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Issue Date:  August 27, 2004

Now it's time for a healthy skepticism

“There was an attitude among editors: Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?”

Those are the words of Washington Post Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks, who made the alarmingly honest disclosure to the Post’s media critic Howard Kurtz.

This is the season of mea culpa for major newspapers over their coverage -- or lack of it -- during the run-up to the war in Iraq. The New York Times made similar disclosures in a story about itself last May.

What’s going on?

Both the Times and the Post are easy targets. They’re big. They’re powerful. They’re supposed to be in search of the truth and on the side of all that is fair and just. We always want to think, then, that they are on our side. And we’re certain they’re sellouts when they aren’t. We want to love them even when we feel compelled to dislike them.

It’s not easy being a newspaper.

Perhaps it is even more difficult these days when so much that is not journalism -- or at least hasn’t been traditionally -- tries to squeeze under the journalism umbrella. How many smash-mouth screaming TV show moderators characterize themselves as journalists? They mouth grand statements about fairness and objectivity yet really only sit in the bully’s seat to berate the nightly parade of “guests.”

Infotainment, news items that get briefer by the month, celebrity gossip taking front-page space and the conglomerates’ takeover of media of all sorts, but most notably the newspaper industry, have left us with a paucity of distinctive outlets. We get screamed at and announced to 24/7, but serious journalism that risks going against the grain or jeopardizing a certain sheen of respectability is fast becoming a rarity.

So perhaps it is particularly alarming when two of the most respected and powerful outlets in the country admit that they simply didn’t bother to ask questions or listen to dissenters or seriously consider the possibility that the Bush administration was proceeding on anything less than noble and upright terms.

The positive in all of this, of course, is that two of the most powerful newspapers in the world acknowledged their deficiencies before the world. We only wish that other institutions, including churches in general and the Catholic church particularly, would so quickly acknowledge the error of their ways and apologize.

It is interesting that the press -- so often maligned as slanted and conspiratorial -- is the rare undertaking that is, quite literally, an open book. Whatever a paper does or doesn’t do is as evident as the black-on-white of the page itself.

Kurtz reports an editor noting that “skeptical stories usually triggered hate mail ‘questioning your patriotism and suggesting that you somehow be delivered into the hands of the terrorists.’ ” That’s a bit exaggerated, but “groupthink” as the Post’s Bob Woodward put it, exerted real pressure on the newsgathering and decision making of that period. No one wanted to be perceived as weak or anti-U.S. or soft on terrorism.

That is easy to understand. We learned, in the days following 9/11, that raising questions could generate some rather heated mail even from the limited world of NCR readership, a group that typically is more open to skepticism about government decisions regarding war making.

That is perhaps the most disturbing realization from the newspaper confessions: that the culture’s keepers of the questions abandoned the questions and too often simply took as important or indisputable what was handed out by government agencies.

We hope the confessions have led to a firm resolve to exercise a healthy skepticism as we move into a new phase of the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism. President Bush and Vice President Cheney, all evidence to the contrary, continue to spin rationales about the war that have long been proven deficient. It doesn’t seem to matter. Where there were no weapons of mass destruction, Cheney insists, there actually could have been and we might yet find them.

Where there were no weapons and where the United States had imposed both sanctions and bombing overflights for more than 10 years there was still, Bush would have us believe, an imminent threat to U.S. security.

Democratic challenger John Kerry, meanwhile, continues to contort his way through a string of disconnected rationales for and opposition to the war that remain befuddling.

Perhaps it is time to afford not only some belated credibility but also some space to those whose voices were steamrolled on the way to war. Call back Hans Blix, the weapons inspector who said there weren’t any weapons and then was unceremoniously ushered off the world stage.

Call back U.N. humanitarian experts Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, both of whom resigned, ending long and distinguished careers, because of their outrage over what was happening in Iraq in the late 1990s.

Go back into the intelligence agencies, to those whose warnings were ignored in the run-up to war, and allow them their belated say.

And dig further into why the media -- newspapers, certainly, but especially television -- became in so many ways uncritical cheerleaders for the Pentagon, for every weapons system paraded out by the Department of Defense and for the inevitability of war.

Perhaps, then, we can take up the even more difficult task of facing and explaining this war’s dead. Not only U.S. dead, which daily continue to mount, but Iraqi dead, disproportionately innocent citizens. Then maybe we will have reclaimed the questions, the difficult, essential and correct questions.

If all of that is done, if the precious mandate the media have to stand in the stead of those who can’t ask the questions is reclaimed, maybe six months from now no one will have to apologize for missing the point and ignoring “all this contrary stuff.”

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2004

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