Summer 2003

What Happens When Journalists Don’t Probe?

They fail to ‘fulfill their obligation to the public interest as counterweights in the American system.’

By Murrey Marder
Murrey Marder, a former Washington Post reporter and founder of the Nieman Watchdog Project, died on March 11, 2013, at age 93. In this 2003 essay, he writes about the value of watchdog reporting:


“Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible.” —Civil War General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s strategic motto.

In war no less than in peace, the acid test for freedom of the press is the critical crossroads where secrecy and democracy collide head-on. Leaders of democratic nations who launch surprise attacks mislead not only enemies but also congresses and parliaments, the press and the public, all in the name of protecting national interests.
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When war is near, the burden on the press is greater than usual to be skeptical about official pronouncements and to ask probing questions. But in times of stress, televised press conferences can lead many Americans to misconstrue intensive questioning as harassment of the President or other officials. To forestall such a public rebound, less-experienced reporters may avoid hard questions, as happened in President Bush’s last press conference before the war in Iraq began. To compound the problem, the profound shock to the nation from the September 11th terrorist attacks caused an administration noted for unusual secrecy to imply a lack of patriotism to critics who questioned its restrictions on antiterrorist information.

Journalists’ Tunnel Vision

From the outset of the Iraq war crisis, the bulk of the American press looked on it with tunnel vision as solely a military struggle to be won or lost on the battlefield. But military defeat of long-battered Iraq, with its obsolete defenses, by superpower America was never doubted by U.S. or British strategists. In three weeks of lopsided warfare, the only possible Iraqi weapon of significant threat to coalition forces—chemical warfare—never appeared.

The critical test of Bush administration strategy always was destined to come afterward—following the iconic toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue and dictatorial regime. Restoring order in a shattered, ancient nation of 25 million deeply divided people, and creating the foundation for a democracy Iraq has never experienced, was a far greater challenge for American ability and resources. However, explaining just how it planned to cope with those formidable problems was the last thing the Bush administration wanted to do before Congress or the press.

When President Bush dramatically landed on the deck of the world’s largest warship in Navy pilot’s “Top Gun” attire, he acknowledged that “We have difficult work to do in Iraq,” but avoided any time frame for it, as he called the military phase of the task “one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001 and still goes on.”

Images are of major significance in war and politics, and the President’s carefully planned descent on an aircraft carrier produced the ultimate image to carry into his reelection campaign, along with his commander in chief mantle. That gave him a double layer of insulation from criticism, which only wartime Presidents enjoy.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson acquired far less durable insulation from questioning when Congress handed him a blank check to launch a major war in Vietnam. Years later, Democratic Senator J. William Fulbright, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, ruefully exclaimed that in spearheading the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to passage, he had been “hornswoggled” by President Johnson. When a President hornswoggles, or bamboozles, Congress and the press, historians will tell you, the greatest default rests with those being misled for their failure to fulfill their obligation to the public interest as counterweights in the American system.

The Failure to Inquire

Congress last October had warnings that it risked repeating grievous mistakes in the Vietnam War when it gave President Bush a blank check to make war against Iraq. Yet a month earlier, the Bush White House in September 2002 had made public the rationale for a new course in U.S. foreign policy. This new policy of preemptive military engagement reached far beyond Iraq, and it was never seriously examined or debated in Congress. The press, also, in the shorthand phrase popularized in the wake of September 11th, failed “to connect the dots,” even though President Bush called it a new “doctrine”—the lofty term reserved for historic pronouncements such as the “Monroe Doctrine” and “Truman Doctrine.”

Each administration routinely publishes its own national security strategy, a compilation of foreign policy positions drawn largely from Presidential speeches and position papers. The Bush publication followed that pattern, but with significant emphasis that escaped general attention. Early accounts in The New York Times and The Washington Post, for example, noted that the Bush administration was expressing the right to conduct “preemptive war,” but reported that senior officials explained that the United States long had reserved that military option. Neither the Times nor Post printed the text; each referred readers to its Web pages for that since the original was 35 pages long.

