A post from the Baltimore to Bridgeport train ride:
At the start of their hourlong discussion at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in Baltimore Friday, Washington Post legend Bob Woodward turned to Len Downie, The Post’s former executive editor and suggested they start their chat with a couple of hundred investigative reporters by talking about the ‘fuck-up’ – also known as The Post’s coverage of the WMDs and the run-up to the Iraq War.
(Full Disclosure: I worked at The Post’s Web site from 1996-2006.)
Both admitted that they should have pushed harder on the WMD argument, with Downie reminding the audience of how many stories were in play at the time, including the war in Afghanistan; post 9-11 coverage and 9’11 investigations into the performances of the CIA and other agencies, and others.
Woodward said (again) that he had drafted a story that pushed hard at the presumptions of WMDs but never walked into Downie’s office to argue for his story – like he often did on most projects.
Woodward admitted what has already been written and discussed: That other Post colleagues wrote articles challenging the WMD argument – but it was one often buried in the A section of the newspaper. I often think back to that time and wonder what more I could have done.
At the time, I was one of the senior editors in charge of running the homepage of The Post’s Web site. The closest description I can come up with for the job is that it was similar to running a U.N. peacekeeping mission. There were about 4-5 premier slots on The Post’s home page, including the photo slot – which often had a headline and story linked with it.
On any given day there could be editors from 5, 8, 10 sections in The Post’s newsroom, along with sections from The Post’s Web site, lobbying for display in that prime real estate (this is in the days before RSS and the dominance of search engines that have lessened the importance of the homepage on most news sites today.)
I remember being pushed by several Web editors to give prominence to stories written by Walter Pincus and Bart Gellman – two of The Post’s premier investigative journalists who questioned the validity of the administration’s WMD argument. What we would often end up with was a lead story on the site that was the administration perspective of the day, packaged with a second headline and blurb to stories that challenged the WMD argument. At the time I thought it was the ideal use of the Web – we were able to provide a balance that was lacking in the newspaper presentation.
The Web site operation was then located in Arlington, Va., while The Post’s print operation is based in downtown Washington. Communication was not the best – Web site editors worked with editors on the newspapers “continuous newsdesk” but not on a regular basis with the newspaper’s section editors. I would sometimes take it upon myself – sometimes at the prompting of others – to swap headlines, making the ‘challenge’ story the lede of the site. That was not welcomed much. The reason I often received – after some “discussion” – was that we had to give more weight to the administration’s point of view.
And, in the end I think that is what sank a lot of MSM coverage in the run-up to the war. The ‘challenge’ stories were out there but news organizations felt obligated to give weight to the arguments being made by the administration. This has and continues to be a continuing issue with those in the White House press corps and Washington-based journalists and news organizations. Did Washington-based journalists learn the lessons of the failed WMD coverage? At best, I think the jury is still out.
In my Iraq War, Journalism and the Web class last semester, we spent a considerable amount of time analyzing coverage of the run-up to the War (and the war itself.) Students were baffled by how veteran mainstream journalists seemingly bought into the administration’s point of view with little challenging. I remember one student specifically asking me: “We’re trained to ask questions and challenge, why didn’t that happen?” I didn’t have an answer for her.
One of the things that journalists do very well is the ‘look back.’ We sharply assess our performances: “How well did we cover the story?” “What did we miss?” “What could we have done better?” Journalists tend to be their own toughest critics when it comes to self-assessment.
Woodward certainly pulled no punches on Friday. He said he and others failed to get at the “unanswered questions” in the run-up to the war.
“Would it have made a difference? I don’t know,” he said. Well, no, we don’t, but we have to do a better job of asking the questions and challenging each other.
Downie described the need for editors to have their antennae up even when they are knee-deep in a project and don’t want to get distracted. “And, you reporters need to stay in the face of your editors.”
Good advice indeed.
• Woodward drew some laughs when he recounted a conversation he had with Al Gore about what the press and the media does or doesn’t know about the what happens in the White House. When Gore said folks know about 1 percent of what happens, Woodward admitted to an unclean thought: “How many women don’t we know about?”
• Downie refused to be drawn into the blogger vs. journalist debate: “To me, anyone who commits journalism is a journalist.” He said that while older journalists are worried about the “creative destruction” ongoing in the industry, younger journalists and students see the “creative possibilities” out there.
• Woodward said he thinks of two things when he wakes up in the morning; No. 1: “What are the bastards hiding,” and No. 2: “we’re not so smart.”
• The days of ‘lone wolf’ journalism are gone, collaboration is key to the future, said Downie.
• And, finally, what would a journalism conference be without discussion of business models? Downie said the advertising model subsidized journalism, serving as a dominant business model for 50 years. That “golden era” is gone, he said, and there will no longer be just one single model
“We’re not talking about the survival of newspapers, we’re talking about the survival of news,” said Downie. “Some newspapers will go away and some will survive on the Web.”