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1 Media Culpas: Prewar Reporting Mistakes at the New York Times and Washington Post How did a country on the leading edge of the information age get this so wrong and express so little skepticism and challenge? —Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler In the early months of 2007, a federal courtroom in Washington, D.C., hosted the unusual spectacle of journalists testifying about their behindthe -scenes interactions with executive branch officials. The trial of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the result of a three-year investigation by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, occasioned a rare glimpse into how the news is made. Legally, the trial resulted in Libby’s conviction for lying under oath, which was subsequently nullified when President George W. Bush commuted his sentence. Yet the trial also exposed the close relationships journalists have with their official sources. The resulting parade of journalists spilling details of their encounters with sources was, in the view of the Washington Post ombudsman, a “disaster for the media.”1 Understanding this trial requires an appreciation of not only the events leading up to Libby’s conviction, but also misgivings over the central role unnamed sources played in reporting on Iraq between the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the start of the war two and a half years later. It is no understatement to label 9/11 a moment of rupture for many sectors of American life. This was true for journalists who, on that blue-sky autumnal morning, mediated collision and collapse to a watching world. In the immediate aftermath, the quest for answers—explanatory, cultural, spiritual—became the driving news story. The summer news slumber of shark attack stories and the disappearance of Washington intern Chandra i-x_1-206_Carl.indd 31 1/21/11 2:48:31 PM Levy gave way to a primer on foreign relations, global terrorism, and national security. On television, the news diet reverted to a menu reminiscent of an earlier era of hard news.2 With the aftermath came a newfound improved estimation of both the news and the government; 89 percent of Americans rated the news as excellent or good in the week after the attacks.3 President George W. Bush saw similar gains in popularity when his approval rating soared from a scant majority before the attacks to 90 percent afterwards.4 Likewise, Congress saw its rating increase to 80 percent approval.5 It was a moment of cohesion in the face of tragedy—one that endowed the press and politicians with a widespread trust and dependency. This was not a purely positive development. The violence of the attacks induced a retributive bellicosity that led to two wars: Afghanistan, beginning in November 2001, and Iraq, beginning seventeen months later in March 2003. During the period, reporters operated within a charged political environment in which patriotism and support for government officials remained a barrier to critical reporting.6 This environment, coupled with increased scrutiny by nontraditional media forms ranging from talk radio to blogs, compelled journalists to display a particular cautiousness with their reporting. Michael Massing noted how reporters avoided stories that would have conservative critics “branding them liberals or traitors—labels that could permanently damage a career.” As a result, “journalists began to muzzle themselves.”7 During this era, journalists faced several obstacles dissuading them from critical work, including a Bush administration determined to promote its policies and squash divergent views. It was in this environment on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq that much of the journalistic community echoed the certainty espoused publicly by the Bush administration—certainty that the rush to a second war barely a year and a half after the attacks on September 11, 2001, was necessary for confronting the grave threat posed by the dictatorial Iraqi regime. This assuredness sprang from public arguments repeated across the Bush administration by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and others. While the case for war put forth by the U.S. government warrants questioning, the broader effort to understand the drive to war must also focus on how journalists, particularly through their use of unnamed sources, endowed intelligence claims with an unearned corroboration—and then had to respond to criticism for doing so. High-level officials speaking under condition of anonymity provided the core material for a layer of reporting seconding public claims of Iraqi malfeasance posed by the Bush 32 . chapter 1 i-x_1-206_Carl.indd 32 1/21/11 2:48:31 PM administration...


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MARC Record
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