While Mike Allen equated critics of White House press corps' war coverage with "left-wing haters," ex-colleague Dobbs wrote, "We failed you"

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

On Mike Gallagher's radio show, Mike Allen said of Scott McClellan's new book: "Scott does adopt the vocabulary, rhetoric of the left-wing haters. Can you believe it in here he says that the White House press corps was too deferential to the administration ... in the run-up to the war?" By contrast, two of Allen's former colleagues echoed the media criticism of Allen's so-called "left-wing haters." Michael Dobbs asserted that "on the question of whether the American press did its job properly during the run-up to the Iraq war, it is difficult to argue with his conclusions. We failed you." Similarly, Howard Kurtz stated that print coverage during the run-up to the war was "flawed," adding: "It was only when violence surged in Iraq and public opinion began turning against the war that ABC, CBS, NBC, and the rest of the media turned more skeptical."

On the May 27 edition of Mike Gallagher's nationally syndicated radio show, Politico chief political correspondent Mike Allen responded to criticisms of the media's role in the lead-up to the Iraq war that former White House press secretary Scott McClellan makes in his new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception (Public Affairs, May 2008), as the blog Think Progress first noted. Allen, a Washington Post staff writer during the prewar period, asserted on Gallagher's show: "Scott does adopt the vocabulary, rhetoric of the left-wing haters. Can you believe it in here he says that the White House press corps was too deferential to the administration ... in the run-up to the war? Now, I don't think Scott felt that way when he was up at the podium like a punching bag, but that's what he said." By contrast, two of Allen's former Post colleagues -- reporter Michael Dobbs and media critic Howard Kurtz -- echoed the media criticism of Allen's so-called "left-wing haters." Dobbs, who writes the washingtonpost.com blog The Fact Checker, awarded McClellan's statement about the press a Gepetto checkmark for providing "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" and asserted that "on the question of whether the American press did its job properly during the run-up to the Iraq war, it is difficult to argue with his conclusions. We failed you." Similarly, Kurtz stated that print coverage during the run-up to the war was "flawed," adding: "It was only when violence surged in Iraq and public opinion began turning against the war that ABC, CBS, NBC, and the rest of the media turned more skeptical."

In a May 29 blog post, Dobbs wrote:

As a reporter who was part of The Washington Post's foreign policy team during the period 2002-2003, I have thought about this question a lot over the past five years. Many of my colleagues have dismissed McClellan's criticisms, insisting that they asked "all the right questions" during the run-up to the war, and it was hardly our fault if the administration failed to answer them honestly. I disagree. I think the American media -- and that includes me, personally -- failed to do its job properly during the run-up to the war.

[...]

None of this absolves the media of its share of the blame for uncritically relaying the administration's case for war, as articulated by the likes of Scott McClellan. As I look back on my own reporting during the runup to the war, there are articles to which I can point with pride and others I would prefer to forget. But the bottom line is that we spent too much time, as McClellan says, "covering the march to war" rather than "the necessity of war." We devoted a lot of attention to the small questions -- the counting of votes in Congress and the United Nations, the procedural disputes over weapons inspectors, the selling of the war -- without addressing the big questions. Was the war necessary? Would it make us Americans, and the rest of the world, safer? How would it upset the balance of power in the Middle East between Shia and Sunni (terms that were unfamiliar to most Americans)?

As I saw it here at The Post, the media's failure went from top to bottom. Editors were reluctant to give front-page prominence to stories that challenged the administration's rationale for war, including one by Walter Pincus questioning the evidence about weapons of mass destruction that ended up on page A17. But reporters (including myself) often failed to display sufficient skepticism about the administration's claims. We should have pressed our editors harder to find a way of addressing the most important questions, even if it was very difficult to find dissenters within the administration.

I should make clear that I am not singling out The Post for special criticism. With a very few exceptions (the Washington bureau of Knight-Ridder comes to mind), the entire American media failed to aggressively challenge the administration's narrative.

