UM study critical of WMD coverage

Media said to buy administration line


March 10, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

A new study from the University of Maryland argues that the media swallowed whole the claims of government officials about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and elsewhere.

"It has been irresistible for policymakers to use threats of WMD as powerful tools of public persuasion and as forceful rationales for policy initiatives," writes Susan D. Moeller, the University of Maryland journalism professor who led the study. "It has been equally irresistible for the media to report both the doomsayer arguments and the defense and security arguments verbatim."

The president sets the agenda, she claims, while reporters, constricted by arrangements with unnamed sources, do not skeptically scrutinize his statements. Moeller gives the press a poor grade, saying the public lacks suitable context to assess the claims about whether foreign powers and terrorists are posing a threat with weapons of mass destruction.

The study examined three periods of coverage: May 1998, in the wake of India-Pakistan tensions over nuclear arms and public concern about Russian weapons; October 2002, after the U.S. Congress authorized the use of force against Iraq; and May 2003, at the outset of the U.S. hunt for possible weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. news outlets studied included The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and National Public Radio. Three British publications were also examined: the Economist, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian. In the Maryland study, a half-dozen reporters were singled out for praise: Barton Gellman, Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank of the Post; Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times; and David Sanger and William Broad of the New York Times. On the whole, however, the media failed the public, she concluded.

"Poor coverage of WMD resulted less from political bias on the part of journalists, editors and producers than from tired journalistic conventions," Moeller writes. "When media cover WMD issues, events and policies, they should strive to get more perspectives higher up in their breaking news stories - and to get more of their sources on the record."

The study's conclusions come on the heels of deep criticism within the profession over the extent to which the media scrutinized the administration's claims that Saddam Hussein's forces held weapons of mass destruction before last spring's invasion of Iraq. To date, U.S.-led occupying forces have failed to find convincing proof of the existence of biological, chemical or nuclear weaponry in Iraq. A more tangible threat in North Korea, which acknowledges possessing nuclear arms, receives less alarmist coverage, Moeller finds.

Critics writing in the New York Review of Books and Slate magazine, among other publications, have subjected the reporting of Judith Miller of the New York Times to withering attacks over her coverage of weapons of mass destruction. Miller's reliance on Iraqi defectors and exiles and their sympathizers within the Bush administration has led, some critics say, to an echo chamber effect: Iraqi defectors makes claims, often not for direct attribution; they are validated by U.S. officials, often also not by name, and then exile leaders comment on those American impressions.

The Maryland study approvingly quoted a critique of Miller that appeared in the trade publication Editor & Publisher that called her "a booster of the invasion who had hyped the threat of weapons of mass destruction" and said she had "essentially surrender[ed] her detached judgment to the Pentagon."

In an interview yesterday, Miller declined to address directly the Maryland study, saying it did not dignify a response because its author had not called her to ask about her work. "I reflected the views of the intelligence community as they existed at that time," Miller said, adding she had sought divergent views from other sources. "Who else am I supposed to talk to?" Miller asked. "People who don't understand that don't understand our business."

To show that she was willing to report skeptically, Miller pointed to two 1,200-word articles from late January 2003: an article about the tricky nature of intelligence gathered from Iraqi defectors and an interview with former United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix, who said he saw nothing to justify a war.

"I find much of the criticism bewildering and really ill-informed," Miller said. "They don't bother to read the stories completely."

Jack Shafer, media critic and editor-at-large for Slate, argued that's an insufficient defense. "The intelligence community was very conflicted on this issue," Shafer said yesterday. "She was reflecting the intelligence community she wanted to believe. Did she not read Walter Pincus in the Post? ... She consistently gave prominence to defectors and others whose statements proved to be wrong."

But he said he could not agree with the university study's near-blanket critique of the media. "I don't really buy the belief the newspapers bought the administration line," Shafer said.

The study was sponsored by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland. The full text can be found at - the center's Web site.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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