Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Media's failure on Iraq still stings

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Mon March 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: News reporting before war in Iraq was media's greatest failure in recent times
  • He says news organizations aided Bush administration's push to war on faulty premises
  • Newspapers ran stories without enough skepticism, he says
  • Kurtz: Public's lack of confidence in media can partly be traced back to 2003

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- The 10th anniversary this month of the invasion of Iraq will remind most people of a divisive and dubious war that toppled Saddam Hussein but claimed the lives of nearly 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians.

What it conjures up for me is the media's greatest failure in modern times.

Major news organizations aided and abetted the Bush administration's march to war on what turned out to be faulty premises. All too often, skepticism was checked at the door, and the shaky claims of top officials and unnamed sources were trumpeted as fact.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

By the time U.S. soldiers discovered there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the media establishment was left with apologies and explanations. The Bush-Cheney administration helped whip up an atmosphere in the wake of 9/11 in which media criticism of national security efforts seemed almost unpatriotic.

Watch: Did Roger Ailes cross a line in calling Obama lazy?

As the war, once sold as a cakewalk, went sour in 2004, the New York Times said in an editor's note that its editors were "perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper," some of them erroneous stories by Judith Miller. The paper said its reporting on what turned out to be nonexistent WMDs was "not as rigorous as it should have been" and that the Times overplayed stories with "dire claims about Iraq."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I was working at The Washington Post at the time, and I took it upon myself to examine the paper's performance in the run-up to war. It was not a pretty picture.

From August 2002 through the March 19, 2003, launch of the war, I found more than 140 front-page stories that focused heavily on administration rhetoric against Iraq: "Cheney Says Iraqi Strike Is Justified"; "War Cabinet Argues for Iraq Attack"; "Bush Tells United Nations It Must Stand Up to Hussein or U.S. Will"; "Bush Cites Urgent Iraqi Threat"; "Bush Tells Troops: Prepare for War."

By contrast, pieces questioning the evidence or rationale for war were frequently buried, minimized or spiked.

Watch: Bill Clinton uses op-ed to flip-flop on gay marriage

Len Downie, then the executive editor, told me that in retrospect, "we were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part."

Bob Woodward told me that "we did our job, but we didn't do enough, and I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder." There was a "groupthink" among intelligence officials, he said, and "I think I was part of the groupthink."

Watch: Should ESPN give Keith Olbermann another at-bat?

Tom Ricks, who was the paper's top military reporter, turned in a piece in the fall of 2002 that he titled "Doubts," saying that senior Pentagon officials were resigned to an invasion but were reluctant and worried that the risks were being underestimated. An editor killed the story, saying it relied too heavily on retired military officials and outside experts -- in other words, those with sufficient independence to question the rationale for war.

"There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?" Ricks said.

Watch: White House bullying against the press

I actually think the Post did a better job than most. And there is no minimizing the difficulties that even the most intrepid journalists faced: They couldn't go to Iraq to investigate for themselves, and most government sources were echoing the administration's line about WMDs.

But that system's failure casts a dark shadow on the news business that has not entirely lifted. The press needs to challenge what government officials say, whether it is about war or weapons or Wall Street, or whether the impact of federal budget cuts is being exaggerated. The low level of public confidence in the media has many causes, but one of them stems from what happened back in 2003.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT