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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

June 7, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 10




Claire Schaeffer-Duffy A primer on war

By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor

The New York Times published an almost penitential editorial May 26 admitting its pre-war coverage on Iraq's links to Al Quaeda and the country's possession of weapons of mass destruction, "was not as rigorous as it should have been." Four days later, ombudsman David Okrent gave his own lengthy critique of the newspaper's "flawed journalism" and concluded that the Times was used to further the "cunning campaign" of those who wanted to promote the WMD stories, and, one might add, the war in Iraq.

The Times confession has inspired several fascinating commentaries that range from trashing the newspaper's investigative journalist, Judith Miller, and accusing her of instigating the war to more general reflections about why criticizing Republican administrations is taboo for news organizations in major media markets in the United States. "Mainstream journalists are simply afraid to go against how conservatives want the news presented," writes former AP and Newsweek correspondent Robert Parry.

The media's self-scrutiny is encouraging and yet maddening, coming, as it does, 13 months after the Unites States invaded Iraq and thousands have died. It also reflects an astonishing naiveté, or is it willful ignorance, with regard to the ancient subject of war.

In its editorial, the Times bravely admitted its coverage of Iraq's weapons relied on "a pattern of misinformation." Questionable sources and questionable claims were not scrutinized and the newspaper gave the advocates of "regime change," i.e. war, greater credibility than they deserved. The confession is startlingly familiar, and one has to wonder how often "a pattern of misinformation" as a precursor to war must occur before it is recognized as a pattern.

Also by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy
April 12, 04 A Resurrection Story Told in a Time of War
Feb. 13, 04 Janet vs. Halliburton
Feb. 11, 04 Learning lessons from people's movements in India
Feb. 9, 04 A spy for the people
Dec. 12, 03 What about those weapons of mass destruction?
Dec. 10, 03 On war and human rights
Dec. 8, 03 The archbishop's announcement
I can't say that I feel betrayed by the Times's admission that it "fell for misinformation" from the advocates of regime change. I am just amazed the newspaper did not approach these sources with a greater degree of skepticism in the first place. After all, they were touting war and what war hasn't relied on a few lies to get it going.

To be fair, my experience of news writing has been occasional and limited to writing for a weekly. I haven't endured the rigors of a daily deadline and as a freelancer, who has the luxury of submitting from her basement office, I know nothing about the politics of the newsroom. Like many Americans, I was a knee-jerk critic of the media until I tried a bit of reporting myself. The experience has taught me how very hard it is to do what journalists are supposed to do: get the story right.

Reality is complex; human beings are contradictory and events ever-changing. Any honest journalist will admit that because of a reporter's ignorance, lack of time and yes, bias, most stories are incomplete. But while journalistic errors due to haste or technical limitations are forgivable what is less pardonable is a newspaper's lack of sobriety or historical perspective in its pre-war coverage.

Perhaps what is needed here is a Primer on War for Journalists, one that would include several reminders to approach this subject with a healthy dose of caution and doubt and to regard the claims of war advocates with intelligent skepticism. The primer might also include an extensive reading list in war literature to temper the tendency towards jingoistic journalism.

At the top of the list, I would include Chris Hedge's recent work, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (Public Affairs, 2002) A correspondent for The New York Times, Hedges has reported from Central America, the Balkans and the Middle East. He has seen enough of war to understand and fear its addictive brutality. War, he writes, "preys on our most primal and savage impulses. It allows us to do what peacetime society forbids or restrains us from doing. It allows us to kill."

My primer would also include a maxim taken from St. Paul's observation about the universality of Christ. It offers a much-needed perspective on reporting in times of conflict, a wise counterbalance to the misunderstanding and division that war requires. "In Christ there is no East or West," Paul writes.

Editor's Note
NCR reported on Christopher Hedges and his book, in "Seeing Through the Lie that Is War" (NCR, Nov. 29, 2002) and "Lost in a Cacophony" (NCR, June 6, 2003). His latest book What Every Person Should Know About War, (Free Press, 2003) is now available in paperback.
In other words, the story of the other, the enemy, is also our story. We cannot ignore this part of our narrative. There are plenty of American journalists, who don't. I consider them to be part of this country's saving grace.

Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.
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