Summer 2003

Readers Question Editors’ Judgments About War Coverage

‘Where were these stories when, over the last year, Bush was building up his “case” for war?’

Excerpts from a column by Michael Getler

Michael Getler is the ombudsman for The Washington Post. On March 23, 2003, his column, entitled “Before, and After, the Shooting Started,” was published. Excerpts from that column follow.

“Readers who oppose the President’s policy—and, at times, the Post’s coverage—continued to find fault, at least until the shooting started.

“Several of them wrote early last week, focusing on two stories. One appeared on Page A17 last Sunday under the headline ‘U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms.’ The other, which was on Page A13 on Tuesday, was headlined ‘Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.’ The first story, by staff writer Walter Pincus, reported that ‘U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned [Iraqi] weapons or where they are hidden.’ The second story, by Pincus and White House reporter Dana Milbank, said that attack preparations are being made ‘on the basis of a number of allegations … that have been challenged—and in some cases disproved—by the United Nations, European governments, and even U.S. intelligence reports.’

“Readers said they appreciated these stories. But they asked why they were not worthy of the front page and, as one reader put it, ‘where were these stories when, over the last year, Bush was building up his “case” for war?’ Another asked, ‘Why shouldn’t Bush cling to dubious allegations? He gets to repeat them over and over in prime time in front of a huge national audience and your analysis of their truthfulness is tucked away on page 13. No wonder such a large percentage of Americans believe that Hussein was directly tied to 9/11.’”

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