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The Media's Obligation in Debunking Myths

By Seth Porges

Published: October 02, 2003


Updated at 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Oct. 4

Every day, newspaper editors must grapple with the question: "What is news?" There is a fine calculus that goes into determining what belongs on the front page, what gets buried in the middle, and what doesn't appear in a newspaper at all.

In my article "Bush 9/11 Admission Gets Little Play" (E&P Online, Sept. 19), I explored the results of my study of how the 12 largest daily newspapers by circulation handled what seemed like an important event: President Bush admitting two days earlier that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, contrary to popular belief (an oft-cited August poll conducted by The Washington Post revealed that 69% of Americans believe that Hussein was personally involved in the attacks).

As it turned out, only three of the 12 biggest papers put the Bush admission on their front page, and two (The Wall Street Journal and New York Post) didn't mention it at all.

Within minutes after the story appeared online, we started getting letters. Some were the usual partisan rants, but more revealing were notes from people who worked at several major newspapers (outside the Top 12) who wanted to make sure we, and the world, knew that their paper had correctly recognized the import of this event. "I, too, was surprised to see how many papers played down the story," wrote Richard Chacón, deputy foreign editor of The Boston Globe. "Too bad Porges didn't cast his net a bit wider, however. He would've seen that the Boston Globe did run a prominent story on its front page."

Staff from The Seattle Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, the Newark Star-Ledger and Minneapolis Star Tribune also wrote to draw attention to their paper's front-page coverage of the statement.

We also got mail from readers pointing with pride to their local papers' strong handling of the story -- or decrying their decision to bury it.

Many of the notes were fiery with emotion. "This is about the most incredible thing I have ever read," John Zaragoza wrote. "Here the press doesn't cover one of the major reasons this country went to war and thousands of people have been killed... all based on lies. And this is not heralded across all media banners?"

Most of the critical letters argued that Bush's admission was not big news because he had never actually claimed Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. "You need to get your fact-checkers to work," Charles R. Martin wrote. "First, Bush's 'admission' is completely consistent with what he's said in the past -- just not consistent with the misquotations that have been spun since."

My article, however, did not claim that Bush had ever explicitly linked Hussein to 9/11 -- only that he implied it. Given the number of times he had mentioned Saddam and 9/11 in the same breath, this seemed to be a safe observation. In fact, Bush was forced to admit the link was hogwash only after his vice president, three days earlier, once again insinuated a connection between Saddam and 9/11.

Bush's admission should have made a bigger splash because almost seven out of 10 Americans believed an apparent untruth. Polls have shown that this belief was one of the key reasons the public was so willing to back the invasion of Iraq. The fact that Bush evidently knew that Saddam was not involved in the 9/11 attack, yet did not debunk this myth, suggests a dangerous manipulation of the truth to garner public support for the war.

The press, too, can be faulted for letting the myth survive for so long. This comes on top of what now appears to be another media-aided fantasy: that Iraq was an imminent threat due to possession of huge stockpiles of WMD.

Newspaper editors, like public officials, often have to ask themselves a question that is critical to the health of the American democracy: Do you want to perpetuate dangerous misconceptions, or help the public learn the truth? Papers such as the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News that did run the Bush admission on the front page must be lauded for acknowledging that when 69% of Americans believe an extraordinary falsehood that helped lead to a (still-ongoing) war, it is their responsibility to correct it.

Editor's Note: The original version of this story included the claim by one reader that The Oregonian did not cover the Bush 9/11 admission. The Oregonian says they did cover the story on page A2.

Seth Porges ( , an E&P intern, is a junior at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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