Media: Why supporting the Iraq War was the smart career move

Writing in “Democracy: A Journal of Ideas,” former Council on Foreign Relations chief Les Gelb slaps the print media on the wrist for getting the Iraq war wrong. After studying 576 news and opinion pieces from the three major newspapers and two major newsweeklies, Gelb says that “the elite press did not embarrass itself to the degree widely assumed–nor did it distinguish itself.” But, he adds, “[f]or the most part, the elite press conveyed [Bush] Administration pronouncements and rationale without much critical commentary.” He goes through the familiar media failings, from pre-invasion suckerhood to Mission Accomplished to the oversimplification of The Surge narrative. Gelb then says the elite print media, “centurions of our democracy,” deserve the same scrutiny we’d give “major government policies and actions.”

All well and good. So why did the media get it wrong? Gelb pins it on “structural problems” in the way news is reported–like giving heft to daily presidential pronouncements and emphasizing politics over policy. Or–and this is a biggy!–“lack of substantive knowledge.” (A polite way to say that lots of war supporters in DC and New York didn’t really have a clue about Iraq, or the nature of war, for that matter. But that didn’t stop any of them from writing with the veneer of authority.)

Those are all factors, sure. But one of the major overlooked reasons of why journos and pundits were so willing to embrace the Iraq War had nothing to do with “print media” as a faceless institution. It came down to individuals, with faces, bylines, and column inches. It didn’t even have much to do with ideology. It had to do with getting ahead.

Supporting the Iraq War was the smart career move, the savvy play.

To his credit, Gelb makes this point(albeit in a typically CFRish way) towards the bottom of his piece. “My initial support for the war,” he writes “was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.” This is quite a statement: to be taken seriously, you had to be on board for the war. And you had career “incentives” to do so.

As a twenty-two year old intern at one of these elite media outlets, I saw this career pressure at work, first hand. From the summer of 2002 to the invasion in March 2003, the views of a number of big names at Newsweek flipped like light switches.  And Newsweek (as Gelb notes in his piece, and Chris Dickey noted in our recent interview) actually performed much more admirably than any of the other elite print outlets. But the “incentives” to support the war were apparent to columnists and reporters in newsrooms across the board–from the New Republic, to the New Yorker, to New York Times and the Washington Post.

There’s no need for me to name names here. Within a year, most of the folks who got it wrong had publicly begun their intellectual journeys back to common sense. (But if you want names, take a minute to read Slate’s 2004 roundup of war rationalizations and mea culpas, and then again in 2008.)

Still, what were those pressures/incentives exactly? A big one was the pressure to stay relevant. Being for the war was seen as the cutting edge of thinking. If you were against the war, you were marked as some kind of left-wing throwback, or an isolationist, someone who didn’t get it. You were marked as irrelevant, and media types fear irrelevancy above all else. (An example of this attitude can be found in this L.A. Times Op-Ed, where a former editor at Foreign Affairs worried that if more progressive thinkers didn’t start aggressively making the case for war they were in danger of “sounding like pacifists, hand-wringers or, worst of all, Europeans.“) Pro-war writers were being read–they were having impact on the debate. (Ironic, sure, that the way to be part of the mainstream conversation was to basically say what the majority was saying. But being read is a big deal, especially if you’ve slaved away for most of your career feeling that your work hasn’t been fully appreciated.) Pro-war writers and pundits were getting TV time, which could (and did) lead to other career intangibles like book deals, greater brand recognition, magazine awards, and what not. Also, supporting the war got you currency with the sources in the Bush Administration–heck, the powerful people in the White House might actually read your work, too.

And what were the consequences for getting it wrong? Zip. In fact, most of the (then) pro-war writers have risen to greater heights within the foreign policy community and media world. (I didn’t just link to the Slate piece above for kicks–90 percent of them are doing better career-wise than they were in 2002, despite getting what will probably be the biggest foreign policy question of their lifetime wrong.) That’s why supporting the war was always the savvy career move. If the war went bad, you could always change your opinion. And by sticking with the herd, you were assured protection if the herd changed direction. As recent career histories tell us,  the herd especially values its members who have the ability to detect the subtle changes in the media’s wind.


About michaelhastings

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5 Responses to Media: Why supporting the Iraq War was the smart career move

  1. markbolton says:

    Those in the media who supported the invasion of Iraq should now be ignored by the rest of us. Instead, as you point out, they are rewarded without ever really acknowledging the horror they helped bring about. They say “Oops” or “We were lied to,” and all seems to be forgiven. It makes me sick to my stomach.

    Of course, let’s not forget those in government who got things wrong and have also been rewarded. Bush and Co. brag about the things they’ve done, knowing that real accountability is “off the table” – and they’re all doing quite well, thank you. Obama has appointed far too many people to positions of power who helped bring about all the messes we’re currently in. And they’re now responsible for the very sectors of society that they helped screw up! Surprise!

    I used to watch the Democratic Primaries, where the war supporters all tried the “we were lied to” line, and just shake my head. My main problem has always been the fact that I, a mere blue collar working man, was able to read enough pre-war reporting that I could confidently say I KNEW I was being lied to. I had no big budget staff, no behind the scenes connections, just a computer and some magazine subscriptions. Any of these people who didn’t know they were being lied to should have been disqualified to serve in the new administration. But I KNEW they wouldn’t be – which is why I didn’t vote for any of them.

  2. libtree09 says:

    Excellent piece and it certainly points out a problem in our culture that goes far beyond mere Journalists. That self centered drive to succeed creates all sorts of rationals to tamp down principles and in most cases logic. Consider bankers and the loonies who insured them. Our recent crash and the Iraq war are covered by the same pleading refrain, “Well we couldn’t have anticipated that!!” Uh huh. I guess you go to the stock market with the bankers you have and not the ones you wish you had. You fail to mention that the European Press pretty much had it right. I know this is controversial but the French were right. We should listen to people who had experience with Arabs and for that matter the Vietnamese. So now we are in a new crisis, how’s the press doing?

  3. Pingback: CasdraBlog » Blog Archive » links for 2009-06-17

  4. Michael Hastings says:

    Mark, agreed. I think we need to seriously look at those who supported the war and and have not come to terms with what their writings actually meant. Ideas matter; ideas have power; ideas have consequences. It’s too easy to let them off the hook, by saying, “we were duped,” and “sorry about that.” More than a little soul searching should be in order. And I’m with you–even as a dipshit intern, I was aware that the war was “being sold” on quite dubious grounds, and it that it was clearly an idea that bordered on insanity.

    LibtTree, great points, per usual. How’s the press doing in this crisis? My sense is that we more or less see that the majority of the press is sticking with the herd, which tends to mean they’ll reflect the opinions of the current administration and other entrenched financial interests. (Serious columnists are all for the bailout etc.) They are happy to gamely support the status quo. I’m starting to sound like Noam Chomsky in my old age!

    The question is: what are the incentives for getting the big story right, if getting it right means breaking away from the pack?

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