Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Froomkin: How the Press Can Prevent Another Iraq

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

Over at Nieman Watchdog, where he is Deputy Editor, Dan Froomkin (also of The Washington Post) has a fantastic list of guidelines for the press. Frankly, this list shouldn't be necessary, but it undeniably is. If only all of the press took them to heart! However, bloggers certainly can practice these principles (as many already do), and press mainstream journalists to do the same.

Given their track record, every time a member of the Bush administration makes a claim, at this point how can any journalist not question whether it's a lie? It boggles the mind. They have not credibility, which means the burden of proof is on them. Some reporters are very good at fact-checking public statements, but it's hardly an universal value. Access does not equal accuracy, and frankly, it often seems to hurt it. Knowledgeable sources are one thing, but why court a shill or a proven liar? It's not as if D.C. lacks in opinions to pad out a column! It often seems that, when it comes to the mainstream press, the rule of thumb is "Fool me once, shame on you - fool me twenty-seven times, shame on - hey, will you come on my show this Sunday?" It's true that "Politics is the blood sport of Washington," but among the chattering class, softball runs a very close second.

Here's Froomkin's short, essential piece, in its entirety:
How the press can prevent another Iraq
COMMENTARY | February 02, 2007

Journalists, and through us the public, have a grave responsibility to not be complicit in another march to war on false pretenses. So what lessons should we have learned from Iraq?
By Dan Froomkin

Lessons we thought had been learned from Vietnam were forgotten in the rush to invade Iraq. And now, as we cover President Bush’s ratcheting up of the rhetoric against Iran, it’s looking like the lessons we should have learned from Iraq may not have been learned at all. So at the risk of stating the obvious, here are some thoughts about what those lessons were. (Feel free to add more in comments.)

You Can’t Be Too Skeptical of Authority
• Don’t assume anything administration officials tell you is true. In fact, you are probably better off assuming anything they tell you is a lie.
• Demand proof for their every assertion. Assume the proof is a lie. Demand that they prove that their proof is accurate.
• Just because they say it, doesn’t mean it should be make the headlines. The absence of supporting evidence for their assertion -- or a preponderance of evidence that contradicts the assertion -- may be more newsworthy than the assertion itself.
• Don’t print anonymous assertions. Demand that sources make themselves accountable for what they insist is true.

Provocation Alone Does Not Justify War
• War is so serious that even proving the existence of a casus belli isn’t enough. Make officials prove to the public that going to war will make things better.
• Demand to know what happens if the war (or tactical strike) doesn’t go as planned?
• Demand to know what happens if it does? What happens after “victory”?
• Ask them: Isn’t it possible this will make things worse, rather than better?

Be Particularly Skeptical of Secrecy
• Don’t assume that these officials, with their access to secret intelligence, know more than you do.
• Alternately, assume that they do indeed know more than you do – and are trying to keep intelligence that would undermine their arguments secret.

Watch for Rhetorical Traps
• Keep an eye on how advocates of war frame the arguments. Don’t buy into those frames unless you think they’re fair.
• Keep a particular eye out for the no-lose construction. For example: If we can’t find evidence of WMD, that proves Saddam is hiding them.
• Watch out for false denials. In the case of Iran, when administration officials say “nobody is talking about invading Iran,” point out that the much more likely scenario is bombing Iran, and that their answer is therefore a dodge.

Don’t Just Give Voice to the Administration Officials
• Give voice to the skeptics; don’t marginalize and mock them.
• Listen to and quote the people who got it right last time: The intelligence officials, state department officials, war-college instructors and many others who predicted the problem we are now facing, but who were largely ignored.
• Offer the greatest and most guaranteed degree of confidentiality to whisteblowers offering information that contradicts the official government position. (By contrast, don’t offer any confidentiality to administration spinners.)

Look Outside Our Borders
• Pay attention to international opinion.
• Raise the question: What do people in other countries think? Why should we be so different?
• Keep an eye out for how the international press is covering this story. Why should we be so different?

Understand the Enemy
• Listen to people on the other side, and report their position.
• Send more reporters into the country we are about to attack and learn about their views, their politics and their culture.
• Don’t allow the population of any country to be demonized. All humans deserve to be humanized.
• Demand to know why the administration won’t open a dialogue with the enemy. Refusing to talk to someone you are threatening to attack should be considered inherently suspect behavior.

Encourage Public Debate
• The nation is not well served when issues of war and peace are not fully debated in public. It’s reasonable for the press to demand that Congress engage in a full, substantial debate.
• Cover the debate exhaustively and substantively.

Write about Motives
• Historically, the real motives for wars have often not been the public motives. Try to report on the motivations of the key advocates for war.
• Don’t assume that the administration is being forthright about its motives.
• If no one in the inner circle will openly discuss their motives, then encourage reasonable speculation about their motives.

Talk to the Military
• Find out what the military is being told to prepare for.


Incidentally, Froomkin’s column today, 2/6/07, ”Bush Daring Dems on Iraq” has a splendid “Iran Watch” section (it also links the Fallows piece I liked earlier).