Does the past record of journalists matter?

The Atlantic's James Fallows argues that conduct enabling "the preceding war" need not affect credibility now

Published August 13, 2010 10:14AM (EDT)

(updated below)

The Atlantic's James Fallows, whose analysis I often find worthwhile, yesterday defended Jeffrey Goldberg and his Iran article from unidentified critics (emphasis added):

Is this article warmongering? Or to put it more delicately, is it meant to condition the American public and politicians to the prospect of an attack on Iran? Many people have portrayed it as such. I disagree. I think that those reading the piece as a case for bombing Iran are mainly reacting to arguments about the preceding war.

Jeff Goldberg was a big proponent of invading Iraq, as I was not -- and those who disagreed with him about that war have in many cases taken the leap of assuming he's making the case for another assault. I think this is mainly response to byline rather than argument. If this new article had appeared under the byline of someone known to have opposed the previous war and to be skeptical about the next one, I think the same material could be read in the opposite way -- as a cautionary revelation of what the Netanyahu government might be preparing to do. Taken line by line, the article hews to a strictly reportorial perspective: this is what the Israeli officials seem to think, this is how American officials might react, this is how Israeli officials might anticipate how the Americans might react, these are the Israeli voices of caution, here are the potential readings and mis-readings on each side.

First of all, it's inaccurate to claim that critiques of Goldberg's article are based on what he did in the past.  The objections I raised yesterday, based largely on Jonathan Schwarz's well-documented analysis, concern false and/or dubious claims in Goldberg's current essay, all of which just so happen to militate in favor of attacking Iran.  Take, for instance, the glaring contradiction between (a) Goldberg's 2002 statement about the effect on Saddam's nuclear ambitions of the 1981 Israeli strike ("After the Osirak attack, he rebuilt, redoubled his efforts") and (b) his claim about that same topic in his current Iran article ("In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, halting -- forever, as it turned out -- Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions").  The point of that contradiction is not -- as some Goldberg defenders (such as his friend Joe Klein) concluded -- that Goldberg made inaccurate claims about Iraq's nuclear program back in 2002 and therefore shouldn't be trusted now. 

The point is the exact opposite.  The highlighted claim from 2002 was actually one of the few things Goldberg said back then about Iraq which was accurate:  Saddam really did massively increase his efforts to obtain nuclear weapons after the Israeli air attack.  Indeed, at the time of the 1981 strike, Iraq had no meaningful nuclear weapons program; it was the 1981 Israeli attack that spawned the intense efforts to develop one.  That's the effect of attacking a country:  incentivizing them (and others) to obtain nuclear weapons in order to deter future attacks. 

What's false is Goldberg's current claim, made to glorify the efficacy of the 1981 Israeli air strike, that it "halt[ed] -- forever, as it turned out -- Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions."  In fact, it had the opposite effect, and the proof is (among other things) what Goldberg himself wrote accurately back in 2002 ("After the Osirak attack, [Saddam] rebuilt, redoubled his efforts").  What actually halted the Iraqi nuclear program was not the Osirak attack (as Goldberg himself recognized in 2002) but Operation Desert Storm and the U.N. inspections regime (Goldberg, responding to my post yesterday, acknowledges the latter fact).  Despite that, Goldberg -- with zero evidence and in direct contradiction to what he wrote back then (and in direct contradiction to clearly established facts) -- now falsely claims that the 1981 Israeli attack succeeded in halting Saddam's nuclear ambitions.  So:  just think what a similar attack on Iran could achieve!  "An attack on Iran, then, would be unprecedented only in scope and complexity," he writes, just in case readers failed to draw the optimistic inference on their own.  

Fallows also ignores the fact that in the very first sentence of the article, Goldberg asserts a highly controversial and vital proposition as though it's indisputable fact:   that of Iran's "pursuit of nuclear weapons."  Someone who begins his article by slyly assuming as fact a central proposition which is actually very much in doubt -- and does so by simply ignoring the substantial evidence which negates it, as in:  pretends that contrary evidence does not exist -- is most assuredly not someone writing from "a strictly reportorial perspective."  It may well be that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons -- there's also evidence suggesting it might be -- but to depict that proposition as a given, by steadfastly ignoring the substantial evidence to the contrary, is quite redolent of those who did the same thing seven years ago with regard to The Grave Iraqi Threat.  Someone writing from "a strictly reportorial perspective" would have acknowledged -- rather than concealed from his readers -- the substantial cause for doubt about that claim, one that shapes the entire article (and the entire debate over attacking Iran).  All of these deficiencies stand separate and apart from Goldberg's past conduct.

But even if Fallows were right that suspicions and doubts about Goldberg's article were based on his past behavior, wouldn't that be perfectly justifiable?  The Iraq War is the single worst political and media debacle of this generation -- the massive human suffering it caused is staggering -- and Goldberg's shoddy, error-filled, reckless "journalism" played a leading role in helping to bring it about.  So discredited and humiliatingly wrong was Goldberg's pre-war "reporting" that it's squarely within Judy Miller territory.  But -- knowing all of that -- this is whom The Atlantic eagerly wooed away from The New Yorker and now chooses to publish as its expert journalist on the Middle East.  And that's to say nothing of the consuming, Israel-devoted biases of this ex-IDF prison guard.  In light of that long record, what right does Fallows have to complain that people react skeptically to Goldberg's "reporting" on Israel and Iran and the agenda shaping it?  Shouldn't any rational reader have exactly that reaction?  If, tomorrow, Judy Miller or Michael Gordon began publishing articles touting the Iranian Nuclear Threat based on anonymous sources, would Fallows react with greater skepticism as a result of that duo's past conduct?  I certainly would.

