Why So Many Early Bloggers Got the Iraq War Wrong

A subculture that prided itself on media criticism missed the MSM's errors -- and sometimes exacerbated them.
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Iraq puddle full.jpg
As 2003 began, Eric Alterman wrote on his MSNBC.com blog that "The New York Times continues down the path laid down personally by crazed war-hawk Howell Raines to agitate for a war against Iraq," adding "in this over-hyped story, it offers the top-right column of page one to the administration's phony prediction that the war Bush has decided to launch, without provocation or legal justification, will cost only $60 billion or less in constant dollars than the 1991 Gulf War." Glenn Reynolds took note at Instapundit. "ALTERMAN CLAIMS that the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has taken over the New York Times," he quipped. "I tried to reach Ann Coulter for comment, but all I got was a recording of what seemed to be her voice, saying 'Buwhahaha!'"

The small exchange captures something bigger about the blogosphere that hasn't been reckoned with by its fans, myself included. In those days, bloggers on the left and especially on the right eagerly attacked "the mainstream media" for its flawed coverage, often with good reason. Self-congratulation peaked after bloggers proved that CBS News inadvertently aired faked documents in pre-election story about George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.

But when it came to the War in Iraq, skeptics like Alterman were the exception that proved getting it right was possible, while Reynolds's reaction hints at the norm: as "the MSM" got Iraq wrong, the blogosphere didn't just fail to pick apart its weakest stories. Pro-war bloggers center-left and right used an ideological heuristic, assuming that the MSM would err on the side of dovishness, so that the most common media criticism exacerbated rather than corrected the actual errors being made, making the MSM even more pro-war. "I remember spending a week in the offices of the New York Times Outlook section in January" 2003, Matt Steinglass writes. "The anxiety to self-police against anything that could be perceived as liberal bias was palpable. Smart, serious people convinced themselves to accept the most spurious claims.


To be clear, one needn't think the war was a mistake, as most Americans do, to grant that the blogosphere's coverage was flawed. it was wrong on weapons, wrong on how costly the war would be, wrong on how long it would last, and wrong about how it would change the region. It saw through none of the MSM's flaws.

The vicious circle was closed when bloggers normally critical of the MSM would cite MSM stories ostensibly bolstering the case for war as if they were extra credible statements-against-interest:
instapundit post.pngI use Instapundit as an example only because among prominent bloggers he's kept unusually good archives.

Says Steinglass, "Large numbers of otherwise intelligent people had ended up supporting the war. Why? I think it had something to do with the iterative process of these sorts of discussions. You start out asking how to make sure Iraq doesn't have biological weapons, then you're asking how to respond to Iraq's refusal to comply with UN inspections, and before long through a series of individually rational steps you've arrived at a position that turns out to be a mistake." Lo and behold, small, discrete critiques and incremental arguments are exactly what blogs excel at providing. Deep context, reflection, and perspicacious conclusions are better suited to long magazine articles, books, and academic research. A case could be made that the particular issues being grappled with in the run-up to Iraq were just the sorts bloggers were likely to fumble.

Not that they were alone.

Steinglass adds that intellectual conformity, "the fear of being branded anti-patriotic or a foolish apologist for dictators," and "the nervous self-hatred of an intellectual class" all played a role too.

I'd like to hazard one more theory to explain why so many bloggers got the story wrong. An expectation that should've informed pre-war arguments -- that the press has always had statist tendencies and has always put excessive trust in leaders during war time -- was nearly absent from the blogosphere, which mocked that notion when it came up at all. Put another way, an unsophisticated theory of media bias was a small but real factor in pushing America to war, insofar as that other heuristic, that of course the liberal media would undersell the case for war, prevailed.

It was surprisingly hard to kill.

In the run-up to war, right and center-left was getting it wrong. But as the conflict moved from "Mission Accomplished" banner to quagmire, the mainstream media and the left blogosphere began to grapple with reality on the ground, while the right blogosphere's running theme was "good news from Iraq" updates that the mainstream media were supposedly ignoring. In a very real way, this helped President Bush to delay confronting the mess he'd made.

Here's a telling excerpt from a 2006 Alternet piece:
An Army wife asked Bush why the mainstream media only focuses on "the bad news" from Iraq and never reports "the good news." Bush furrowed his brow and nodded in agreement. Earlier in the week the administration launched a Vietnam-era-style "blame the media" campaign to explain plummeting public support for both the war and Bush himself. The woman's question offered Bush an opportunity for another anti-media riff on that theme. He sympathized with her distress and suggested that she should turn to alternative sources for news, "like the internet."
That brings me to Powerline.

Exposing CBS News' use of a fake memo made it a darling of the conservative blogosphere. But if you read back through its Iraq coverage, you won't find another blog that mangled it worse, largely due to the sorts of ideological bias and a lack of rigor Powerline authors associated with "the MSM." I still think the rise of the blogosphere brought about positive developments in media, and I don't think that the Iraq War would've somehow been avoided without it. But the story of the early blogosphere's rise ought to be told with more humility than is typically evident given how wrong it got so many aspects of the biggest story it covered for its first decade. It turned out to be a lot worse at gauging MSM performance in real time than its participants imagined.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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