December 11, 2002

Bush the Bellicose: How Big a Story is President’s New ‘Shoot First’ Foreign Policy?

There's no doubt it's news when the White House reverses a half-century of military restraint and declares that henceforth the United States will shoot first then explain later when encountering an enemy with a weapon of mass destruction pointed our way.

It's even bigger news when the administration states that the U.S. is willing to retaliate with nuclear force if some enemy does get the jump on us, either at home or abroad.

How big a story is this change? That is the question - and judging by the disparate decisions regarding the news by the Washington Post and the New York Times that answer won't be easily determined.

The Post played the news as its lead story under the headline "Preemptive Strikes Part of U.S. Strategic Doctrine." The Times, though, only gave the story a three-graph reefer on its front page with this headline: "A Warning for Foes In U.S. Arms Plan."

In its lead, the Post proffers that the new strategy "underscores the United States's willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons for chemical or biological attacks on U.S. soil or against American troops overseas." The Times, though, restricts itself to quoting from the White House document (PDF), which states that the U.S. is prepared to "respond with all our options" if WMD are used against Americans.

Clearly, the Times reporter David Sanger and his editors thought less of the policy shift than their counterparts at the Post. Indeed, Sanger even characterizes some details of the strategy as "familiar" parts of "post Sept. 11 precautions."

To the subscribers of the New York Times' and Washington Post's news services - which include most, if not all, the mid-sized and larger newspapers in the country - this disagreement over the story's importance must have been confusing. Editors at these papers routinely use the Times and Post news budgets, which move on the wire along with the stories, to assess the value of a story and its subsequent play in their own papers.

Why not follow the informed decision making of the nation's two most prominent papers? After all, it is their editors - not those of the paper in Dubuque or Pittsburgh or Fresno - who hold the expertise in anti-proliferation policies or the machinations of certain Mideast potentates or the current size of the hole in the ozone layer, subjects that are rightly beyond the scope of most newsrooms here in the homeland.

So, when the Times and the Post bestow enough gravitas on a story to grant it space on their front pages, most other U.S. editors follow suit.

What happens, though, when they disagree? Let's take a look.

Front page:

 Austin American-Statesman - led with Post story: "Iraq faces threat of nuclear response"
 Houston Chronicle - used the Post story.
 New York Daily News - over the flag reefer: "Bush: Nukes Are Option in Iraq".
 Dallas Morning News - used the Post story.
 Hartford Courant - led with Post story: "U.S. Policy: Strike First".
 Honolulu Advertiser - bannered Post story over five columns: "Preemptive strike option OK'd".
 Los Angeles Times - led with staff story: "U.S. Bolsters Its Policy of Deterrence".
 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - used L.A. Times story: "U.S. toughens strategy on enemy threats".
 New York Post - led with staff story: "We'll Nuke You".
 Portland Oregonian - used Post story, off lead: "Bush policy includes pre-emptive strikes".
 Cleveland Plain Dealer - led with Post story: "Bush plan: Attack first".
 San Francisco Chronicle - led with Post story: "Bush doctrine: Hit first".
 Charleston Post and Courier - used L.A. Times story: "Pre-emptive strike policy outlined".
 Providence Journal - led with Post story: "U.S. outlines tough new policy to deter attacks".
 Seattle Times - used Post story: "U.S. toughens nuclear-strike policy".
 Minneapolis Star Tribune - used Post story: "New policy calls for pre-emptive strikes by U.S."

Not on the front page:

Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe (A14), Arizona Republic, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Charlotte Observer, Chicago Tribune, Des Moines Register, Idaho Statesman, Indianapolis Star, Kansas City Star, Las Vegas Review Journal, Miami Herald, Newsday, Oakland Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, Rocky Mountain News, Reno Gazette-Journal, San Antonio Express-News, San Diego Union-Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Petersburg Times, Newark Star-Ledger, Albany Times Union, Tulsa World, USA Today.

 The Newseum: 164 daily front pages.
 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction

Posted by Tim Porter at December 11, 2002 06:02 PM