Interview With Walter Pincus On The State Of The Press

Walter Pincus, the most senior reporter in the Washington Post newsroom, has at age 75 recently emerged as a leading critic of journalistic passivity and inaction -- stances often justified by claims of 'neutrality.'

"Every time we decide to cover some things and not cover something else, we're taking a position," says Pincus, who has expanded his argument in a number of articles.

Pincus, the recipient of numerous honors -- from the Pulitzer Prize to the George Polk Award -- saw his stock rise even further in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, as the claims of the Bush administration alleging Iraqi possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction were steadily proven to be false.

In an August 12, 2004 Washington Post "mea culpa" story describing the paper's failures in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, media reporter Howie Kurtz wrote:

No Post reporter burrowed into the Iraqi WMD story more deeply than Pincus, 71, a staff member for 32 of the last 38 years, whose messy desk is always piled high with committee reports and intelligence files. "The main thing people forget to do is read documents," said Pincus, wielding a yellow highlighter.

A white-haired curmudgeon who spent five years covering the Iran-contra scandal and who has long been an expert on nuclear weapons, Pincus sometimes had trouble convincing editors of the importance of his incremental, difficult-to-read stories.

His longevity is such that he first met Hans Blix, who was the chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, at a conference in Ghana in 1959.

The inspectors kept getting fed intelligence by our administration and the British and the French, and kept coming back and saying they couldn't find" the weapons, Pincus said. "I did one of the first interviews with Blix, and like everyone else he thought there would be WMDs. By January and February [of 2003], he was starting to have his own doubts. . . . What nobody talked about was how much had been destroyed," either under U.N. supervision after the Persian Gulf War or during the Clinton administration's 1998 bombing of Iraqi targets.

Throughout 2002 and 2003, according to Kurtz, Pincus had to cope with attempts by editors at the Post to downgrade his articles. His stories were described as too "incremental," or "difficult to edit." He was criticized as a "crusader." Editors claimed his stories were hard to "verify."

As his work on WMD, often played in the back end of the A section, has been vindicated, Pincus has taken up the broader issues of journalistic responsibility and the larger role of the media in public policy.

In an article titled "The Power of the Pen; A Call For Journalistic Courage" published in Frank, a magazine put out by the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas, Pincus wrote:

If a vote were taken among editors of the major daily newspapers, the vice presidents of network news divisions, television and radio anchors, and I hate to say, probably even most younger print and electronic reporters, the result would be that few to none want or believe they have the right to shape government actions. . . . I believe this failure is a threat to our democracy and a poor example for the rest of the world, where we supposedly are spreading the need for a free press. This is my romantic and unfashionable view of journalism, but it is the one that caused many of us to take up the profession in the first place.

While seeking to "be neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game," the print and electronic media have relegated themselves to the role of "common carriers, transmitters of other people's ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance and at times even accuracy," Pincus contends.

At this stage, Pincus suggests, a relatively simple courageous act for the media would be to stop printing non-news:

"A new element of courage in journalism would be for editors and reporters to decide not to cover the president's statements when he or she--or any public figure--repeats essentially what he or she has said before. Journalistic courage should also include the decision not to publish in a newspaper or carry on a television or radio news show any statements made by government officials that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public."

This falls far short of Pincus' belief that the media should be the "fourth branch of government."

Pincus notes that such earlier publishers as Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, and Philip Graham of The Washington Post "all used their presses to influence government, but that is what the founding fathers contemplated when they wrote the First Amendment. Pamphleteers, newspaper editors and writers of all kinds could have their say, and citizens were to weigh all opinions and facts as presented and make up their own minds."

This tradition began to die, according to Pincus, in the 1960s, when public corporations began buying up locally-owned newspapers, placing a higher value on returns to shareholders than on the quality of the product.

Simultaneously, in the late-1960s and early-1970s, "starting sometime in the Nixon administration, probably with Vice President Spiro Agnew's attacks on the liberal press, newspapers began pulling back....Publishers and editors began to worry more about critics, who for their own either biased or political reasons disagreed with what they read."

Once the media was on the defensive and increasingly anxious over the bottom line, politicians, particularly conservative politicians and operatives, realized that instead of battling a hostile fourth estate, they could aggressively manipulate coverage. Pincus wrote in Frank that:

At the beginning of the Reagan administration, Michael Deaver--one of the great public-relations men of our time--began using early morning 'tech' sessions at the White House to alert television producers as to when and where the president would appear each day. He turned that meeting into an initial shaping of the news stories for that evening. For example, he would say something on the order of, 'President Reagan will appear in the Rose Garden to talk about his crime-prevention program and will discuss it in terms of Chicago and San Francisco.' This would allow networks to shoot footage in those two cities so there would be pictures other than the president speaking when the story aired on the evening news....

This system reached its apex . . . .when the White House started to give 'exclusives'--stories that found their way to the front page of the daily newspapers--in which readers learned that during the coming week President George W. Bush would do a series of four speeches supporting his Iraq policy, because his poll numbers were down. Such stories were often attributed to unnamed "senior administration officials." Lo and behold, the next week those same news outlets, and most others, carried each of the four speeches, in which Bush essentially repeated what he's been saying for two years."

