A journalist named Michael Hastings has a must-read piece out tonight, riffing on a longer article by Leslie Gelb (and called to my attention by Jay Rosen, so props all around!) analyzing what went wrong with media coverage in the run-up and then during the war in Iraq. As Hastings deconstructs it, there were many factors, including lack of foreign policy expertise by the journalists covering the story, a focus on the story from the White House perspective and on the politics of it all, and not the actual policy.
But Hastings focuses on the reason that I find the most chilling: That Beltway journalists felt that staying with "the pack" -- avoiding what would be a contrarian, and thus uncool (my word) position -- was the safest way to climb the well-paying and prestigious career ladder. He writes:
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.
Actually, the line of the piece that sends chills down my spine is this quote from the original piece by Gelb, the foreign policy maven who talks about his own initial support for the war in Iraq. From Gelb's perspective:
“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.”
There are wars that merit support -- Afghanistan was the training ground and safe haven for terrorists that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, for example -- but it didn't take much probing to see that Iraq was not one of them, that this was a country that not only had nothing to do with 9/11 but had allowed the entry of inspectors unable to find weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. But Hastings correctly notes that there is safety in the pack, that journaliists who got it wrong had the comfort of knowing that so did everyone else -- and that you could always change your position with everyone else as events on the ground changed.
The real-world consequences of being wrong...well, those were 11,000 miles away. They were things that were unpleasant to think about -- like roughly 100,00 Iraqi civilians deaths, many of them the very people these career-minded and very serious war pundits had advocated liberating, and of course let's not forget 4,313 American soldiers, brave women and men like the most recent casualty, Staff Sgt. Edmond Lo:
Bright and hardworking like his immigrant parents, Edmond Lo's future grew even more promising when he was offered a full scholarship to a prominent engineering school. But he turned it down, choosing instead to disarm bombs for the Army.
It was a job intended to save lives, but one that cost Lo his last week in Iraq. The 23-year-old staff sergeant was six months into his second tour of duty when a roadside bomb he was working on exploded Saturday in Samarra City, his family said.
I guess soldiers from New Hampshire like Lo wouldn't have been attending their book parties anyway, nor would the Iraqi civilians wiped out in the colorfully named "shock and awe" that softened up their country. But maybe one or two of my distant journalistic cousins inside the Beltway will think about Lo or his brothers and sisters in arms before the next time they begin firing their keyboards indiscriminately. Maybe for once, people honestly would think that you really were a very serious person.