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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Editorials Reflect Public Ambivalence About War

Like their readers, many newspapers across the country have shed old opinions and rejected received wisdom when it comes to U.S. and Iraq.

March 18, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As war with Iraq looms, the editorial pages of many American newspapers have taken unexpected positions in the national debate, shedding longtime political labels and in some cases defying conventional wisdom.

In New York, for example, Newsday's often progressive editorial columns have reluctantly backed U.S. military action "even without U.N. consent." The Orange County Register, a traditionally conservative publication, has been openly skeptical that President Bush has made the case for war.

Similar anomalies have been found on editorial pages from Oregon to Florida, and they reflect the complex wrangling over war in Iraq that has played out in millions of American living rooms. While U.S. editorial pages had varying but fairly consistent responses to other recent national controversies, opinion on the war with Iraq and America's role in the world has evolved slowly, often with deep ambivalence.

"Editorial positions at many newspapers have been changing during recent months, and that's because this is one issue where the old ideas of left versus right don't really apply," said John Taylor, president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and the editorial page director of the News Journal in Wilmington, Del. "We've been flummoxed by shifting sands, and this newspaper debate reflects so much of what has been going on in the rest of the country."

At the Washington Post, an editorial page that is normally a thorn in the side of the Bush administration has been hawkish on the need for war. "We believe Mr. Bush is right to go forward despite opposition from France and other nations," it said in a Sunday editorial. At the generally conservative Peoria Journal Star in Peoria, Ill., however, a recent editorial voiced growing grass-roots concern about the possibility of war, noting: "The United States is not always right. Maybe this time the world is."

"A good editorial forces people to think and confront new ideas. It doesn't merely reinforce existing opinion," said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a media think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. "There are shades of gray on this issue, and a liberal paper might have a very different perspective after Sept. 11. A paper that is fundamentally conservative may be very skeptical now about any war with Iraq."

Editorial page directors from coast to coast report a higher than normal level of response to editorials about Iraq in recent months. And the tide of public opinion in those letters has shifted back and forth.

A key reason for the heightened impact of editorials may be the relative silence of Congress, several experts say. Unlike in the period before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which was preceded by an intense congressional debate, there has been scant discussion about the controversy in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, both of which approved a resolution paving the way for possible military action months ago.

With so many Americans still needing more information to make up their minds, newspaper editorials have helped to fill the void, along with talk radio shows, all-news cable TV broadcasts, the Internet and a variety of other media, according to Jay Rosen, an author and chairman of the journalism department at New York University.

"Newspaper editorials are bound to play a greater role in the national discussion, especially at a time when the normal channels of discussion, like Congress, are silent or have been stilled for different reasons," he said. "There's way more debate on this issue among Americans themselves now than among their elected representatives."

On some editorial pages -- such as those of the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal -- the Bush administration's agenda is seen as a principled, necessary response to a rogue regime with weapons of mass destruction. Other newspapers, like the San Francisco Chronicle, have been consistent opponents of the war and skeptical about America's geopolitical motives. The majority of editorial page opinion, however, seems to have fallen into an anxious middle ground, an ideology-free zone where newspapers believe that Saddam Hussein's regime must be dealt with but fear the consequences of America's acting without broad international support.

Although there are no definitive surveys, Editor & Publisher -- a weekly magazine about the newspaper industry -- has periodically assessed gradations of editorial opinion on the war. In its most recent look at 43 leading American newspapers, the magazine reported that 18 were in favor of war while 25 wanted to give diplomacy an additional chance. Of the latter, 12 wanted to briefly extend the deadline for war, while 13 editorialized that weapons inspectors deserved more time.

"So many papers are trying to sort things out, and as the situation keeps changing, so do editorial opinions," said Phil Haslanger, managing editor and former editorial writer at the Capital Times in Madison, Wis.

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