View from the fray

Such a thing as truth

The editor predicted that this time around war in Iraq wouldn’t be a breeze—the “video game exercise”—that it was during Operation Desert Storm more than a decade ago.

“Last time, U.S. forces were there to throw Saddam’s armies out of Kuwait,” Paul Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, told a group of UNR students. “It’s different when you’re defending your future, your homeland, than it is when you’re trying to hold on to something you just seized.”

So it took some soul-searching before Steiger agreed to send five Wall Street Journal reporters—all volunteers who wanted the opportunity—to be embedded with troops in Iraq. He worries about the risk, about the dangers, but he also values the chance to report something he calls “truth” and defines as “a set of facts that are meaningful or useful.”

Steiger’s worries are understandable. During a speech at the Reynolds School of Journalism Scripps Dinner Tuesday night, Steiger spoke of the kidnapping and murder of his reporter Daniel Pearl. Earlier, Steiger had spoken to students about Sept. 11, 2001. The newspaper’s offices near the World Trade Center were evacuated after the planes hit, before the towers fell. Steiger described hurried conferences and sending editors over the river, oblivious to the coming collapse.

“I had no idea the buildings were going to come down,” he said. “All of a sudden, you see the building start to quiver and it came down.”

Steiger’s staff feared that they had lost their boss.

“I didn’t think I was lost,” Steiger said. “It was a beautiful sunny day, like it is today. And I was wearing a nice blue suit, but it was covered in this white grime. This being New York, nobody made eye contact. I felt I’d just walked off the set of a movie.”

Steiger is soft-spoken and intelligent. He seems to embody the “healthy skepticism” that he values in reporters. He’s realistic, but without cynicism. When he said that the war in Iraq is not about oil, I wanted to believe.

Steiger reiterated the reasons for war much as they’ve been stated by Bush & Co.: Removing weapons of mass destruction from the hands of a “maverick,” shifting the balance of power in the volatile Middle East and continuing the war against “radical Islam.”

Yet Steiger acknowledged that he has questions.

“There is a lot of controversy about this war,” he said. “We have two centuries of the development of international law that says you don’t invade a country and change its regime when there’s no threat to you. … Now we have this doctrine of pre-emption. It’s troubling and challenging.”

Steiger was realistic about the U.S. economic future nowadays—after 20 years of the “greatest era of peace and prosperity” that the nation has ever known.

“That’s history now, it’s done,” he said. “We’re not going to get it back after a pause for a couple of years.”

That said, he told college-age students that the role of journalists remains the same.

“Strive for truth, to find it and to communicate it in a way that is accessible,” he said. “It’s very challenging. It is the highest use to which we can be put.”