The failure of the press in its prewar coverage of the Iraq invasion 20 years ago led to a clenched teeth mea culpa from the New York Times, and other crimson faces in the news industry. At the time – with few exceptions – the majority of journalists covering the story seemed to have entered into a Jonestown mass murder suicide pact clambering over each other to distil falsities. The press cannot be blamed for the war itself and its tragic and devastating outcomes. But it is irrefutable it got the story completely wrong. Twenty years later in an era of social media, as the drumbeat of misinformation gets louder, and the ranks of journalists and news outlets are winnowed, it is timely to ask if news media is up to the task of doing a better job if it had to cover a new crisis similar to the Iraq war.
Valid or not, it’s no contest that the double helix and DNA score higher on the familiarity scale than knowledge of another twentieth century scientific discovery, nuclear fission.
Twenty years ago, had it been armed with a few atomic facts, the press may have been better able to avoid the contamination of mushroom clouds and other bogus claims upon which the invasion of Iraq was justified – and spared itself embarrassment.
As it was, except for a few journalists who dared to say ‘the king has no clothes’, the press corps mostly fell over themselves in parroting ‘fake news’ about Iraq’s non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction programme, swallowing yellow cake duplicity, getting spun on concocted aluminum tube claims and unfounded chemical weapons assessments.
On this sombre 20th anniversary of the Iraq war, its hundreds of thousands of dead, the continued fallout of regional instability, and mistrust in a press that shrinks by the day, it is timely to address the preparedness of the press in reporting the next nuclear misadventure.
Atomic Reporters has its roots in the sour dirt of the Iraq debacle. Peter Rickwood, an ex-journalist, working in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s press office before and during the invasion, founded the Canadian non-profit Atomic Reporters 10 years later with the help of IAEA veterans of the war, journalists and others.
While in spite of its major failings the press is not culpable for the Iraq invasion, it did have a major impact on influencing support for it. And it continues to treat the nuclear file with desultory attention, in the face of current global tensions, the breakdown of nuclear arms control, and expansion of nuclear arsenals.
Watch a debate organized by Quincy on March 22, 2023 about the failure of the press during the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003.
Younger journalists who came of age after the end of the Cold War and its ubiquitous fears, cannot be expected to share the same concerns as Reagan era boomers. But to fulfil its mission as a check on power the press needs to make a greater investment in reporting an existential threat.
Hampering public disclosure, the mandate for confidentiality governing the IAEA and United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC) – charged with verifying the dismantlement of Iraq’s 80’s and 90’s era clandestine WMD programmes in the short window before the war – restricted their ability to share inspection findings except for reports by their chiefs to the UN Security Council.
Had more reporters been privy to the eye rolling details of the clumsy forgery – revealed by a quick internet search of the Niger yellow cake document when a copy reached IAEA hands – doubts would have surely arisen. The forged confirmation of the deal to supply Iraq with uranium ore bore the signature of a minister no longer in office at the time it was allegedly written. And IAEA inspectors checking the claim Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes was for centrifuges to enrich uranium, scoffed at the unsuitability of the tubes, and verified they were to NATO standard specification for shoulder fired missiles to replace a stockpile Iraq had let corrode.
There were other occasions for taking a deep breath but absent a narrative to counter the bogus claims issuing from the administrations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, there was little to counterbalance them. However, in 2004 the final blow to the fiction came from the so-called Duelfer Report, whose findings based on a sweep of Iraq for WMD by a 1,400 strong international team at the cost of a billion dollars, came up empty handed.
An anagram for nuclear is ‘unclear.’ A lesson from the calamitous coverage of official prewar claims about Iraq’s nuclear threat is that journalists must be better prepared to penetrate the atomic gloom. The tools required are basic reporting equipment – skepticism, suspicion, and reliable sources. Throw in a little knowledge of nuclear science and technology to avoid looking foolish.
The nuclear file is secretive, readily manipulated by its guardians, unyielding, and hard to report. Nonetheless the public interest is unquestionably ill-served if journalists lack the ability to subject it to scrutiny, to be able to properly inform their audiences, and serve the need for accountability.