Discussing McClellan's comments on the May 28 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, Kurtz asserted, "Print coverage, meanwhile, was also flawed. The New York Times, which published Judith Miller's erroneous stories about Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and The Washington Post, including Bob Woodward, have expressed regret for not being more aggressive in questioning the march to war." He continued: "It was only when violence surged in Iraq and public opinion began turning against the war that ABC, CBS, NBC, and the rest of the media turned more skeptical." Kurtz also asserted, "One of my problems is that anti-war voices had limited access, it seemed, to the airwaves, while administration officials, of course, were on every day pounding home that message." In an August 12, 2004, Post article examining the paper's coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war, Kurtz reported:

An examination of the paper's coverage, and interviews with more than a dozen of the editors and reporters involved, shows that The Post published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page. Some reporters who were lobbying for greater prominence for stories that questioned the administration's evidence complained to senior editors who, in the view of those reporters, were unenthusiastic about such pieces. The result was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times.

From the May 27 edition of Salem Radio Network's The Mike Gallagher Show:

ALLEN: What's interesting about this is that Scott -- as you suggested in your lineup -- has really lost some friends over this. There's one thing the president does not like. It's people who profit at his expense. And when the publisher of this book last November, you'll remember -- they put out that little snippet where Scott --

GALLAGHER: Right, the little blurb.

ALLEN: Yeah, where Scott suggested that the president was complicit in deceiving him about the Valerie Plame matter. That was clearly not true, everybody knew that. The book now makes it clear that that wasn't true. The president heard about it, was furious. People inside don't like it. And, indeed, Scott does adopt the vocabulary, rhetoric of the left-wing haters. Can you believe it in here he says that the White House press corps was too deferential to the administration in the --

GALLAGHER: Deferential?

ALLEN: -- in the run-up to the war? Now, I don't think Scott felt that way when he was up at the podium like a punching bag, but that's what he said.

GALLAGHER: Like a deer in the headlights.

From the May 28 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

WOLF BLITZER (host): Now to one of the most provocative allegations in Scott McClellan's new book about his days in the Bush White House. The target: those of us in the news media who cover the president. The anchors of the three broadcast networks are speaking out about that very subject, reacting to McClellan's charges today.

Let's go right to CNN's Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN's Reliable Sources, also the -- from The Washington Post.

[...]

KURTZ: [CBS Evening News anchor Katie] Couric has told me that while she was at NBC, where she co-hosted the Today show, she got what she described as complaints from network executives when she challenged the Bush administration.

Print coverage, meanwhile, was also flawed. The New York Times, which published Judith Miller's erroneous stories about Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and The Washington Post, including Bob Woodward, have expressed regret for not being more aggressive in questioning the march to war.

[end video clip]

KURTZ: It was only when violence surged in Iraq and public opinion began turning against the war that ABC, CBS, NBC, and the rest of the media turned more skeptical. These days, war coverage seems to have dramatically dwindled as the network anchors and most of their colleagues focus more on politics here at home.

And, Wolf, a question for you: With the benefit of hindsight, how do you assess CNN's coverage during the run-up to the Iraq conflict?

BLITZER: I think we were pretty strong. But certainly, with hindsight, we could have done an even better job. There were a lot of things missing in our coverage that, obviously, you know ex post facto, after the fact. But certainly we raised the important questions.

I can't tell you how many times we had Scott Ritter and Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, from the International Atomic Energy Agency, on my shows and a lot of the other shows on CNN, where they suggested, you know what, they don't see the evidence about the weapons of mass destruction. They're not convinced.

But could we have done a better job? Sure. Remember, we are a first draft of history, journalism, and we can always go back and look back and say, you know, "We could have done this, we could have done that." On the whole, though, I think we asked the tough questions, but we could have done better.

KURTZ: One of my problems is that anti-war voices had limited access, it seemed, to the airwaves, while administration officials, of course, were on every day pounding home that message.

BLITZER: But you know what? We had a reporter whose sole job -- Maria Hinojosa -- was to cover the anti-war activists. And we did a lot of the protests. We did a lot of that almost on a daily basis going into this war. So we didn't ignore those anti-war protests.

KURTZ: It's always easier in hindsight.

BLITZER: Yup, you're absolutely right. Howie Kurtz, thanks very much for joining us.

Network/Outlet
The Washington Post, CNN
Person
Mike Allen
Show/Publication
Politico
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