Pincus' primary concerns stand in contrast to those voiced by Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie.

In an interview published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1998, Downie talked about his worry over reporters' political neutrality, reflecting his anxiety that journalists' political convictions might influence their reporting:

I have not voted since becoming managing editor in 1984 because, as the final gatekeeper for all coverage in the Post, I do not want to make up my mind, even in the voting booth, about candidates or issues. I would be pleased if none of our political reporters or editors voted, but it would be unreasonable to ask for that (and I remain the final gatekeeper for all they do). We prohibit all staff members from engaging in any political activity except voting.

In the following interview Pincus is less anxious about journalists' voting, and more concerned about the present focus of media executives on the bottom line:

"I don't know what will bring back the media to play their full role, other than new owners, editors and reporters who see their newspapers, magazines, or radio and television properties as more than merely a way to gain notoriety and make money."

Walter Pincus Interview - March 20, 2008 [edited]

EDSALL: In retrospect how would you evaluate the Washington Post's role in the lead-up and immediate beginning of the war, and your role?

PINCUS: Like most media, the Post believed the threat and reported the story that way. This administration was very clever in the way they promoted it. And one of the things I think people forget about, that played a role, was that the media was [taken with] the 'embedding' idea. [An embedded reporter is "a journalist traveling with troops and reporting from the battlefield. The 2003 Iraq war was the first time embeds were used. Pros: unprecedented media access to the front. Cons: lack of distance and independence between reporters and their protectors. Most papers and wires, beginning in the fall, detached reporters to go off and train with the military in units, so that we all had reporters -- some of us had reporters from Kuwait waiting for the invasion -- with units. And a lot of them were people who had never been in the military. So it seemed like a great adventure.

EDSALL: Did that, in effect, undermine the independent reporting process?

PINCUS: I think it played a role, yeah.

EDSALL: So embedding was one problem. But you and Tom Ricks and Joby Warrick [Ricks and Warrick are Washington Post reporters] also wrote significant stories which did not involve travel with the troops, and those stories were at times underplayed or killed altogether?

PINCUS: Page one decisions are made for a whole bunch of different reasons. I was just happy to get them [my stories] in the paper.

EDSALL: Don't you think if you have a major story that -- if it ends up on page A17, that in fact it makes it look like the Post is not really confident in the story, if it is a major story that should be on the front page?

PINCUS: Well, putting things on the front page is a statement about how important the editors feel that story is, yeah, there's no doubt about that.

EDSALL: Have you -- are there any precedents at the Post where there were similar circumstances that were handled in the same way or in different ways?

PINCUS: Well, we've all, you know, been around when we had a big story that we thought was important that didn't get on the front page, and clearly I've been around and so have you, and we've had stories we thought were important that got on the front page and made a difference. I mean, the neutron bomb story for me was always a big gamble at the Post, because we ran it on the front page for two or three days before anybody ever picked it up.

EDSALL: And that had major policy consequences, right?

PINCUS: Oh, yeah.

EDSALL: And if it had not run on the front page it probably would not have had the policy consequences?

PINCUS: Well, it all depends on who picks it up. There is a lot of timing that goes on to these kinds of stories, as you know. Depends on what the news cycle is, it depends if other people pick it up. Depends if people in Congress pick it up. And then these kind of stories, you know, enterprise stories have legs. . . . . With the neutron bomb, nobody else was writing about it. It was a new subject. Everybody was writing about the Iraq war.

EDSALL: You mean they were working on the assumption that the war was coming no matter what?

PINCUS: Oh, yeah, everybody knew. The administration was quite open about it, it was really just a matter of when, and they got the U.N. trying to get a second resolution, and they [the administration] made it clear that they were gonna go even without it.

EDSALL: Do you think the media itself was, in a sense, "under attack" with the mailed anthrax immediately after 9/11 ? Did that create a queasiness in the press about declaring definitively that Iraqi WMD were not a threat to the US -- after the photo editor of the National Enquirer died, where there were four or five associated deaths among postal workers, where anthrax was found in the ABC newsroom, in the Senate Office Buildings, and where Judy Miller of the New York Times claimed anthrax in the newsroom there?

PINCUS: The anthrax scare may have had an effect on some people. It certainly could have played a part in going along with the idea that Saddam Hussein had anthrax -- a main theme in Judy Miller's book. But for a time everyone thought Saddam had some WMD. It wasn't until Blix began his on-site inspections --using what was supposed to be good intelligence from us, the Brits, Germans and French, and repeatedly found nothing --that he began to have doubts. I interviewed him after he got word he was going back in, in October 2002, and he was pretty sure stuff was there. But by late January 03 and February he began to have real doubts. I think we put in that pre-screen mail system rather quickly [reporters at the Washington Post and other papers were required to wear protective gear when opening mail]. But I think the combination of the irrationality of the 9/11 attack, along with the sense of random vulnerability to terrorism, heightened the individual fear in this country. It also was not helped by the whole gas mask, tape up your windows and 'more strikes could be on the way' drumbeat by the administration that led a lot of people, including reporters, to fear a new attack was coming. Remember, we are a generation away from any younger people having been in military service, and few of them, unlike us, ever spent time covering police or going out on weekend nights with police patrols to get stories. In short it is a generation that had never been exposed to personal danger or even fear, though they love to watch bloody movies.

