Each Sunday this summer, we’re sharing an essay from the archives that provides a rare first-person account of history as it unfolded. This week, we’re featuring journalist John Walcott’s 2023 essay on what it was like to cover the Bush administration’s march to war. In 2001, Walcott was the Washington bureau chief for Knight Ridder, which was one of the very few American news outlets to challenge allegations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had links to international terrorist groups. In the early days after 9/11, Walcott writes, other news organizations “didn’t seem to be noticing the red flags that the Knight Ridder team had already started seeing.”
As the Bush administration started building its case for war, Walcott and his team—which included the journalists Joe Galloway, Jonathan Landay, and Warren Strobel—began to follow up on the “early warnings that something was amiss.” Sourcing was key. The team did not rely on senior officials in Washington, but sought out “experts and scientists inside and outside the Beltway and more junior staffers and military officers much closer to the relevant intelligence.” And Walcott refused to publish stories where the evidence seemed dubious. “It made no sense to publish a story that would inject a falsehood into the public debate,” Walcott writes.
Knight Ridder came under fire for its “unpatriotic” coverage, but Walcott held firm. “We never sought to influence U.S. policy, much less derail the invasion planning, but only to air the debate inside the government as best we could,” he writes. What distinguished Knight Ridder from other news organizations was its remove from power and politics. Walcott recalls that he once told an all-hands staff meeting, “‘We report for the people whose sons and daughters and husbands and wives get sent to war, not for the people who send them.’”
As the invasion of Iraq devolved into a colossal failure, and the blunders of both the Bush administration and the press came to light, media outlets that got Iraq wrong would ultimately issue corrections and apologies. But today, Walcott warns, “there is little evidence that much has changed in the culture of Washington or in the way it is covered.”