I remember, as a young kid, seeing a newspaper, the neat columns with densely packed print, and being awed. This was how people received news about the word, this was how people knew what was happening around them, this was key to how people made decisions. I envisioned people sitting around keyboards, pecking away, agonizing over every word, lest something remotely inaccurate be placed into print and consumed by the public. I knew that I could never do anything like that, would never want to, what if one keystroke was out of place? People could get the wrong impression about the world and chaos could ensue. I knew I could never handle that kind of pressure.
Skip forward a number of years, and as a regular consumer of news I’ve been fully disabused of that childlike conception of news writing. But I’ve thought of it again, and its sadly comical distance from reality, with the recent ten year anniversary of the Irag war and the attendant mea culpas issued by the various journalists and commentators who bought the line on WMDs and supported the war.
Andrew Sullivan, David Ignatius, and Jonathan Chait are but a few of those explaining/apologizing for their past misdeeds. They are all gainfully employed as far as I know, Andrew Sullivan has recently started an independent blog venture that looks so far to be a success. It appears that journalists have something in common with bankers, as Keynes notes:
A sound banker, alas, is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him.
So too with journalism it seems, being wrong about matters of the utmost consequence isn’t a problem, as long as you are wrong in the same way your colleagues are.
There is no formula to detect true repentance, but no one has resigned due to their failures or inadequacies leading up to the Iraq war as far as I know. I could be wrong but I doubt that many are donating significant portions of their salaries to charities that are helping the millions of displaced Iraqis, or Iraqi orphans, or wounded US soldiers, or the families of dead US soldiers.
If I were a cynic, I might think that the public, ostentatious self flagellation were more indicative of a bout of moral preening than true, deep, and humble regret for a serious transgression. The red marks from the lash displayed with the pride of someone taking the moral high ground, not the shame of a sinner.
Even young Ezra Klein got in on the act, publicly mortifying his flesh. He begins and ends the piece with: “I supported the Iraq War, and I’m sorry.” That’s certainly awfully big of him. But, at the time of the Iraq war Klein was a college freshman, without any means to affect public opinion as far as I can tell. So it’s hard to see what he has to be so sorry for. But he is, and is eager to expound upon his analytical failure:
But at the core of my support for the war was an analytical failure I think about often: Rather than looking at the war that was actually being sold, I’d invented my own Iraq war to support — an Iraq war with different aims, promoted by different people, conceptualized in a different way and bearing little resemblance to the project proposed by the Bush administration. In particular, I supported Kenneth Pollack’s Iraq war.
So, really, Klein supported the war he had made up in his head, not Bush’s war:
We got our war. More to the point, we got Bush’s war, which was, in the end, the only war on offer.
Yes, we did, and yes, it was. We got Bush’s war, which was the only one on offer. In hindsight that kinda makes sense, considering he was commander-in-chief at the time. Klein was a college freshman…so his war didn’t have much of a chance of getting past the planning stage. But anyway, he’s really sorry for his failure of analysis when he was a college freshman. He’s very publicly sorry, just like his colleagues are. Truly, following the herd can lead you to some very strange pastures.
This presents a question: How does a responsible citizen decide when it is appropriate to go to war? You’d hope a citizen could take the evidence presented at face value and then make a determination, but that isn’t the case. The bill of goods sold on WMD before Iraq turned out to be either inaccurate or simply manufactured. You might have been able to find some skepticism regarding the claims if you looked hard enough, but how do you assess who is right, particularly when many aspects of the information provided is classified or otherwise opaque?
Perhaps a deeper question is: Does it matter? Ultimately, does it matter what responsible citizens think about matters of war and peace? I’d certainly like to believe so. But in looking back at American history, I can’t think of a case that when a sufficient number of political and business elites wanted war, that they didn’t get war. I’d be curious if there is any counter example, of a drive for war being completely stymied by popular sentiment.
It’s just too easy to stoke fear and make emotional appeals to patriotism and xenophobia, and to marginalize dissent. And it’s not like these are new tools, the sinking of the USS Maine, the cause of which is still unknown, was blamed on Spain in the press, leading to the Spanish American War. World War I was widely supported by the US press with embellished accounts of German atrocities and with anti war sentiment being viciously suppressed.
Is there an effective way to counter this? You could point to the Internet as a medium for dissent, but all sorts of voices can be amplified, not just reasonable ones. In the end, I think people have to change, and I don’t see that happening.