Tenet Is Accountable for Iraq. What About the Times? What About the Meritocracy?

on 4 Comments

On Meet the Press yesterday, Tim Russert sharply questioned George Tenet over his passivity during the runup to the Iraq War. Disaster was looming, the executive was justifying war with lies; and yet the intelligence chief did not tell the president to cool his jets. Tenet is a jerk (and an insecure one). Now his book will turn up the heat on others who pushed this war.

What about the New York Times? The paper came up twice on Russert. Once to a story in September 2002 by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon saying that Saddam was trying to acquire aluminum parts for nuclear weapons–thoroughly discredited. The second reference was to a call that Tenet made to a Times reporter at then-national-security chief Condoleezza Rice’s urging, to defend the administration’s position after a congressional hearing poked holes in the case for war. Tenet now regrets that call.

Tenet ought to have trouble sleeping at night. And the Times? What accountability has it shown for these tragic errors? The paper was read closely by the nation’s leadership, as Tenet’s call indicates. Yet its reporters served at times as the neocons’ stenographers, and on the op-ed page,  Kenneth Pollack‘s several arguments for invading Iraq, all flawed, played a big part in moving "liberal" opinion in the months before the war. The Times owes us more than the lukewarm apology it made when it put Judy Miller’s head on a pike. The Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein argued to me recently that Iraq was also a journalists’ war, and journalists should lose their jobs for it.

I would extend that analysis to the whole damn meritocracy. One reason American leadership signed off on this war was a class problem: the people making the decision were successful professionals who had little connection to the people who would pay the price. When Tenet called the Times reporter, he was calling a sociological
peer, more or less (indeed, now Tenet has fledged as a writer

Not long ago, David Brooks wrote a fine column reminiscing about the newsroom of his youth, I believe in Chicago. Before the information age made information a precious commodity, newsrooms were working-class and middle-class entitites, union strongholds peopled by people with last names like Cooney, O’Dowd, Caparella, and Haskins (to cite the names in my youthful newsroom, in Philadelphia). Then the SYJs–serious young journalists–like Brooks and myself entered, with Ivy League educations. Brooks extolled the effect we had. Accuracy, precision, seriousness. I agree with him somewhat: a lot of the flimsy crap we saw get into print as young journalists would never happen today, and a good thing, too.

O.K., but what about the moral hazard of fostering a detached, corporate elite that takes itself too seriously? Serious Young Journalists relate well to other suburban professionals. Judy Miller related to Scooter Libby. Few of these reporters could relate to the families who would lose children in this war. Recently, Lani Guinier, the Harvard law professor, told me that a Harvard student who had come from rural North or South Carolina had trouble convincing other students that she really was from there; why? because we have generated a uniform elite. If you said one of yesterday’s killed soldiers was from North Carolina, who would doubt you–no one.

The working-class journalists of my youth had a chip on their shoulders– and good bullsh-t-detectors. The meritocracy removed that capacity. Anyone with a bullsh-t-detector knew that this war was a bad idea back in 2002.

4 Responses

  1. Gene
    May 7, 2007, 3:39 pm

    I think a lot of journalists had deep reservations about the Iraq War right from the start. It was obvious to them, as it was obvious to millions of people around this country and around the world, that Bush was lying through his teeth about the suppposed need to invade Iraq. But most journalists suppressed their reservations because they (1) thought the war was "good for Israel" or (2) they didn't want to be castigated by those who thought it was good for Israel.

  2. LanceThruster
    May 7, 2007, 4:33 pm

    Ari Fleischer's comment about "people better watch what they say from here on in" helped perpetuate the atmosphere that not falling in lockstep with Misadministration objectives could carry a high price indeed. Their bosses in the MSM certainly understood that.

  3. Richard Witty
    May 7, 2007, 9:29 pm

    The only experience I have with journalism is twice weekly editing a daily 4-page alternative paper in DC in 1980-1.

    The Iran crisis was in full swing, and the paper's offices was around the corner from the Iranian student house on the border of Rock Creek Park. We thought the CIA electronic surveilance trucks were for us, but we just had an over imaginative vanity.

    I did get to see for myself the difference in how events are reported. Specifically, I attended a press conference by Nicaraguan ministers including activists priests, attractive young woman foreign minister, and Daniel Ortega's brother. We reported copies of poems, interview with one of the priests on the role and presence of liberation theology in the revolution.

    The Washington Post reported on Ortega's Marxist-Leninist language and analysis as evidence of ties to Castro. The majority of their article was the countering opinions of Carter's outgoing administration with Reagon's incoming. The interpretations were different, but none included any poetry, any spirituality, any community.

    At the time, I thought that the Post had its head up its … Later, when Ortega had the priest that we interviewed shot (for who knows what grievous crime), I came to question my former emphasis.

    Still, it would have been more informative to at least name the priests and poets (whom I can't even remember), for contrast even.

    Where do I look for information that I can rely on for completeness and accuracy? On blogs? No. On activist sites? No.

    New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Haaretz, Manchester Guardian, Christian Science Monitor.

    Can I cut through implication so as to think for myself? Absolutely. Can poll-watching politicians? Probably less so publicly.

    If they think, they have good tools to discern and to convey.

    Legislators aren't all that different than television anchors. A mix of intelligence, integrity, dynamism, and pander.

  4. Pat
    May 8, 2007, 11:35 am

    Hi Phil,

    As you know, I encourage people to make the same connections between war, power and US media culpability and accountability relative to Israel and Palestine as they have been making recently relative to Iraq.

    To that end, I invite people to take a look at my latest article, "Buying the War on Palestinians: The US Media, The New York Times and Israel" link to zmag.org

    I will eventually put this type of analysis into a more comprehensive framework for the five US newspapers with the greatest circulation.


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