Understanding the Iraq conflict can be vexing. Deluged by stories of carnage everyday in the media, we grow numb to the regular reports of death and destruction. Some lose interest in following the latest developments out of the country; for others, the interest was never there.
I must admit that unless a report about the ubiquitous violence is particularly gruesome, any news report I see pertaining to the conflict is unlikely to hold my attention for long. I feel guilty admitting this, but something tells me that among my peers, my apathy is not unique.
Ask yourself, who is primarily responsible for the insurgency? Is it a Shiite or Sunni insurgency? Do you know what the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni is? President Bush is rumored to have been ignorant of the difference until January of 2003. What kills more American soldiers’mdash;IEDs or EFPs? Do you know if Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction? Don’t laugh; as recently as last July, 50 percent of Americans thought that Saddam did, in fact, have WMDs when the war began. And, while most of us are aware that American casualties in Iraq exceed 3,000, how many of us know the number of Iraqi casualties (hint: multiply the number of American casualties by 10, and you’re about halfway there. And, that’s the conservative estimate’hellip;)?
So, I suppose it was a positive sign that when Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent for The New York Times, came to speak on campus, Reeves Theater was nearly packed. There were a few faculty members there, but students made up the bulk of the audience. I am certain that some students were there to score extra credit for class; others may have come for the free food. But, I am fairly sure that curiosity explains the significant turnout. Mr. Gordon did not disappoint. His speech covered a range of topics, such as the planning that went into the invasion, the current state of the armed forces and the implications that the Democratic Congress could have on the war’s outcome.
Absent from Mr. Gordon’s presentation, however, was any thorough discussion of the media’s role in the war. Mr. Gordon is, after all, a journalist, but his speech focused primarily on the military and political aspects of the conflict. His failure to address the role the media played in the war may be a sign that Mr. Gordon isn’t comfortable with revealing what that role has been.
In 2004 The Times‘ editorial board published the following regarding the paper’s reporting prior to the war: ‘We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged ‘mdash; or failed to emerge.’
The editors don’t mention names, but they do cite specific instances where ‘articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried [or] there was no follow-up at all.’ Mr. Gordon co-wrote two of the pieces cited by The Times, including a Sept. 8, 2002 front-page article concerning Iraq’s alleged pursuit of aluminum tubes for their nuclear weapons program. In the article, according to the editors, ‘Administration officials were allowed to hold forth at length on why this evidence of Iraq’s nuclear intentions demanded that Saddam Hussein be dislodged from power.’ The day the aluminum tubes story ran, Dick Cheney appeared on ‘Meet the Press’ and said the following:
‘There’s a story in The New York Times this morning ‘hellip; and I want to attribute The Times ‘hellip; it’s now public that, in fact, [Saddam] has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge.’
Five days after the piece ran, the reporters ‘learned the tubes were in fact a subject of debate among intelligence agencies.’ Being the objective journalist that he is, Mr. Gordon and his colleague wrote an article addressing this point. The article, aptly titled ‘White House Lists Iraq’s Steps to Build Banned Weapons,’ was buried on page A-13.
Of course, it wasn’t just Mr. Gordon. The University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies studied the media’s coverage of WMDs both prior to the invasion and immediately after, and found that ‘the media tended to lump together all types of WMD, gave too much credence to the administration’s arguments and failed to air dissenting views.’ Is it fair to single out Mr. Gordon for the failings of an entire institution, especially in light of the fact that his paper did admit past mistakes? Unfortunately, it does not seem that Mr. Gordon has learned anything from this. In fact, he is back at it again, towing the Bush administration line on the need for escalation in Iraq and the perceived threat from Iran.
Still unconvinced he has an agenda? Mr. Gordon’s own words speak volumes about his intentions. ‘I think it’s worth one last effort for sure to try to get this right because my personal view is we’ve never really tried to win,’ Mr. Gordon said regarding the escalation. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, as a journalist Mr. Gordon should at least convey an air of objectivity.
So while I am glad to see students take an interest in the subject, I hope Mr. Gordon’s speech does not mark the end of their search for insight and awareness regarding the war. Actually, one would hope Mr. Gordon’s presentation will spur a desire among students to seek out more information on the subject. And, preferably that search will involve various sources of information not just what Mr. Gordon, or even The Times, has to say. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