said what all of the news organizations should have been doing; which was to take the claims and report that the administration was making them, but then find a variety of sources. And one of the reporters, Jonathan Landay told me they found well more than a dozen well-placed people, military people, intelligence people and the like, who were very upset with what was happening. They wrote about Ahmed Chalab and his role and funneling information into the Pentagon in a way that few other newspapers were doing at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: And Knight-Ridder owns 31 newspapers in the United States, including Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald, The Detroit Free Press and others.

MICHAEL MASSING: I think a key thing is they don’t have a paper in Washington or New York. Even to this day when I mentioned to people, you should look at the stories, Knight-Ridder did all of this, people are unaware of it. It shows how the news media are dominated by a few major news organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: You write that Jonathan Landay was aroused when the C.I.A. released a declassified version of the New National Intelligence Estimate On Identification, which actually raised a question about the aluminum tubes.

MICHAEL MASSING: Yes. This is a fascinating case study of how journalists sort of use or don’t use official documents. This was the famous N.I.E., National Intelligence Estimate, that the C.I.A. came out with. Most journalists ran a summary of the claims which pretty much backed what the administration is saying. Embedded in this, the C.I.A. could not avoid taking note of the fact that there was a significant dissent to the key piece of information that these aluminum tubes were going to be used in centrifuges. The tubes were intercepted and were in Jordan and being looked at. And Landay reading this is — you know, he’s going down, oh, yeah, yeah, they say this. We have heard this. He gets to this paragraph about this — that some people dissent from this, and he was just so struck that the C.I.A. — this is very rare for this to happen, particularly on this issue. He began making calls based on that. What is this dissent? What is going on here? He very quickly got in touch with uranium specialists who told him, who actually inspected the tubes and told him, we don’t buy this. If you look at the their density and their other technical properties, you can see that it would be extremely unlikely that these tubes would be used for nuclear weapons. He did a story based on that. One of the future stories at that point that raised questions about this.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to say —

MICHAEL MASSING: It was there for everybody to see. It was there in the document, the C.I.A. released it.

AMY GOODMAN: We did call "The New York Times," reached Judith Miller. She declined to come on the show. I also talked to Katherine Mathis at "The New York Times" press office. She said no one from the paper would come on to discuss their coverage, though you did interview Judith Miller.

MICHAEL MASSING: I interviewed Judith Miller and Michael Gordon. I really in the article wanted to get as much input as I can from the people I was writing about. And I had hours of conversation with Judith Miller on several occasions, and even had an agreement with her to read back quotes to her for accuracy, and so, all of the quotes in there have been approved by her. Some of them are just really quite striking. I mean, she said that — my job as a reporter on intelligence matters is not to do an independent assessment of what the government says. My job is to inform the American People or our readers of what the government is saying. I just don’t know a reporter who could take that sort of approach to their job.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott McClellan better watch out. His job would be over as press secretary for the White House.

MICHAEL MASSING: I did, and I just still — Judith Miller is — she will not cede anything about the coverage. She thinks that "The New York Times" did a great job. I don’t know. She’s come in — my article is one of many that has been criticizing her, and it will be interesting to see if "The New York Times" pays any attention to all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. The "Times" did this massive expose on the reporter that they fired, Jayson Blair, for writing false stories, et cetera. It will be interesting to see them do the same kind of anatomy of coverage of their own reporting on Iraq, reporting what really matters, lies that take life?

MICHAEL MASSING: Yeah. A lot of people would like to see that happen. Part of the thing is that there’s a new regime at the "Times". Bill Keller took over from Hal Raines. It was under Raines that all of this happened. He might be looking — it’s sort of a — it’s sort of a hornet’s nest that would get stirred up by this, but know what? In talking to people at the "Times," there’s a pall hanging over the paper. They’re constantly being asked about this and there’s a sense until the "Times" does accounting on this, people are going to raise those questions and reporters are going to continue to feel like we need to do more about this.

AMY GOODMAN: We — you go on to talk about the inspections process, how the press covered it. We only have a minute, but if you could briefly address that, and how people like Mohammad El Baradei of the I.A.E.A., and how Colin Powell was treated when he went to the U.N.

MICHAEL MASSING: The I.A.E.A., which was in charge of inspecting the nuclear program in Iraq, within five weeks they went to over 100 sites. They were basically able to document that nothing was going on the nuclear front. You cannot hide this stuff very easily. His comments got almost no coverage. A few weeks later, Colin Powell appears at the U.N. And I show how the press fawned all over him. It’s a case study in how the press got captured by the atmosphere by this very respected man, giving this approach; they just fell for it all. I think it’s egg on their face, if you look back at it.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Massing, I want to thank you very much for being with us. You wrote a very in-depth piece in the New York Review of Books called, "Now They Tell Us." My brother David Goodman, and I have just finished looking at this issue and particularly looking at the "Times"; it’s called "The Exception To The Rulers — Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and The Media That Love Them."

MICHAEL MASSING: Hmm. Send me a copy.

AMY GOODMAN: That will come out in April. It’s not about what has put it out saying that the book is forthcoming. It says if you are interested in this book, you might be a interested in Acme products because it has the word oil in it.

MICHAEL MASSING: You might get a lot of readers that way.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s a blemished role of the government and the press. This is Democracy Now!. Back in a minute.

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