What is going on at the Washington Post?
We would say that the Post editorial pages have become an outpost of the Defense Department — except that there is probably more dissent about the pending war in Iraq in the Pentagon than there is on the Post editorial pages.
In February alone, the Post editorialized nine times in favor of war, the last of those a full two columns of text, arguing against the considerable critical reader response the page had received for pounding the drums of war.
Over the six-month period from September through February, the leading newspaper in the nation’s capital has editorialized 26 times in favor of war. It has sometimes been critical of the Bush administration, it has sometimes commented on developments in the drive to war without offering an opinion on the case for war itself, but it has never offered a peep against military action in Iraq.
The op-ed page, which might offer some balance, has also been heavily slanted in favor of war.
In February, the Post op-ed page ran 34 columns that took a position on the war: 24 favored war and 10 were opposed, at least in part. (Another 22 mentioned Iraq, and sometimes were focused exclusively on Iraq, but didn’t clearly take a position for or against the war.)
Over the last four months, the Post has run 46 op-ed pieces favoring the war, and only 21 opposed.
This constitutes a significant change from September and October, when the opinion pieces were much more balanced, and even tilted slightly in favor of peace.
A few words on our methodology: We reviewed every editorial and op-ed piece in the Post over the last six months that contained the word “Iraq.” We looked at the substance of the articles, and did not pre-judge based on the author. We categorized as neutral pieces which mentioned Iraq as an aside, or which discussed the war without taking a position. For example, an article which assesses how European countries are responding to U.S. Iraq-related proposals, but does not take a position on the war itself, is categorized as neutral. Neutral articles are not included in our tally.
The methodology tends to undercount pro-war columns. We categorized as neutral articles which we thought presumed a certain position on the war, but which did not explicitly articulate it. Over the last four months, there were 17 “neutral” articles which we believe had a pro-war slant, and only five “neutral” pieces with an anti-war orientation.
Our methodology also tended to overcount pro-peace op-eds. We tallied an op-ed as pro-peace if it took a position opposing the drive to war on the issue of the moment — even if the author made clear that they favored war on slightly different terms than the President proposed at the time (for example, if UN authorization was obtained).
Someone else reviewing the Post editorial page might disagree with our categorization of this or that article. We concede it may be rough around the edges. But overall, we think other reviewers would agree that our count is in the ballpark, and tends to underestimate the disparity between pro- and anti-war pieces.
Moreover, the dramatic quantitative tilt in favor of the war if anything underplays how pro-war the Post’s editorial pages have been.
Among the regular columnists at the Post, those providing pieces that we considered anti-war include E.J. Dionne, a self-described “doubter” not opponent of the war, Mary McGrory, who pronounced herself convinced by Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations (a position from which she has backtracked) and Richard Cohen, who actually is pro-war. Only William Rasberry could be labeled a genuine and consistent opponent of war.
On the other side, the regular pro-war columnists are extraordinarily harsh and shrill. George Will labeled David Bonior and James McDermott, two congresspeople who visited Iraq, “American collaborators” with and “useful idiots” for Saddam. Michael Kelly, in one of his calmer moments, says no “serious” person can argue the case for peace. Charles Krauthammer says that those who call for UN authorization of U.S. military action in Iraq are guilty of a “kind of moral idiocy.”
The Post op-ed page has been full of attacks on anti-war protesters. Richard Cohen has managed to author attacks on John Le Carre, for an anti-war column he wrote, poets against the war, and Representative Dennis Kucinich. Cohen joined war-monger Richard Perle in calling Kucinich a “liar” (or at very least a “fool”), because Kucinich suggested the war might be motivated in part by a U.S. interest in Iraqi oil. (Is this really a controversial claim? Pro-war New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says that to deny a U.S. war in Iraq is partly about oil is “laughable.”)
Neither Le Carre, the poets, nor Kucinich has been given space on the Post op-ed page.
Indeed, virtually no one who could be considered part of the peace movement has been given space. The only exceptions: A column by Hank Perritt, then a Democratic congressional candidate from Illinois, appeared in September. Morton Halperin argued the case for containment over war in February. And Reverend Bob Edgar, a former member of Congress who now heads the National Council of Churches, a key mover in the anti-war movement, was permitted a short piece that appeared in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, when readership and attention to serious issues is at a lowpoint.
Edgar only was given the slot after editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, in an op-ed, characterized the anti-war movement, and Edgar by name, as “Saddam’s lawyers.”
Does this shockingly one-sided treatment on the Post editorial pages of the major issue of the day matter?
It matters a lot.
The Washington Post and the New York Times are the two papers that most fundamentally set the boundaries for legitimate opinion in Washington, D.C. The extraordinary tilt for war in the Post editorial pages in the last four months makes it harder for officialdom in Washington and the Establishment generally to speak out against war.
Everyone who might be characterized as an “insider” in the political-military-corporate establishment knows there are major internal divisions on the prospect of war among elder statesmen, retired military brass and present-day corporate CEOs. There are many reasons those voices are inhibited from speaking out, but the Post’s extremist editorial pages are certainly a real contributor.
The failure to give a prominent platform to anti-war voices has also worked to soften the debate among the citizenry. It’s no answer to say a vibrant anti-war movement, reliant on the Internet, its own communications channels and dissenting voices in other major media outlets, has sprung up. Sending out an e-mail missive is not exactly the same thing as publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post.
The Post editorial page editors have failed to fulfill their duty to democracy. The heavy slant on the editorial pages, the extreme pro-war rhetoric offset only by hedging and uncertain war critics, and the scurrilous attacks on the anti-war movement to which minimal response has been permitted — all have undermined rather than fueled a robust national debate.
At this point, there is no real way for the Post to rectify its wrongdoing. It could start to mitigate the effect by immediately making a conscious effort to solicit and publish a disproportionately high number of pro-peace op-eds, and to let the peace movement occasionally speak for itself, especially since the paper’s regular columnists so savagely and repeatedly attack it.
Unfortunately, the drive to war, which the Post editorial pages have helped fuel, may not stop in Iraq. There is good reason to believe that a war with Iraq will be followed by calls from the hawks at the Post and around the administration for more military action, against some other target. Will the paper’s editorial page editors find a better way to achieve balance in advance of the next military buildup? Or are the paper’s editorial pages now simply devoted to the Permanent War Campaign?
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, and co-director of Essential Action. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999.)