August 13, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Yet Another Washington Post Edition)

Matthew Yglesias bangs his head against the wall as he contemplates the lack of professionalism shown by the Post's Executive and former Assistant Managing Editor:

TAPPED: August 2004 Archives: HARD DETERMINISM AT THE POST. The Washington Post joins the list of media organizations taking a look back at their prewar coverage and concludes, as have the others, that they overplayed stories backing the administration line and underplayed more skeptical accounts. Then Karen DeYoung, a reporter and former Assistant Managing Editor, says something very odd:

Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials had no problem commanding prime real estate in the paper, even when their warnings were repetitive. "We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power," DeYoung said. "If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said." And if contrary arguments are put "in the eighth paragraph, where they're not on the front page, a lot of people don't read that far."

That's a pretty accurate characterization of what goes on, but there's nothing "inevitabl[e]" about it -- the paper could do things differently. Indeed, since they've concluded that this is the procedure that led them to create a misleading public impression about Iraq's WMD programs, you would think they would consider changing it. After all, doing things this way is a more-or-less open invitation for administration officials to lie -- they know contrary arguments will be put in the eighth paragraph and most readers won't see it. Then Executive Editor Leonard Downie concludes on a note of absolute absurdity:

"People who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical of the media's coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war," Downie said. "They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media's coverage had been different, there wouldn't have been a war."

No one thinks the media should have "crusaded against the war"; what they should have done was try to provide a full account of the accuracy of the claims being made by the war's architects and advocates. And how can he say the press coverage of the debate had no impact on the fact that the war took place? What did he get into journalism for if he doesn't think it matters whether or not the news is being covered well? Admittedly, it probably wouldn't have changed anything if, say, The Providence Journal had been more skeptical, but this is the premier newspaper in the nation's capital we're talking about -- people read this stuff and it affects how they think. That's the whole point of putting the paper together. Does he think it wouldn't make a difference if they just stopped covering the news and started making things up instead?

Matthew is right. It is hard to know which is worse: Is it worse to know--as Karen De Young does--that you are doing your job in a lousy fashion, but have no plans to change how you do it? Or is it worse to pretend--as Leonard Downie does--that he doesn't understand what the Post did wrong, and follow it up by claiming that whether the Post does its job doesn't really matter?

I can't decide.

Posted by DeLong at August 13, 2004 08:02 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

The striking thing is the simple-mindedness of the explanations offered by both De Young and Downie. De Young thinks that the only option she has, poor baby, is to report what the president says. What a startling lack of understanding of the creative power of writing.

Downie thinks that it was difficult to offer criticism of administration positions, because there was so much other stuff to cover. What a failure of imagination, as if the only choice was to try to print every possible factoid, rather than perform the normal function of a paper, which is to select the important factors and cover them.

These are people who have failed, and are so self-centered that they cannot even see it. We have all been punished for not adequately supporting Al Gore.

Posted by: masaccio on August 13, 2004 08:35 PM


Well said, masaccio, but still, i'm willing to pick an answer to the prof's question: Downie is worse. Knowing there's a problem but doing nothing about it at least opens up the possibilty that someday, something will be done about it (is it too cynical to bet that someday will be the day after john kerry takes office if he wins?). Being in denial makes it impossible to imagine the problem ever being fixed.

Why does Downie still have a job?

(Sadly, the answer, i suspect, can be found in the incredible level of intellectual dishonesty that is now the hallmark of the wapo editorial page.)

Posted by: howard on August 13, 2004 08:48 PM


No decision to make. Downie is way worse. DeYoung is appalling. The Post, long my favorite English-language newspaper, is unreliable on important issues for the nation.

Posted by: david on August 13, 2004 09:32 PM


The sad note, David, is that the Post reporting was almost as good as the Knight-Ridder reporting, and left the NY Times reporting in the dust. The failure was entirely editorial....

Posted by: howard on August 13, 2004 10:07 PM


Before the Iraq invasion, the world was divided between those who trusted the president and those that did not. I remember Brad posting that he could not believe that there were no WMD because Bush could not possibly be so dumb as to invade if there were not an iron clad case.

Given that the administration has access to intelligence and data that the rest of us lack, if you trust the president, then if he is saying that Iraq has WMD, then it is quite possible that he is correct and basing that statement on information that is not public. So even if the WaPo went to press saying the case was weak BASED ON PUBLIC DOCUMENTS, there is still that ace in the hole the administration might be hiding.

I lost all faith in the Bush administration after he passed his tax cuts and claimed they would not bring back deficits. The Bush WMD claim struck me as so much lying in the face of what Blix, Ritter and others in the field were saying. At some level, don't the people have to trust the president not to lie about matters of national security? As it turns out the evidence was indeed weak and Bush was only bluffing about the ace in the hole. Of course Slam Dunk Tenet was bluffing about the WMD evidence as were the B team intelligence from the Pentagon.

The bottom line is we cannot trust Mr Bush to get it right. Either he was1) lying about the WMD evidence or 2) he was duped or 3) his administration is incompetent. None of these three options is a positive recommendation for re-election. The WaPo should focus less on why they got it wrong and more on why Bush statements were wrong.

Posted by: bakho on August 13, 2004 10:19 PM


The fact of our invasion is sufficient proof that we knew that there were no WMDs. New Wapo motto: We reprint the adminstration's lies, you decide.

Posted by: Brian Boru on August 13, 2004 10:53 PM


These adjacent posts are linked. Howler is showing how efficiently RNC spin-points work their way into the "liberal" media -- to the point where even Brit Hume can't swallow it. Then Downie claims that what the papers say makes no difference. Yet ask newspaper readers to say whether they think Al Gore said he invented the Internet, whether Saddam was involved in 9-11, whether Kerry is "nuanced" and we know what the answer would be. Not to mention the question, even now, whether Iraq had WMDs.

Posted by: P O'Neill on August 14, 2004 08:26 AM


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