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Covering New War in the Shadow of Old One

By Margaret Sullivan for the New York Times

THE lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003 was not The Times’s finest hour. Some of the news reporting was flawed, driven by outside agendas and lacking in needed skepticism. Many Op-Ed columns promoted the idea of a war that turned out to be both unfounded and disastrous.

Readers have not forgotten. Even now, more than a decade later, it’s one of the topics I hear most about. In recent weeks, with Iraq in chaos, military intervention there again has been under consideration, and readers are on high alert.

Clearly, the two situations are very different, and made even more so by President Obama’s statement that no ground troops would be involved. Beyond that, where President George W. Bush seemed intent on invading Iraq, President Obama has made his distaste for the war clear. And it’s still early in this crisis.

Nevertheless, given The Times’s troubled history when it comes to this subject, readers have good reason to be wary about what appears in the paper about military intervention in Iraq. And based on what I am already hearing from them, they are.

Many readers have complained to me that The Times is amplifying the voices of hawkish neoconservatives and serving as a megaphone for anonymously sourced administration leaks, while failing to give voice to those who oppose intervention.

I went back with the help of my assistant, Jonah Bromwich, and reread the Iraq coverage and commentary from the past few weeks to see if these complaints were valid. The readers have a point worth considering. On the Op-Ed pages and in the news columns, there have been very few outside voices of those who opposed the war last time, or those who reject the use of force now.

But the neoconservatives and interventionists are certainly being heard.

A recent profile of the historian Robert Kagan, a leading proponent of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 who is once more in the news, was one focus of sharp reader criticism. And an Op-Ed article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, another proponent of the Iraq war who says Mr. Obama should use force in Syria, also dismayed some readers.

Phyllis Bennis, who writes frequently on the Middle East, protested in an email to me: “The appearance is that The Times takes seriously only those who were responsible for the disaster that Iraq has become.” Where, she asked, is the equivalent treatment — “serious, comprehensive, virtually uncritical” — of those who opposed the war and warned of what is coming to pass now?

And the documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald put it this way on Twitter: “Another day, another NYT article about a neocon and Iraq! Where are the articles about hundreds of thousands against escalation?”

I also observed that much of the news reporting continues to reflect The Times’s extraordinary access to administration sources. That is both a competitive advantage and a potential hazard. A reader, Dave Metzger, pointed out one recent front-page article that relied heavily on such unnamed sources. His comment on Twitter dripped with sarcasm: “Iraq lessons learned.”

I’ve been critical, repeatedly, of the overuse of unnamed sources, while acknowledging that they are sometimes necessary. Certainly, they have dominated the paper’s recent coverage from Washington.

The Times’s access to administration sources has produced important news stories, but my reading suggests that there has not been enough effort to challenge and vet the views of these government sources.

Here’s one small example. In a military analysis, “U.S. Airstrikes Could Help in Reversing Insurgent Offensive, Experts Say,” the only acknowledgment of opposition came in a partial sentence: “Despite skeptics, particularly Democrats, who say that American airstrikes are unlikely to change the course of events in Iraq, President Obama is considering them among a range of options to help the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Malaki.” The skeptics, after this brief nod, are not heard from again. (Maybe a military analysis was not the right place for such skepticism, but it has not surfaced much elsewhere either.)

Other news articles have also included limited response from those who oppose American intervention. The coverage has not featured the kind of in-depth attention that readers want as a counterbalance to pieces like the one on Mr. Kagan. It is worth noting that The Times’s foreign on-the-ground reporting has been aggressive and solid.

On the editorial page and Op-Ed pages, the anti-intervention arguments have come not from the outside but largely from The Times’s own columnists and its editorials. The opinion pieces by outside writers have tilted toward military intervention. They included not only Ms. Slaughter’s but also one by Nussaibah Younis, an Iraq specialist at Harvard’s Kennedy School who urged the Obama administration to help Iraq retake the city of Mosul.

The selection of these pieces makes sense in the overall picture, since the Op-Ed pages are intended, in part, to present points of view that counter those of The Times’s editorials.

One of the most notable developments is Thomas Friedman’s change of heart; Mr. Friedman was a leading voice for intervention last time, and has since said that he was wrong. He wrote recently: “For now, I’d say stay out of this fight — not because it’s the best option but because it’s the least bad.”Nicholas Kristof, David Brooks and Ross Douthat have expressed opposition to any major intervention.

The coverage before the Iraq war was the cause of much soul-searching for The Times. Afterward, a stronger policy on anonymous sources was put in place, and an extraordinary editors’ note acknowledged reporting that lacked rigor and skepticism. The editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, told me recently, in another context, that The Times’s earlier misjudgments about Iraq were very much on the minds of the opinion staff.

Now, I hope that the editors — on both the news and opinion sides — will think hard about whose voices and views will get the amplification that comes with being in The Times. They owe it to their readers, who are observing their paper closely. You might even say they are watching it like a hawk.

Correction: June 29, 2014 

An earlier version of this column characterized Times editorials imprecisely in stating that many of them promoted the idea of a war with Iraq in 2003.   Editorials expressed the belief that  Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and should be disarmed but said that the United States should not go to war without a broad international coalition.