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Q & A
Mitchell Fires Shots, Sings Praise, Names Names
In New Iraq Book, Many Darts, Few Laurels for News Outlets, Reporters, Pundits
By EASON JORDAN 03/03/2008 06:27 AM ET
Editor & Publisher Editor Greg Mitchell's provocative new book is a must-read for those wanting insightful perspective on how and why much of the press's Iraq-related reporting, analysis and commentary has fallen woefully short -- and continues to do so.

The book is entitled "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits, and the President Failed on Iraq," and it includes a foreword by Joseph Galloway and a preface by Bruce Springsteen.

In the Q & A below, Mitchell elaborates on his view of the press's shortcomings and questions whether the war would have been warranted even if WMD had been found in Iraq:

Jordan: In a nutshell, your view seems to be the Bush administration railroaded the nation into an unjustified war in Iraq -- and steamrolled a shamefully lame, gullible, cheerleading press in the process. Do you believe if the press had done its job well in 2002 and 2003 the war could and would have been averted?

Mitchell: There certainly is evidence for that but, as my book points out - and most people forget - there was considerable opposition to the war in early 2003. We all remember the massive street demonstrations, but more revealing, Gallup polls showed large number very nervous about launching a quick war and editorial pages were split -- with many not doubting that Saddam had WMD, but arguing for taking more time to try to avoid an attack. So in that context, if strong reporting in the media raising more questions about the case for WMD and Iraq's connections to al-Qaeda (or suggesting the disaster we would face in an occupation) had appeared it might - might - have bought some time for even more critical journalism to appear.

What I found appalling was the argument by the editor of The Washington Post in Howard Kurtz's appraisal of his paper's coverage the following year - that, to paraphrase, "yeah, we screwed up, but we couldn't have possibly stopped the war anyway." While that might be true it came across as "nothing happening here, just move along."

Jordan: If the US discovered a significant amount of WMD in Iraq in 2003, do you think the US invasion of Iraq would have been warranted?

Mitchell: In the introduction to the book I quote Stephen Colbert claiming that the criticism of the war today is purely Saddam's fault - for not having those damn WMDs. Joking aside, I think it would depend on how much was found, of what type, and what was evidence of an active program, possible plans to use WMD etc.

I'll go back to those editorials before we invaded - the assumption then was that he DID have WMDs yet many were arguing for restraint, either to gain time to find out exactly what they had - remember, contrary to what Bush says today, we (i.e. the United Nations) DID have "inspectors on the ground" in Iraq - or because they were rightly afraid of the scenario that has played out over the past five years.

Jordan: Given your harsh criticism of the press in the lead-up to war, do you believe there's blood on the hands of any news outlets or journalists?

I wouldn't use the phrase blood on hands. But as I've noted earlier, I do think there is at least a decent - some -- chance the war could have been halted.

But keep in mind, my book covers nearly the entire five years of the war, from the run-up to the debate over the surge last autumn. Repeatedly in the book I decry the reluctance, for about four years, for editorial pages and TV pundits to even meekly call for the beginning of a slow, phased withdrawal - and we ended up with more troops there now then years ago. As the book shows - and Thomas Friedman was far from alone in this - the commentators were continually saying a positive turning point was just months off so we have to stay the course. Also, there was very little critical reporting or editorializing about the "surge" before it was announced last January, even though everyone knew it was coming. I label the chapter about that "Surge Protectors."

So, again, I'm not going to talk about "blood on hands" but there is plenty of criticism to go around.

Jordan: Do you think the press is doing a better job today on Iraq?

Mitchell: As you know, after all the early rah-rah reporting, coverage grew much more skeptical as the occupation/war continued, both in Washington and particularly in Iraq. The Washington folks, by and large, still lagged, but certainly improved. In a way, the book argues that before the invasion, to generalize, the reporting was weak and the editorializing surprisingly balanced, while in much of the five years since, it has been the reverse. It is really quite shocking how few newspapers or pundits were in favor of any kind of pullout just a year ago. Look how many died or were badly injured before then.

Jordan: Whose modern-day Iraq reporting do you admire, and why?

Mitchell: There are plenty today from all of the top papers. It has become a cliché to hail the Knight Ridder/McClatchy team over the years but allow me to say that I was probably the first to do that. Tom Lasseter is a continuing character in the book, as is, on the pundit side, Joe Galloway. Tina Susman of The L.A. Times is a special favorite, Ellen Knickmeyer of The Washington Post, Leila Fadel of McClatchy and her predecessors as Baghdad chief there. I'd rather stop here rather than leave people out, such as some of The New York Times people. It's a long list and the book over and over hails the bravery and fine work of many of the reporters inside Iraq.

Jordan: How do you think news outlets could provide better coverage of Iraq today?

Mitchell: It's curious, if the surge is working so well and reducing violence in so many places, have U.S. reporters gotten out more and producing many more in-depth pieces from around the country? Maybe I haven't been following that closely enough to say. There SHOULD be a giant "surge" in that kind of reporting if things have really cooled off so much there. Or perhaps so many reporters have been pulled out by now there just aren't enough there to do that kind of work even if things are less violent. Just asking.

Jordan: In your view, in looking at the press, who are the Iraq war's chief villains and heroes?

Mitchell: Again, I'd rather not point many fingers. Obviously the major news outlets - because of the influence they have - bear more of the blame, even though in most cases their mea culpas have been pretty limited. The New York Times "mini-culpa" (as Jack Shafer describes it) is covered in the book. People often assert that The Washington Post editors also owned up to their mistakes in an editors note but actually that happened, such as it was, in a Howard Kurtz news article, not something directly from the editors. And, of course, the Post's editorial page has been among the most hawkish on the war. So I will leave it at that.

You can buy Mitchell's new book here.


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