Believe It or Not -- 5 Years Ago Many Top Newspapers Opposed the War

You may be surprised to learn that, precisely five years ago, at least one-third of the top newspapers in this country came out against President Bush taking us to war at that time. Many of the papers may have fumbled the WMD coverage, and only timidly raised questions about the need for war, but when push came to shove five years ago they wanted to wait longer to move against Saddam, or not move at all.

"For apparently the first time in modern history, the U.S. government seems poised to go to war not only lacking the support of many of its key allies abroad but also without the enthusiastic backing of the majority of major newspapers at home," Ari Berman and I wrote at Editor & Publisher on March 19, 2003. Berman had just completed his fifth and (presumably) final prewar survey of the top 50 newspapers' editorial positions.

I have certainly been critical of overall press coverage of the war (see note about my new book below) -- and the editorial writers and pundits largely backed the adventure for years -- but at least there was some sense of protest on the eve of the invasion.

Following Bush's 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein on March 17, newspapers took their last opportunity to sound off before the war started. Of the 44 papers publishing editorials about the war, roughly one-third reiterated strong support for the White House, one-third repeated their abiding opposition to it, and the rest -- with further debate now useless -- took a more philosophical approach.

But, in the end, the majority agreed that the Bush administration had badly mishandled the crisis. Most papers sharply criticized Washington's diplomatic efforts, putting the nation on the eve of a pre-emptive war without U.N. Security Council support -- and expressed fears for the future despite an inevitable victory.

Once equivocal editorial pages got straight to the point. "This war crowns a period of terrible diplomatic failure," The New York Times argued, "Washington's worst in at least a generation. The Bush administration now presides over unprecedented American might. What it risks squandering is not Americans' power, but an essential part of our glory."

Other papers were even more blunt. The Sun of Baltimore, consistently one of the most passionate dissenters on the war, began their editorial with the sentence, "This war is wrong. It is wrong as a matter of principle, but, more importantly, it is wrong as a matter of practical policy."

USA Today asked Bush to finally disclose risks, costs, and democratic government estimates for Iraq while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wondered "what 'the peaceful entry' of 280,000 troops would look like." The Arizona Republic in Phoenix said that Bush and his "coalition of the willing," with prodding by the French, "have left the United Nations in tatters."

The Houston Chronicle said it remained "unconvinced" that attack was preferable to containment, and The Orange County Register of Santa Ana, Calif., declared it was "unpersuaded" that the threat posed by the "vile" Hussein justified military action now. The San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News wrote, "War might have been avoided, had the administration been sincere about averting it."

Even a hawkish paper expressed criticism. "The war will be conducted with less support than the cause should have commanded," the Washington Post, in backing the attack, wrote. "The Bush administration has raised the risks through its insistence on an accelerated timetable, its exaggerated rhetoric and its insensitive diplomacy; it has alienated allies and multiplied the number of protestors in foreign capitals."

There was always in the run-up a group of roughly a dozen papers that strongly supported regime change as the only acceptable vehicle toward Iraq's disarmament. They included The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, New York Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times, and Boston Herald. They continued their praise of the president this week and celebrated the fact that "the regime of Saddam Hussein is doomed," as The Kansas City (Mo.) Star put it.

The majority of papers, however, remained deeply troubled by the position the U.S. found itself in. Even large papers such as the Los Angeles Times, The Oregonian in Portland, and Newsday of Melville, N.Y., which have long advocated (or at least accepted) using force to disarm Hussein, criticized their president as he prepared to send young men and women into battle.

"The road to imminent war has been a bumpy one, clumsily traveled by the Bush administration," The Buffalo (N.Y.) News wrote. "The global coalition against terror forged after the atrocities of 9/11 is virtually shattered. The explanation as to why Iraq presents an imminent threat requiring immediate action has not been clear and compelling."

Many papers expressed hopes that a better world could prevail. "So the United States apparently will go to war with few allies and in the face of great international opposition," the L.A. Times said. "This is an uncharted path ... to an uncertain destination. We desperately hope to be wrong in our trepidation about the consequences here and abroad."

Greg Mitchell's new book is "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundit -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq." It has been hailed by Arianna, Bill Moyers, Glenn Greenwald and others and features a preface by Bruce Springsteen and foreword by Joe Galloway.

Email: gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com