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

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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.

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