Questioning the Case for War

    Christopher A. Preble

    Security, Americas

    Soldiers from the 173rd Airborne stand while waiting to have their picture taken with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (C, left) before he leaves for Baghdad, in Khandahar, Afghanistan December 22, 2005. Rumsfeld said on Thursday a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq or Afghanistan would spawn more terrorism in the region and raise the risk of attacks on the United States. Addressing U.S. troops on the second day of a visit to Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said

    Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau was one of the very few American news organizations that got the Iraq story right.

    While much of the world is focused on the war avoided (temporarily at least) on the Korean Peninsula, I’ve been thinking about the one in Iraq that we failed to stop fifteen years ago—and the one that some still want to fight in neighboring Iran. The occasion for this reflection is the upcoming release of Rob Reiner’s “Shock and Awe,” a film about Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau, one of the very few American news organizations that got the Iraq story right.

    McClatchy, which acquired Knight Ridder in 2006, hosted an advanced screening this week at the Newseum. A discussion with Reiner and the four real-life characters who are the film’s main characters followed: DC Bureau Chief John Wolcott, and reporters Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and Joe Galloway. (McClatchy has compiled several of the stories featured in the film here).

    I’ll have more to say about the movie closer to its official release (scheduled for July 13; it will be available on DirecTV starting on June 14), but two things from the movie and ensuing discussion particularly resonated with me: one, the deliberate and often deceptive way that hawks divulge information to build the case for war; and, two, the pressure that is exerted upon those willing to question it.

    One of the touchstones of Knight Ridder’s journalism was the inclination of its reporters to challenge conventional wisdom and to seek out alternative explanations. In the post–screening discussion, Wolcott explained that too many reporters rely on the statements of senior government officials, serving more like stenographers than thoughtful individuals attempting to uncover the truth. News organizations tend to assess the quality of information based on the seniority of the persons doling it out. In fact, the inverse may be closer to true: mid-level personnel with comparable access, but who are less invested in a particular course of action, are likely to divulge information that strays from the official narrative.

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