EDSALL: In retrospect is there a different approach that the Post could have taken and should have taken? I mean, should there be a more built-in process of skepticism and willingness to write skeptical stories?

PINCUS: Well, making speeches now is kind of silly, but when the administration, two and three times a day, starting with the President talking about the threat, the danger, the need to take action, and everybody reporting what he says -- it just overwhelmed people.

EDSALL: But isn't that the juncture when a newspaper should exercise its own independent means of evaluating what the President and other war supporters are saying?

PINCUS: Courage to me is not printing what the President says when he has been saying the same thing day after day. And he's saying it so it will be printed, not because it's news. It's not news that the President thinks we're winning in Iraq, but the fact that you're printing it every day makes the public at large really sort of believe the President and begin to think maybe we are.

EDSALL: So at that juncture, when the president is simply repeating himself, what is the function of a newspaper?

PINCUS: I guess you don't print it.

EDSALL: What do you do instead?

PINCUS: You ought to have your own agenda. We had no problem printing Walter Reed [the prize-winning Washington Post expose of substandard conditions for wounded Iraq war veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.] because it was something so outrageous. Walter Reed is a metaphor. Walter Reed is a metaphor to show this administration talks about how important the war is, et cetera, et cetera, but here's an illustration, at Walter Reed they don't take care of the people that got hurt. I mean, I've got a story going now about refugees. There are four and a half million refugees and the President doesn't talk about it because it undermines the idea that we've freed this country.

EDSALL: So that is the kind of juncture where the paper should be forcing that issue.

PINCUS: Yeah. And then Cheney goes over and talks about how well we're doing. And we reported all that. But he didn't talk about refugees. And they're clearly our responsibility.

EDSALL: You said the Nieman article "Fighting Back Against the PR Presidency" got you in trouble.

PINCUS: Well, originally, yeah. I mean, not trouble. This is just this whole long thing that I've always had running. You're not supposed to be an advocate....But otherwise why have a paper? That's why you have the 1st Amendment. That's why the press is free to print anything it wants.

EDSALL: So in effect you got in trouble for saying that the paper does advocate and should advocate?

PINCUS: Should advocate, yeah.

EDSALL: I mean -- when I got into journalism a long time ago, I think the idea was for reporters to attempt, in breaking stories, to affect the [political and policy] agenda.

PINCUS: Yeah. I think this is generational. I mean, you may know better than I, but -- and that's why we all went into it.

EDSALL: What do you think happened, when you say it's generational?

PINCUS: Well, in order to make a living you had to, you know, work at a paper and write for magazines. Pay was nowhere. Now it's a very comfortable living. People have married each other and they live in the suburbs and there's no heavy lifting. And very few papers can afford to do [major projects and in-depth reporting.] The Post and the Times and to some degree the Wall Street Journal do, and they have been able to turn people loose on their own agendas.

EDSALL: But are you saying in this new generation of reporters, there is much more a sense of the need for personal comfort and less interest in expressing outrage or whatever --

[Less interest in what is now called "crusading"?]

PINCUS: Well, there's more interest in expressing outrage on personal matters, you know -- Clinton's activities with Monica, Spitzer and call girls. Everybody's against that [kind of behavior.] That's easy. But those aren't policy issues. And I think it's just not the Post, I think it's everybody. I also think -- I mean, the Post and the Times to give them credit, do some good work. That's why I go back to Walter Reed. Nobody else did it.

EDSALL: That's true.

PINCUS: And so the Post still does those things. The issue is I think what administrations have learned -- and this one is just the most sophisticated--how to keep journalists in general busy covering statements and press conferences, and how to sell their story. And they know there's more news than any paper can cover -- 35 hearings on the Hill, and you know, 10 speeches and 4 reports, at a time when most newspapers don't have enough people to cover a third of what goes on.

EDSALL: Do you think things in the press are just going to get worse?

PINCUS: Well, I was hoping they were gonna get better. A big problem is the corporatization of the news business. And the dropping off of locally-owned, family-owned newspapers. The whole history of the American newspaper is that people in cities and towns across the country had locally-owned papers, usually started by businessmen who were successful in something else and wanted to be involved in public life. So they bought a press, and that's really why you got the First Amendment in the first place. Newspapers were owned by people who were in the business to have an impact on their town, or city or state. Knight Ridder makes 14% on their gross and gets sold because they're not producing. What has the First Amendment come to stand for? Now it stands for making money.


For an article by Jay Rosen in the Huffington Post on March 17, 2008 about Walter Pincus and his role in the WMD controversy click here.

To view Walter Pincus' first key article on WMD published March 16, 2003, on page A 17 of the Washington Post, "US Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms," click here.