In yesterday's NYT magazine, Bill Keller papers over a dark chapter for journalism and the NYT: the WMD craze, which was the Bush Administration's pretext for the Iraq war:
The remedy for bad journalism is more and better journalism. Reporters at The Times made amends for the credulous prewar stories with investigations of the bad intelligence and with brave, relentless and illuminating coverage of the war and occupation. But what The Times writes casts a long shadow.
Let's rewind the clock to when the shadow was cast. Here's Jack Shafer in May of 2003, commenting on the announcement that the CIA was reassessing it's faulty prewar intelligence on WMD's:
If the government must re-examine whether data may have been "manipulated" to support the war, surely the New York Times should conduct a similar postwar inventory of its primary WMD reporter, Judith Miller. In the months running up to the war, Miller painted as grave a picture of Iraq's WMD potential as any U.S. intelligence agency, a take that often directly mirrored the Bush administration's view. Now, thanks to the reporting of the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, we understand why Miller and the administration might have seen eye-to-eye on Iraq's WMD. On the same day as the Times editorial appeared, Kurtz reproduced an internal Times e-mail in which Miller described Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial Iraq leader, former exile, and Bush administration fave, as one of her main sources on WMD. "[Chalabi] has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper," Miller e-mailed Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns. Miller added that the MET Alpha"”a military outfit searching for WMD after the invasion"”"is using Chalabi's intell and document network for its own WMD work." The failure of "Chalabi's intell" to uncover any WMD has embarrassed both the United States and Miller. As noted previously in this column, she oversold the successes of the post-invasion WMD search.
If you want to know more, Michael Massing's account in 2004 is definitive and essential. Here he is on the larger failing of journalists back then:
In the period before the war, US journalists were far too reliant on sources sympathetic to the administration. Those with dissenting views"”and there were more than a few"”were shut out. Reflecting this, the coverage was highly deferential to the White House. This was especially apparent on the issue of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction"”the heart of the President's case for war. Despite abundant evidence of the administration's brazen misuse of intelligence in this matter, the press repeatedly let officials get away with it. As journalists rush to chronicle the administration's failings on Iraq, they should pay some attention to their own.
By the time they did, it was too late. The rest is history. Or as Keller puts it, a "long shadow."