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Mission Not Accomplished

Authors: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow, and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati
June 15, 2009
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas


Long after the Iraq War went south, when its failures could no longer be minimized, the elite newspapers and weeklies finally got around to offering sound analyses and asking the Bush Administration tough questions. It took them long enough–not until after December 2003, by which time the war was underway and its damage irreversible.

And yet the elite print press still hasn’t managed a serious evaluation of its own reporting in the early years of the war. There have been discrete examinations, focused on a specific newspaper or subject, such as Howard Kurtz’s review of The Washington Post’s pre-war reporting and The New York Times’ evaluation of its WMD coverage. But there has been no comprehensive effort to look at all the pre-war print reporting and draw conclusions about its successes, as well as its failures.

This article presents just such an appraisal, in the hope that journalism centers, and especially the elite press itself, will deepen their inquiries. The stakes could not be higher: Our public debate and our democracy hinge in good measure on how well our most prestigious print outlets cover matters of war and peace.

The "elite press" here includes three daily newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal) and two weeklies (Time and Newsweek). As of 2008, they collectively reach around ten million people in print and millions more online, including the most influential government, business, media, and community leaders.

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