What Fallows' lament really reflects is that the Obamaian protective decree -- Look Forward, Not Backward -- applies to more than just Bush administration criminals.  No American elites are supposed to pay any price -- even reputationally -- for the role they played in leading the country into a horrific and unfathomably devastating war based on false pretenses.  We're all supposed to chalk it up to an unfortunate though understandable mistake, let bygones be bygones, and not hold it against anyone, not even use it to judge their current credibility or trustworthiness.  Fallows thus demands that we take Goldberg's self-proclaimed "'profound, paralyzing ambivalence' about military strikes on Iran on its own merits."  In other words:  forget what Goldberg did in the past; that was merely "the preceding war."  He's entitled to a presumption of good faith and candor now.   

I'm now finishing up a long article for Harper's about America's War Culture:  why war advocacy has been and continues to be the reflexive, required perspective of the nation's foreign policy elite.  I don't want to say too much about the piece, but one central reason for this is that those who were most spectacularly wrong in cheering for the attack on Iraq have not only faced no accountability, but have thrived, been rewarded, have seen their positions of influence elevated.  Conversely, those who were right continue to be marginalized.  That's due in part to the ethos implicit in Fallows' defense of Goldberg:  it's so unfair to have their prior behavior affect their current status and credibility.  As a result, our war policies -- in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and now Iran -- are all being shaped by the very same war-hungry political and media elites who performed so disgracefully in 2002 and 2003.  Goldberg's Iran essay and the Seriousness with which it's being treated -- and which Fallows demands it be accorded -- is a perfect example of that dynamic.  That Jeffrey Goldberg of all people is the reporter to whom we turn to understand the contours of the Iran debate would be comical if it weren't so troubling, and it illustrates the broader shield from accountability with which political and media elites have vested themselves.

There are a small handful of the most vigorous Iraq War supporters who have commendably confronted what they did and candidly confessed their errors.  In my view, that's somewhat credibility-restorative.  But Jeffrey Goldberg is most certainly not a person who has done so.  Quite the opposite:  he continues to use his blog to peddle and re-affirm the most discredited of his pre-war falsehoods about Saddam.  So it's not just that Goldberg committed past journalistsic sins; it's that he continues to this day to defend what he did (the only Iraq "error" which Goldberg is willing to admit is that he underestimated Bush's incompetence in prosecuting the war). 

Why should Goldberg confess to any errors?  There's no incentive for him to do so.  Most other people in influence -- Obama's leading national security officials, media stars, think tank experts -- are guilty of the same sins Goldberg committed regarding Iraq.  All of them therefore collectively and conveniently agree that they will just forget about that whole messy Iraq business, and thus ensure that one's responsibility for it does not impede one's ongoing career success or level of influence.  Goldberg is still treated as credible and influential despite his unrepented Iraq falsehoods because the people who determine credibility and influence did essentially the same thing he did, and are thus incentivized to maintain a Look Forward, Not Backward amnesia, ensuring that nobody pays a price for anything that happened  (see, as but one example, Slate's Fred Kaplan -- who was also spectacularly wrong in his Iraq-war-enabling reporting -- gushing this week about Goldberg's brilliance: "the best article I've read on the subject -- shrewd and balanced reporting combined with sophisticated analysis of the tangled strategic dilemmas.").  Meanwhile, Goldberg's colleague publicly demands that nobody hold Goldberg's past transgressions against him.  No profession is more accountability-free than establishment journalism.

Fallows is right, as I acknowledged yesterday, that there are interesting and even revealing aspects of Goldberg's article:  mostly in his dutiful conveying of what Israeli officials want the American public to hear about their mindset regarding Iran.  He also includes a laundry list of the potential costs and harms from an attack on that country.  It's also true, in general, that a journalist's biases and agendas don't preclude good reporting. 

But it's irrational in the extreme to argue that merely because an article is dressed up in the language of objective reporting, there is no agenda shaping it and, worse, no cause for skepticism about the reliability and credibility of the journalist writing it.  And it's particularly irrational to insist upon that when the journalist in question is someone burdened with the record Jeffrey Goldberg has.  The Atlantic's owner, David Bradley, once described himself as a repentant "neocon guy" who was "dead certain about the rightness" of invading Iraq, and thus apparently decided that Goldberg -- despite, or even because of, what he did regarding Iraq -- was a credible and objective "reporter" for The Atlantic.  That doesn't mean the rest of us must or should submit to that patent fiction.  Political and media elites have self-servingly decided that their responsibility for the Iraq War (and related abuses) is an irrelevancy when assessing who is worthy of influence and credibility, but that doesn't make that contrived amnesia any less irrational or destructive.


UPDATE:  Without necessarily endorsing it all:  at Balloon Juice, DougJ makes a provocative and interesting point about the role which professional loyalties play in these defenses of Goldberg and why he finds such drives so corrupting.  And Philip Weiss compiles just some of the credible commentators who argue that Goldberg's article is a call for war disguised as objective reporting; see, for instance, this Foreign Policy response from Iran experts Floyd Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett:  "With the publication of Jeffrey Goldberg's 'The Point of No Return' in the Atlantic, the campaign for war against Iran is now arguing that the United States should attack so Israel won't have to. . . . Goldberg's reporting also reveals that the case for attacking Iran -- especially for America to attack so Israel won't -- is even flimsier than the case Goldberg helped make for invading Iraq in 2002."  Finally, see this excellent comment highlighted by Balloon Juice.

By Glenn Greenwald

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