Unlike a lot of media and political writers I am not one to let bygones be bygones, at least in a very few tragic or high stakes cases. For example, the media failures in the run-up to the Iraq war, given the consequences. This explains my reaction to the Columbia Journalism Review today announcing, after a widely-watched search, that it was hiring Liz Spayd of The Washington Post as its new editor.
Now, I suppose I should review her entire career, for context, though others are doing it and you can read about it in plenty of places. She has been managing editor of the Post for years now and obviously supervised a good deal of important work (and some not so terrific, of course). But I am moved to recall, and then let go, one famous 2004 article, by Howard Kurtz, then media writer at the Post, which I covered at the time (when I was the editor of Editor & Publisher) and in my book on those media failures and Iraq, So Wrong for So Long.
In a nutshell: The NYT, under Bill Keller, had printed as an editors' note a very brief and very limited semi-apology for its horrific coverage during the run-up to the war. The Post, almost equally guilty (see headline in photo), didn't even do that, leaving it to one of its reporters, i.e. Kurtz, to report it out. His piece made the paper look pretty bad, with some embarrassing quotes from editor Len Downie, Bob Woodward and Karen DeYoung, among others. And there was this passage about Spayd:
Liz Spayd, the assistant managing editor for national news, says The Post's overall record was strong.In some ways, the "hero" of the Kurtz piece was Walter Pincus, the longtime national security who had tried to get more skeptical stories on Iraq WMD in the paper (or get them on the front-page).
"I believe we pushed as hard or harder than anyone to question the administration's assertions on all kinds of subjects related to the war. . . . Do I wish we would have had more and pushed harder and deeper into questions of whether they possessed weapons of mass destruction? Absolutely," she said. "Do I feel we owe our readers an apology? I don't think so."
But while Pincus was ferreting out information "from sources I've used for years," some in the Post newsroom were questioning his work. Editors complained that he was "cryptic," as one put it, and that his hard-to-follow stories had to be heavily rewritten.Michael Getler later reviewed his years as ombudsman at the Post from 2000 to 2005, and offered a strong critique of the role of the paper's editors in the Iraq WMD disaster. He observed:
Spayd declined to discuss Pincus's writing but said that "stories on intelligence are always difficult to edit and parse and to ensure their accuracy and get into the paper."
I should say at this point the Post is an excellent paper, and it also did some excellent reporting before the war—more than you might think. But I also had a catbird seat watching it stumble and, while my observations are necessarily about the Post, they may be more broadly applicable. From where I sat, there were two newsroom failures, in particular, at the root of what went wrong with pre-war reporting. One was a failure to pay enough attention to events that unfolded in public, rather than just the exclusive stuff that all major newspapers like to develop. The other was a failure of editors and editing up and down the line that resulted in a focus on getting ready for a war that was coming rather than the obligation to put the alternative case in front of readers in a prominent way. This resulted in far too many stories, including some very important ones, being either missed, underplayed, or buried.Gelter chronicles the many important stories the Post either did not cover or buried deep inside the paper (including reports on large antiwar marches). Then he adds:
Here’s a brief sampling of additional Post headlines that, rather stunningly, failed to make the front of the newspaper: “Observers: Evidence for War Lacking,” “U.N. Finds No Proof of Nuclear Program,” “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” “Legality of War Is a Matter of Debate,” and “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.” In short, it wasn’t the case that important, challenging reporting wasn’t done. It just wasn’t highlighted.Of course, Liz Spayd was just one of a group of editors and hardly deserves full blame for the Post's performance. But she did defend that record afterward--and said no apology was needed.