Media groupthink

Thursday, August 19th, 2004

Our print media pace setters – the New York Times and, just the other day, the Washington Post – have searched their souls over the misleading prewar coverage they foisted on the nation last year and blurted out qualified, Reaganesque mea culpas: “Mistakes were made.”

The papers’ souls turn out to be fairly shallow. Rest assured, America. No matter how glaringly biased and inaccurate the coverage, no one’s going to take the fall and, more importantly, no lessons will be learned.

Still, this is unprecedented. The war’s enthusiasts are losing heart. In May, the Times publicly pulled down its “mission accomplished” banner, owning up to the fact that it had been suckered by Ahmad Chalabi and other Iraqi expatriates with a self-serving war agenda. And Watergate icon Bob Woodward agonized last week, on page 1 of the Post, “I think I was part of the groupthink.”

What a revelation. When the war drum sounds, Big Media dances. It’s as simple as that.

This is one of the truths a reader can extract from between the lines of these two dignity-restoration projects, particularly the Post’s 3,000-word opus by staff writer Howard Kurtz that ran on Aug. 12 (“Washington Post Admits Failures in Pre-war Reporting”).

Here’s another: War is waged by cowards. Brave men and women will die, but first, chicken-hearted politicians and journalists must start the stampede. When the war wagon rolls, no one in a position to slow it down will throw his body beneath its wheels, even if he harbors doubts or retains a shred of professional skepticism.

Woodward, for instance, told Kurtz that the atmosphere at the paper in early 2003 was such that “it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly” – that is, forcefully present the other side of the story – “if weapons were ultimately found in Iraq.”

In other words, bucking the groupthink was career suicide. I guess if you’re not on tenure track at the Washington Post, you don’t know what risk is.

The papers ultimately find themselves guilty of nothing worse than occasionally questionable judgment in story selection – a verdict rendered against them, so the editors take pains to explain, sheerly by hindsight. Indeed, in the Post piece, the words “hindsight” or “retrospect” appear six times, always in a blow-cushioning capacity, e.g.; “Overall, in retrospect, we underplayed some of those (skeptical) stories,” said executive editor Leonard Downie Jr.

Chillingly missing from the confessionals is the least hint that Big Media coverage of our next war buildup will be different – that is, that today’s hindsight will become tomorrow’s foresight.

In hindsight, it appears that the war’s promoters exaggerated, spun and lied incessantly, yet their every urgent utterance (“The first sign of a ‘smoking gun’ may be a mushroom cloud”) got page one play, likely with a heart-stopping headline.

Surely this would be worth remembering for next time. It’s called context. A lot of ordinary citizens seem to have it. Their reservations about our latest military adventure were born of the lies of the last half-century: LBJ and the Tonkin Gulf whopper; Ronald Reagan and the Nicaraguan contra “freedom fighters” canard; the PR firm of Hill and Knowlton, before Gulf War I, inventing the story that Iraqi troops ripped Kuwaiti babies from their incubators.

These and other false alarms masked cynical global chess games, which could not have been sold to the American public as warranting the blood sacrifice of their young. How is it that so many reporters and editors have kept their innocence about this?

And how is it that the next war always promises clean results and unambiguous victory, that no human toll is ever foreseen? Don’t children get their arms blown off in every war? Don’t toxins permeate every modern war zone, spreading death and illness on slow time-release? Doesn’t combat always reverberate psychologically and spiritually? Don’t we become barbarians (My Lai, Abu Ghraib)?

Whatever. It’s all academic, it turns out. Critics, complained Downie, “have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media’s coverage had been different, there wouldn’t have been a war.”

Perhaps this is salve for a troubled conscience. It also sounds like the abdication of the Fourth Estate.