Many references to the Bush Doctrine and to “preemptive war” were published elsewhere, without explanation of its true magnitude. The impact of the full text, however, helps to account for the caustic opposition to the American policy on Iraq that came from the French, the Germans, the Russians, and others in the United Nations Security Council.

The Bush Doctrine turns away from the half-century web of allied internationalism developed after World War II. It states, bluntly: “U.S. national security will be based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and national interests.”

President Bush first used such language before West Point graduates on June 1, 2002, in a speech that began: “The United States possesses unprecedented—and unequalled—strength and influence in the world.” To many Americans those words might sound like acceptable oratorical flourish before an admiring audience. But for the leader of the only remaining superpower to proclaim “a distinctly American internationalism” in a formal doctrine, growing out of a “war on terrorism,” expanded to “rogue states and terrorists,” and including “anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack,” challenges existing standards of world order.

Not only does the doctrine embrace “preemptive” attacks against adversaries, it acknowledges that “preemption” normally requires “an imminent threat—most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies and air forces preparing to attack.” But the United States will not be bound by that interpretation, the document shows. It specifies that: “We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries. Rogue states and terrorists do not seek to attack us using conventional means ….”

To many impartial military specialists that justification turns “preemptive war” into unlimited “preventive war,” exemplified by the war against Iraq. Iraq was targeted by the Bush administration before the terrorist attacks on the United States, as unfinished business from the Gulf War of 1991, which was led by the first Bush administration. While hailed as a great military success, that war ended with a badly botched cease-fire, on terms long obscured to the public.

The shattered Iraq military was granted permission by U.S. commanders to retain armed helicopters, supposedly to help administer their war-torn country. But when American-led forces left Iraq, the helicopters were prime weapons ruthlessly used by Saddam Hussein’s forces to crush revolts of Shiites in southern Iraq and Kurds in the north, who had been encouraged by the first Bush administration to rise up against that regime. The toll was reported to be tens of thousands of Iraqis slain.

That tortured history, deep in the consciousness of Iraqis along with decades of dictatorial brutality, was reflected in the looting, shooting and basic disorder interspersed with the welcome that greeted American and British troops, coupled with calls for their early departure.

Coverage of the War

With the United States pledged to implant democracy there, even before the war started numerous journalistic veterans began asking why younger reporters at the White House, the Pentagon and elsewhere, were not raising basic questions about how that would be accomplished and at what cost. A week before the war, Tom Wicker, who covered politics and national affairs for The New York Times for more than 30 years and then was a Times’ columnist, despairingly wrote an Editor & Publisher article listing questions unasked by the press. Among them:

 

  • “Bush administration spokesmen have made several cases for waging war against Iraq, and the U.S. press has tended to present all those cases to the public as if they were gospel …. What kind of democracy allows the leaders to take it into war without fully specifying the reasons?

  • “Should a ‘watchdog’ press present the supposed link between Iraq and al-Qaeda as if it had been demonstrated because President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell say so, or point out that it hasn’t really been proven, even at the United Nations?”

Former Nieman Foundation Curator Bill Kovach, currently chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, said in a newspaper interview that he didn’t “see enough of the skepticism we should expect of our journalists.” Kovach was quoted as saying that he understands that the “emotional state of society” after September 11th induces “a reluctance to go against the grain. But that’s made too many reporters reluctant to ask rude or embarrassing questions of the people shaping our future.”

As the war was being waged, Greg Dyke, BBC director-general , said, “Personally, I was shocked while in the United States by how unquestioning the broadcast news media was during the war.”

Surprising questions and observations were turning up on this nation’s TV and radio call-in shows as Americans surfed TV channels and the Internet in this first electronic information war, comparing U.S. and foreign news. Typically in wartime, the U.S. public complains that the press discloses too much information. But in this war, some of the most strident complaints were just the opposite. Questions and comments ranged from “Why isn’t the American press telling us why we are in this war?” to “Why is the American press sanitizing the news?” and “We see more complete news on BBC.”

In addition to the networks and 24hour cable news, acres of war news and photographs appeared in the major print press and on the imaginative, commercial-free C-Span channels and the Public Broadcasting System, along with comprehensive documentaries and public forums.

