Wednesday, August 28, 2013

As Syria heats up, media must remember Iraq lessons

An American Secretary of State speaks to the world, accusing a dictator of using weapons of mass destruction, and warning of dire consequences for the dictator’s regime.

If you’re experiencing déjà vu, you’re not alone.

The pronouncements this week by Sec. of State John Kerry are eerily reminiscent of the anti-Saddam assertions of then-Sec. of State Colin Powell. In 2003, Powell made a dramatic (and ultimately, incorrect) speech at the UN detailing Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

This week, Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden are launching similar accusations against Syria, this time charging that dictator Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. Imbedded in those accusations is no small dose of threats and saber-rattling.

While the diplomats, generals, and weapons experts debate the veracity of the chemical weapons charges and desirability of military intervention in Syria, the media would be well advised to remember their own missteps leading up the Iraq war 10 years ago.

By their own admission, many in the media shirked their watchdog role in the run up to the Iraq war. They were largely content with parroting Bush administration propaganda (lies, some might say). In a mea culpa published in 2004, the New York Times wrote, “…We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge. “

Yes, there were some stories that did question the administration’s propaganda. However, according to Paul Waldman on, “Whenever there's a story that the media as a whole get wrong, there's always a reporter somewhere who got it right. The problem was that those voices were so much quieter, pushed so far to the edge of the national debate.” ( 3/19/13).

So, here we are again 10 years later, an administration vilifying a dictator and accusing him of horrible crimes against his own people. If the media have learned anything from the pre-Iraq debacle, it is that we must never be only the mouthpiece of an administration bent on intervention. We journalists need to be asking questions, and lots of them, seeking independent verification of the claims against Syria. We must be skeptical.

As a peace journalist, one devoted to explicitly stating the consequences of war and to giving peacemakers a voice, we have an even higher responsibility in times like these. We need to lead a discussion debunking the myth of a “clean, surgical strike”, and examine at length the number of civilian injuries and deaths that could occur. Peace journalists must seek out and give a voice to peacemakers and to those who seek a non-violent response in Syria.

This does not mean that peace journalists will openly advocate for peace. Instead, it’s our responsibility to make sure that peaceful alternatives, along with a complete understanding of all of the ramifications of intervention, are aired. Once we’d done our job, it’s up to the public to let their leaders know if they believe military intervention in Syria is indeed the best option.

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