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The Role of Opinion in C&EN

by Rudy M. Baum
April 26, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 17

Not very many of the pages of C&EN are devoted to "opinion," which is entirely appropriate given that C&EN is, and always has been, a newsmagazine. Of C&EN's 2,715 pages in 2003, only 100 or so, or about 4%, could possibly be classified as opinion written by C&EN staff.

Some C&EN readers object strenuously even to this modest level of coverage devoted to opinion. I am often surprised at the ferocity of the responses elicited by certain C&EN editorials or "Insights," the other main vehicle for commentary in the magazine. Some C&EN readers just don't want to see in print anything that contradicts their point of view.

A case in point is Senior Correspondent Lois Ember's recent Government & Policy Insights on intelligence failures leading up to the Iraq war. A selection of the letters we've received on Ember's essay follows, and I want to address here a couple of points raised by them.

First, none of the letters accomplishes what each either explicitly or implicitly sets out to do, which is to undermine the thesis of Ember's essay. Ember, who has written about chemical and biological weapons for C&EN for more than two decades, probes an important issue: Why did the U.S. believe that Iraq in 2003 possessed vast stores of chemical and biological weapons and an advanced program to develop nuclear weapons when, in fact, our subsequent occupation of the country has shown that none of these weapons existed?

This is an important question because it was on the basis of this intelligence that President George W. Bush took the U.S. into a preemptive war against Iraq. It is also important because President Bush has declared a policy of preemptive warfare, and preemptive wars will always be waged on the basis of intelligence. Thus the intelligence failure that led to the Iraq war is of greater than historical interest.

The letter writers who object to Ember's essay point to Iraq's previous use of chemical weapons, to Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, to past peacekeeping failures by the United Nations, to previous intelligence failures, to Iraqi involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These points are not germane to the discussion at hand. The fact is that Iraq did not possess the weapons we thought it did, and the U.S. waged a war on the basis of that faulty intelligence. If the U.S. is to follow a policy of preemptive warfare, this intelligence failure must be probed deeply and understood fully so that future military action is based on real, not imagined, threats. That's why the Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the U.S. and the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the U.S. Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction were established.

The second point the letter writers vigorously make is that there is no place in C&EN for Ember's essay or for any other criticism of the Bush Administration. As editor-in-chief of C&EN, I clearly disagree.

Ember's essay is labeled "violently partisan political propaganda" by one letter writer; "one-sided political opinion" by another; and a "prime example" of C&EN's "unrelenting campaign against the Bush Administration" by a third. These letter writers, and others who have criticized in similar terms some editorials I have written, clearly believe that C&EN has a liberal bias. I disagree with that characterization. Criticizing any Administration on scientific and technical matters is not inherently partisan, not liberal or conservative, but rather a legitimate function of a newsmagazine devoted to covering the chemical enterprise in its entirety.

More fundamentally, these letters imply that C&EN has no business offering editorial opinion on any issue with a political component. One writer is quite explicit, stating, "I pay my ACS dues and I expect you to stay out of politics."

C&EN, of course, does stay out of electoral politics, but it would be impossible--indeed, it would be irresponsible--for the magazine to avoid reporting and commenting on current political issues that involve a significant scientific or technical component. The overwhelming majority of C&EN's pages are devoted to accurate, timely, and balanced coverage of all elements of the chemical enterprise. The small proportion devoted to opinion and commentary on issues that affect the chemical enterprise is intended to stimulate informed discussion among members of the American Chemical Society and other readers of C&EN. Judging from the letters we receive, we are succeeding.

Thanks for reading.



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