The Newspapers and the War in Iraq

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Like many others in the commentary business, I went back last week and read what I was writing around the time of the US invasion of Iraq. I was not very happy at what I found. In The Risk-Taker, on March 16, I was a reluctant endorser of what I understood to be the Bush Administration’s aims for the war, though by the end of the year, in Texas against the World, I had, like many others, turned around.

Reading over my clips from 2003 I noticed an aspect of things that warrants more attention. I know how I was forming my views that year, and it wasn’t by listening to the White House or, for that matter, to its Secretary of State Colin Powell.  It was mainly from the newspapers that I read.

For instance, the very possibility of the war, as I understood it – its plausibility, if not the precise justification with which it was launched – was to be found in the alarm and confusion engendered by the 9/1l attacks. Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis had made this case all but inarguable as early as 2002, in a series of lectures that were later published as Surprise, Security, and the American Experience.

But last week the editors of The Wall Street Journal editorial page were asserting just the opposite.  In Iraq in Retrospect, their anniversary reflection, they wrote:  “Whatever else might be said about the US invasion of Iraq, which began ten years ago, its origins, motives, and justifications did not lie in the Administration of George W. Bush.”

There’s a potent clue in that nonsense.

To understand, you must remember what an utterly local and personal story were the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan. The Wall Street Journal, the nation’s second biggest newspaper, was forced to evacuate its home office across the street from the World Trade Center that morning. Its news staff set up shop in New Jersey, and began the epic task of continuing to put the paper out with no diminution of quality. The editorial page went right back to work, too, and, over the course of the next eighteen months, steadily built the case for war.

I say this based on recollection. I didn’t have time to consult the archives last week (which are still mainly microfiln), but I was reading the paper carefully in those days. My curiosity piqued, I looked elsewhere for corroboration. But Frank Rich, in The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America (Penguin, 2006), barely mentions the paper.  Nor does Jacob Heilbrunn have much to say about its views in They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (Doubleday, 2008). The authors concerned themselves singled-mindedly with untangling the motives (Heilbrunn) and methods (Rich) of various factions within the administration

Did they ignore the WSJ because the views of its edit page were unimportant?  Hardly!  Over thirty years, editor Robert Bartley built his fief into the single most powerful venue in the print media, championing supply-side economics in the 1980s and the Whitewater investigations in the  ’90s, before stepping down in 2002 to write a column. (He was replaced by Paul Gigot.) More likely neither author saw any point in taking on the WSJ edit page’s role, Rich because he doesn’t read it, Heilbrunn because he does.

Equally interesting in September 2001 was what was going on uptown, at The New York Times. A new executive editor, Howell Raines, had just taken charge, determined to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Joseph Lelyveld, by “trigger[ing] news” instead of merely reporting it when it happened.  The day of the highjackings he leapt into action. The Times staff won seven Pulitzer Prizes the next spring, including four for 9/11 coverage, as opposed to just one for the WSJ.

That was just the beginning of the Raines era. Aggressive reporting, especially by Judith Miller, helped set the stage for the war. As Times public editor Daniel Okrent later wrote, “To anyone who read the paper between September 2002 and June 2003, the impression that Saddam Hussein possessed, or was acquiring, a frightening arsenal of W.M.D. seemed unmistakable.”  Nor was Miller the only Times reporter whose stories proved useful in making the case for going to war.  Once again, I had no opportunity to leaf through the archives last week, but I have vivid memories of stories from Baghdad by John Burns, a great reporter by any measure, making the case for Saddam Hussein’s depravity. And the Times’ early coverage of the invasion itself was like something out of Scoop. (The paper quickly righted itself as the invasion progressed.)

Looking back on those days, it seems to me that belly-bumping between Howell Raines and the WSJ played a large part in overriding what otherwise might have been the instinctive caution of an institution with memories of how it had led the way into Vietnam. As head of the Times editorial page, Raines had dueled for eight years with Bartley, directly and daily, over such superheated stories as the Clinton impeachment and the strange case of Wen Ho Lee. With Raines suddenly in command of 1,400 journalists instead of 14 editorial writers, the competition continued. The Times got its Pulitzer Prizes in 2002, but the WSJ got the war that it wanted the following year.

As it happened, Raines quit the Times under pressure from his boss in May 2003, just as the Iraq invasion was turning into an occupation. The proximate cause was concern about the fabulist Jayson Blair, who had risen rapidly under Raines, although the Miller stories probably had something as well to do with the staff resentment that forced the issue. I wrote about the matter twice at the time. In The Name of the Moose I speculated on the motives that led Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. to appoint Raines, presumably with the idea of outstripping the WSJ ’s reputation as the nation’s opinion-maker-in-chief. “Plenty of straight journalism appears in the Times every day,” I wrote. “But ‘edge’ and ‘attitude,’ those signature concepts of the ’90s, slowly have been gaining the upper hand.”

A few weeks later, in Why It Matters, I offered a cautionary tale to illustrate the potential for disaster when a destabilizing personality assumes a leading role in a rapidly changing industry — the story of the disaster that followed after Walter Connolly took charge of the Bank of New England in 1988 and touched off a lending war with the Bank of Boston. Then I was more concerned about Sulzberger’s penchant for taking big bets in favor of pixels at the expense of newsprint (in those days he was talking about getting out of paper products altogether). Looking back, the story of the disaster that befell Boston banking serves equally well to illustrate the dangers of swaggering competitive journalism in the run-up to war. Sulzberger was a longtime friend of reporter Miller. She subsequently left the paper in disgrace.

Bob Bartley died in December 2003. Times publisher Sulzberger was subsequently restrained from excess by a further series of unforced errors.  In 2007 the Bancroft family sold the WSJ to Rupert Murdoch. Peter Kann, the wise old Vietnam hand who had overseen the paper, including its editorial page, for twenty years, had stepped aside a few months earlier.

And The Washington Post? The enthusiasm of its editorial page for the war has been widely noted, but I don’t have a clue where it was coming from.  Maybe it was as simple as the fact that Washington was attacked, too.  Some think the Post played a more influential role in than either of the other papers. I doubt it, but then I don’t live in the District.  In an editorial last week, the Post was unrepentant: “For the first time in decades, contemporary Iraq poses no threat to its neighbors, and parts of the country are flourishing. But violence continues, the central government appears to be crumbling, and the United States, by failing to live up to its promises of partnership, is tipping the country toward deeper trouble.”

What’s wanted, eventually, is a close consideration of the dynamic among the Times, the WSJ and the WPost in those years, apart from the vision of their role as a passive sounding board upon which various factions of the Bush Administration played out a dangerous fable. This is most definitely not the sort of thing that a public editor does, even when there is a public editor to act as after-the-fact conscience. (The Post recently eliminated its in-house critic’s position.) Memoirs, oral history, close textual analysis, scholarship will all play a part.  An analysis of the role the newspapers played in fomenting the war won’t be forthcoming anytime soon.

But this much is clear already. Once Raines was out, the delirium that had troubled the Times subsided, and the paper contributed its share of splendid reporting from Iraq over the next ten years.  Executive editor Bill Keller led the reformation, but in a sense it was the sober journalistic culture of the Times staff that saved the paper from its ambitious bosses, much as the culture of the WSJ has kept its news pages pretty much straight down to the present day. Only the editorial page of the WSJ  remains on its forty-year toot. And with columnist Peggy Noonan’s clarion dissent yesterday, even that fortress of certitude is finally under assault from within.