Of Course the Media Failed in Iraq -- Here's Why

WASHINGTON - MAY 31: A man walks past the Washington Post building May 31, 2005 in Washington, DC. A Vanity Fair magazine art
WASHINGTON - MAY 31: A man walks past the Washington Post building May 31, 2005 in Washington, DC. A Vanity Fair magazine article reports that a retired FBI official, Mark Felt, was the 'Deep Throat' source who spoke to two Washington Post reporters about the Watergate scandal that forced former president Richard Nixon to resign in 1974. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

So we have this never-ending controversy -- more than 10 years in the making -- over whether or not the media botched its job in covering the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion and, if so, whether that was a big deal, It boiled over this weekend when the Washington Post spiked a highly critical op-ed about the media's role by Greg Mitchell but did run a very defensive piece by a Post staff writer, Paul Farhi.

The Farhi piece -- with the rather ridiculous headline (presumably not the author's fault) "On Iraq, journalists didn't fail. They just didn't succeed." -- is kind of a round-up of the various reasons and excuses of why the media accepted false claims of unconventional weapons in Iraq and links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, none of which existed, and why it treated a U.S. invasion of a country that had not attacked us as kind of runaway train that simply could not be stopped.

In fact, it's a kind of a greatest hits package of Iraq media excuses. We did have the critical stories in the newspaper, if you had only bothered to turn to page A18. Administration officials who -- we later learned -- had no idea what they were talking about went on the record, while CIA agents and other mid-level officials who knew the truth had to remain anonymous. The Democrats were so cowed by 9/11 they thwarted our standard "on one hand, on the other hand" narrative. And frankly, we journalists were a little freaked out by what happened in 2001. Wasn't everyone? Hey, it was a crazy time.

Please, stop it. Just stop. By any standard, the failure of the America media in 2002-03 was the worst collapse by any press corps anywhere since the 1930s. In a profession where the highest value is on truth telling, false information -- about metal tubes for nuclear bomb-making, yellow-cake uranium and meetings in Prague -- was presented as fact on front pages night after night. In a profession that is supposed to inform citizens and foster debate, large swaths of the public wrongly believed that Iraq was behind 9/11, and a major war was launched with hardly any serious debate at all.

The underlying argument of Farhi and others who've defended the Iraq coverage -- when you strip away everything else -- is that journalists didn't fail in 2003 because we played by the rules... as we have always understood them. It doesn't matter that the outcome -- an unwarranted invasion that killed more than 100,000 Iraqis and more than 4,000 Americans, or more than the death toll of 9/11 -- was a preventable disaster. Do my journalistic colleagues realize how ridiculous an argument that is? That once you realize what the defenders are really saying, it is as if the manager of a soccer team called a game a success because none of his players earned a yellow or red card...even though they lost 4-0..

When something goes as terribly wrong as this did, I think what journalists need to do (and this is what I did, essentially) is take a deep breath and ask yourself: Why do I get up and do this every morning? Of course, there's no simple one-word answer -- most journalists like to write or be in the center of action, or both. But I think most folks in the business would agree that we should want to get as close to the real truth of any given situation -- by any means necessary. And most journalists at least started our careers with the idea, somewhere in the back of our heads, that covering the news the right way would make the world a better place than we had first discovered it.

And if the rules of journalism didn't achieve those ends, then guess what. It's time to change the rules!

Frankly, I think a lot of people who entered the media in the 1970s and 1980s were folks who might have been activists in earlier times, but absorbed a lesson from Watergate (some of it myth, we belatedly learned) that while hippies didn't take down the corrupt government of Richard Nixon, journalists did. That already confused lesson had become seriously warped by the 2000s, because of a church-like devotion to the "process" and also because --inside the Beltway. In particular -- access to high-ranking officials became viewed as more valuable than truth-telling. It's no accident that in 2003 you found better journalism -- most famously Knight-Ridder's Washington bureau but also folks like Greg Mitchell or Atlanta's Cynthia Tucker (even me in my little Philadelphia tabloid, for God's sake) -- in the outermost rings from power.

The indisputable failure of pre-Iraq War coverage shouldn't even be a debate in 2013 -- we should have moved on to a discussion of lessons learned, of valuing actual documents or the past contradictions of officials more than what a high-ranking White House aide tried to sell over a fancy lunch, or of journalists who trust their reporting enough to reach bolder conclusions and editors who trust their reporters enough to shout them from Page 1, phony balance and false equivalencies be damned.

And the next time that an innocent civilian or an American soldier dies overseas in service of such a goal as dubious as the war in Iraq, in a mission spurred on by ignorance and a lack of debate, that will not mean it's time for a conference or another long discussion of the journalistic process.

It will mean simply that the media failed the American people. Again.