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.