The innovation in news coverage, of course, was the Pentagon decision to “embed” nearly 600 reporters and photographers with military forces. This evoked press reactions ranging from enthusiasm to caustic criticism that will be surveyed and argued for months and years. American press accompanying troops in war is by no means unprecedented, but these numbers were far larger, with reporters assigned to stay with designated units and to abide by military rules regarding coverage.

The format unquestionably served the Pentagon and White House’s purposes for publicizing U.S. military prowess. Many reporters and photographers, especially those new to combat, said it well served their objectives. The American public gained a closer view of warfare than ever before, including some grim examples of the toll from what is euphemistically termed “friendly fire.” But what appeared on TV screens also could be misleading for the future: This was not a typical war; one side rarely so dominates the other, or wins quickly with such few casualties.

What embedded journalists experienced depended on the units to which they were attached. One retired Army general, interviewed on C-Span, wryly remarked: “The Pentagon has weaponized the press.” That gibe reflected widespread criticism that reporters were turned into publicists for the armed forces.

CNN’s elated Walter Rodgers, with a tank unit, proudly proclaimed, “What you’re seeing is truly historic television and journalism.” ABC’s veteran “Nightline” anchor, Ted Koppel, asked how any reporter could complain about “too much access,” when “access and information are our life’s blood.” To be embedded with frontline units, he said, is “a reporter’s dream,” and it is up to reporters and their editors to decide how best to turn that dream into useful coverage. Koppel’s status brought him a posting dream: Assigned to mechanized troops, with access to a commanding general’s quarters, he sat in on top-level briefings, with the standard requirement that he could not disclose strategy or troop movements in advance.

Another veteran of many wars, George Wilson, military analyst for the small-circulation National Journal after retiring as The Washington Post’s chief Pentagon reporter, had a different experience and reaction. Assigned to rear-based heavy artillery, he could not switch to a frontline unit. His glum description of his view of the war was, “Moving with the artillery three times a night,” with no eyewitness opportunity to produce “accountability” reports on the fighting.

Los Angeles Times managing editor Jim Kelly told media critic David Shaw that he was particularly critical of cable news networks that “plant a flag on their screens and try to stick a waving flag on virtually everything that moves, and the subtle implication is that the network has gone to war … on the side of the U.S. troops ….” Such reporting, Kelly said, has “changed the expectations that many readers and viewers have about the proper role of journalists in war.”

Perhaps the most repeated journalistic summation came from Tina Brown, the magazine world’s buoyantly acerbic editor, who told The Times of London: “The more I watched television, the more its inability to deliver satisfaction drove me hungrily back to print. The New York Times’s 12-page ‘Nation At War’ had to be gorged in full. Then the tabs in a strange new reading pattern—opinion pages first, trash-news second.” The New York Post, she said, “Offered a bracing kick in the crotch for anyone worn RELATED ARTICLE
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But even amid the surfeit of unceasing information, the glaring absence of some essential reporting about this war and this nation’s policies was noticeable. There has always been a compelling need for the press to be on maximum alert, especially when war is in the air, a point that has gnawed at me since I checked out an Associated Press bulletin at The Washington Post one August night in 1964. The bulletin was about an attack on the USS Maddox by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. As a Marine Corps combat correspondent in World War II, I was familiar with torpedo boats; they are no match for destroyers. To risk attacking a destroyer, the adversary would have to be greatly provoked. But before any reporter could penetrate what turned out to be a secret American naval spying mission, Congress rubber-stamped the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The ultimate outcome is inscribed on a long wall on the Washington Mall.

Murrey Marder, a 1950 Nieman Fellow, is a former chief diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post. In 1957, he was the first reporter for the embryonic Washington Post Foreign Service. His generous gift established the Watchdog Journalism Project at the Nieman Foundation.


More articles by Murrey Marder:
This is Watchdog Journalism From Summer 1998
Arrogance Wins? American Journalism’s Identity Crisis From Fall 1998
The Press and the Presidency: Silencing the Watchdog From Spring 2008

More Information:
Marder's Bio at Nieman Watchdog
Learn more about the Nieman Watchdog Project
Watch Marder discuss what it was like to cover Sen. Joseph McCarthy

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