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How Walcott and the Knight Ridder reporters went about their work

COMMENTARY | July 24, 2008

John Walcott is the winner of the first I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence. One thing he and his reporters did, Murrey Marder points out, was find mid-level, knowledgeable sources -- and not fall for the deceit pushed by those high in the Bush administration.

By Murrey Marder

America's press and the next president share an exceptional challenge: to revive—and fulfill—the touchstone of democracy, true transparency and accountability in government, which has been  trashed by the Bush administration in the name of wartime secrecy. 

The nation’s press long has been reluctant to apply to itself the transparency and accountability that it prods others to produce. For some this rationale double dips into the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press. But the press cannot have it both ways. It must raise the curtain on itself as well, which it is now being compelled to do limitedly, in the crossfire over former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's kiss-and-tell book, "What Happened:  Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception."

In this election campaign shadowed by two grinding wars and a floundering economy, nothing should be exempt from public scrutiny. And yet throughout the lengthy primary campaign neither the press nor the candidates made any effort to explain to the public that the Congress and the press had defaulted grievously  on the underlying concept of the United States Constitution: applying checks  and balances on the use of power. 

Five years later the print and broadcast press are still deeply conflicted over their own share of blame for why the nation was grossly misled over the justifications for invading Iraq in March, 2003.

Part of the press now recognizes that most of the news media were duped by the Bush administration's highest officials, and the press compounded the duplicity by its gullibility.

But many journalists are still in adamant denial about their own shortcomings in reporting on the  Iraq invasion. They had engaged in what might be described as pseudo journalism: accepting whatever administration deception specialists chose to tell them, and now, five years into a war forecast to be  a quick walkover, resorting to excuses which could get a neophyte expelled from journalism school: "We only ask questions."       

Before Scott McClellan turned from champion to attacker of the administration's press policy on the Iraq war, charging that the White House press was misled (by him and other officials) into becoming  "complicit enablers" of  President Bush's agenda, a more explicit indictment of a compliant press came from a specially authoritative  source: John Walcott, then the Washington bureau chief of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain.

It is now well-known that Walcott and two especially tenacious reporters operating as a formidable, closely-knit trio, were the only journalists out of hundreds of American reporters and editors across the nation working on pre-invasion stories who "got it right." That is, producing solid stories – starting a year before the  invasion began – reporting that the administration was manipulating intelligence to conceal dire forecasts that the Iraq invasion was headed into a morass to rival the Vietnam war disaster.

How did these exclusive reports pass unnoticed in Washington, New York, and other major print and broadcast news centers? Because while there were 32 Knight Ridder newspapers across the nation, none  were in New York or Washington.

When the Knight Ridder stories reached that chain's own newspapers, some initially hesitated to use them because they differed so much from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other leading pace-setters in foreign and national policy.

What the American print and broadcast press has yet to grasp is exactly what the Knight Ridder trio of John Walcott, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel did in order to run circles around everyone else.            

It was not legerdemain; but it was the opposite of prevailing journalism practice, which starts with the illusion that the smartest journalism requires finding the highest ranking official as your prime source. He/she supposedly would be your personal version of the Hollywood-inflated myth of a "deep throat" who will tell you everything you need to become a star reporter rivaling Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in "All The President’s Men."

If Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had followed such a script the Watergate scandal might still be unresolved, and President Richard Nixon would have escaped a forced resignation.       

How did the Knight Ridder journalists avoid retaliation from the Bush White House for being the only news syndicate to challenge core elements of its Iraq war strategy?  Walcott uses two metaphors to describe the Knight Ridder style of working "below the radar" with mid-level expert sources who drafted the war plans and knew its pitfalls.

In addition, the Walcott team readily accepted the role of the skunk at the garden party, so they had nothing to ask for, and nothing to hide. As one of the group explained, "We don't have the access that the big shots from the Times or the Post have. We're not on the first-call list. We're not invited to some of the inner-circle type of things."  

Walcott has said that as he sees it, two key institutions "fell down on the job" on the road to war in Iraq—“the Congress and the press." Speaking to a foreign policy group last February when the presidential primaries were under way, he said, "What we hear from some Democratic presidential candidates and others is, 'if I had known then what I know today I would never have gone to war."

His blunt reply, Walcott said, was, "If you had done your homework you would have known that the real experts in the government, in the CIA, the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), the State Department, the uniformed military, the Energy Department, and so on, had grave doubts of this part or that part of the administration's case for war."

"How do I know that?" asked Walcott “Very simple...We knew that in what was then the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, and we wrote stories about it over and over again..."  (The Knight Ridder chain was sold to the McClatchy Company in 2006. Walcott is now its Washington bureau chief, with many of the same reporters.)

Walcott has saved his roughest criticism of the leap into the Iraq war for his own profession. "Too many members of the Fourth Estate in Washington," he has said caustically, "are trying to move up the social ladder an estate or two...Being an outsider, a naysayer isn't as much fun as being an insider, and it  can't get you on TV where the money is, or on the lecture circuit when you know the right people..."

"But there were much bigger problems with the media after 9/11" he continued, "than just too-cozy relationships with the wrong sources and timidity about challenging a popular president in the wake of an attack on all of us. There was simple laziness...Much of what the administration said, especially about Iraq and al Qaeda simply made no sense. Yet very few reporters bothered to check it out: they were stenographers; they were not reporters."

And there was finally the fact, Walcott said, "that most of the elite news organizations in the country, led by the New York Times and the Washington Post were seriously, overwhelmingly wrong about Iraq, and that too many others simply followed them, like lemmings, over the cliff..."

The "skunk at the garden party" had eloquently made his own case for deserving to be the first recipient of a medal honoring a predecessor who also exemplified the courage of his convictions in defying intimidation and conventional wisdom to speak and write truth to power.

As one of the millions
Posted by Susan
08/03/2008, 02:40 AM

who marched, I knew there was a serious problem when we had Rumsfeld (and others) claiming that he KNEW where the WMDs were - and UN weapons inspectors in the country who did not find weapons, said Saddam was not restricting them, and that the US was not giving them helpful information.

That is when I knew that someone was lying, and I was pretty sure it was not the UN weapons inspectors.

And today - we know the anthrax used to kill and terrify Americans in 2001 came from Ft. Detrick. We also know that ABC news said that high level anonymous officials at Ft. Detrick told them the anthrax had a substance in it that came from Iraq.

Those anonymous officials are likely accessories to murder, or worse.

This was used to gin up the war on Iraq too.

John Walcott wins the first I.F. Stone Medal
Award goes to the D.C. bureau chief who led Knight Ridder’s skeptical coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war.

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