Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Can we blame the NYTimes for our ignorance?

January 3, 2017General

An antiwar demonstration in NYC, before the Iraq invasion

It seems that every time we’re surprised by something, whether it’s the emergence of Isis or rising anger from white middle America, people blame the press, and especially the New York Times. Why weren’t they covering it?!

People rail against the Times.. And one of their prized examples is botched coverage of the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. The Times sold us on Iraq’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction, the line goes, and led us like millions of lemmings into the Iraq war.

I was reading the New York Times then, and it just isn’t true. The coverage included different points of view. The arms inspector, Hans Blix, and his Egyptian colleague who oversaw nukes, Mohamed ElBaradei were both highly skeptical, and begged for the inspectors to be given time to do their job. I read their arguments in the Times.

The French, of course, opposed the war, and while their foreign secretary, Dominique de Villepin, preened and strutted way too much, his message was included in Times coverage. The case on WMD, he argued, was far from clear, and war not necessary, especially with inspection teams at work on the ground in Iraq. He predicted presciently that Iraq, like the old Yugoslavia, would break into vicious tribal and ethnic violence following an invasion. This was all known. And at least a few people suggested in Times articles that the Bush administration was using fears of WMDs to fight a war they wanted.

On a Feb. 15, 2003, I went with my kids to a massive antiwar demonstration on Second Ave in Manhattan. Hundreds of thousands of people were there, and millions of others protested in cities around the world. Now some of them were simply anti-war, or anti-Bush. But loads of them were like me, convinced that this was not a war to fight, at least not yet. And most of them got a lot of their ideas from the Times. Even for those who didn’t read it directly, Times coverage worked its way onto NPR and throughout mainstream news (One interesting note: In 2003, blogs and social networks were still in infancy. Mainstream still ran the show, along with cable TV.)

So I'd argue that much of the Times’ coverage was OK. It was the weighing and placement of the articles that bent the paper toward subservience to the Bush-Cheney administration, and to war. Pro-war articles by people like Judith Miller, fueled by lying and exaggerating “sources,” ran on A1, and the skeptical ones quoting Hans Blix appeared under much smaller headlines inside. What’s more, editors let France’s opposition morph into a political story, one in which France curried favor in the Arab world by sticking its thumb in Uncle Sam’s eye. They should have paid more front-page attention to the gist of the French argument.

Still, plenty of people had reason to be skeptical, and they could fuel this from reading the Times. So it bothers me to hear politicians and others defend themselves by claiming ignorance, in this case and others, and blaming the press for it.


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