On Iraq War Media Analysis, Washington Post Gets It Half-Right

Iraq War
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With the passing of the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq, retrospectives, analyses, commentary on the war’s beginnings, prosecution, and end(?) have been all the rage. It’s a post-mortem and a bit of an “Iraq War mea culpa.”

And no, it’s not just about George W. Bush’s presidential administration. Iraq War media analysis is also a key component.

The Washington Post is just one of the major news media outlets running such stories, though not without some controversy. This past weekend, it, too, published a look back at media coverage on the eve of the attack on Iraq.

The Post’s Paul Farhi penned the piece and argued that the media did not fail in its coverage.

As it turns out, there was another opinion piece that was dueling for the prime real estate of the Post’s Outlook page.

The Post’s editorial staff ultimately cut a piece that was not so kind to the media’s coverage of the prelude to war, written by Greg Mitchell, who also wrote a book on the subject. Mitchell published the article on his blog, instead, to let readers decide for themselves.

There is a problem, though. Each piece lacked what the other had. Mitchell spent more time reminding us what happened, but did not go into why it may have happened that way and did not offer lessons to be learned.

Farhi, on the other hand, did provide more context and insight and drew conclusions, but he’s guilty of the sin of omission.

To begin with the “original” article by Mitchell, one can forgive the raw version for having some grammatical mistakes (that’s what editors are for, after all). However, The Washington Post’s explanation to The Huffington Post does have merit:

“… upon reviewing the draft, we felt that the piece offered too much of a rundown of the apologies, rather than drawing many broader analytical points or insights.”

Mitchell’s piece reads like an outline of erroneous actions and statements, but it leaves the reader asking, “why?” His article is missing a concluding analysis that ties the litany of misdeeds, deceptions, and misadventures together. Instead, it ends quite abruptly with the last bulletpoint.

Given that The Post wanted an analytical piece to go on its opinion page, Mitchell had the legroom to throw in his thoughts on the debacle. He did not do so.

Pointing to his new e-book, which — with less spatial limitation — may have afforded more room for in-depth analysis, is not enough. The article needed to stand on its own two feet, not lean on another piece of literature that required payment to access.

For his article to have been effective and worthy of high placement on The Post, Mitchell needed to synthesize all the information presented into one or two concluding paragraphs, even if those were paraphrased from his new book.

In rejecting the submission as it was, The Post got it right.

The incomplete nature of Mitchell’s post may make Farhi’s piece look better, but only comparatively so.

While Farhi does explore a bit more of “why” things happened the way they did, he effectively wrote a more fleshed-out rundown of excuses. He took ten years’ hindsight, cherry-picked the contents, and threw the rest of the basket out the window.

While he did take time to examine the general atmosphere in the run-up to the war, Farhi used the bulk of his real estate to castigate the more critical wing of Iraq War media analysis. He mentions the more “skeptical” Knight Ridder reporters, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, only in passing, praising the media for eventually coming around, but only when it was too little, too late.

As early as May 2003, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting published a report about the excessive weight given to pro-war sources tied to the Bush administration with no countering voice to balance the scale. Farhi glosses over any such possibility, stripping his article of a measure of credibility.

The Washington Post was correct in choosing to kill Mitchell’s rundown of mistakes and incorrect statements as insufficiently analytical. However, while Farhi sought to draw more conclusions from what transpired, he spent too much time making excuses and was selective with his literature.

Still, Farhi’s concluding paragraph is a poignant caution for the journalists of today and tomorrow:

“But the news media’s memories of Iraq can be useful if they stiffen journalists’ backbones. The prewar reporting wasn’t a disaster. But it wasn’t good enough. We should remember why, if only so we aren’t doomed to repeat it.”