Peter Beinart As Cautionary Tale In Journalism History

Just eight months ago, PBS's Bill Moyers aired perhaps the single most devastating indictment of the Washington press corps that I have ever seen. In his documentary, which looked at how the media cheered on President Bush's push for a war with Iraq, Moyers interviewed one of the key cheerleaders: then-New Republic editor Peter Beinart. Moyers asked Beinart "what made you present yourself as a Middle East expert" in the lead up to war? Beinart said that though he had never been to Iraq, he is "a political journalist." So Moyers naturally asked what kind of "political journalism" and reporting Beinart did to make sure his pro-war cheerleading was sound? Beinart's answer was the stuff of journalism infamy:

"Well, I was doing mostly, for a large part it was reading, reading the statements and the things that people said. I was not a beat reporter. I was editing a magazine and writing a column. So I was not doing a lot of primary reporting. But what I was doing was a lot of reading of other people's reporting and reading of what officials were saying."

This is the kind of quote that your journalism professor puts on the board during your freshman year as an example of all that is wrong with the reporting today. And you might think that after such an utterly humiliating admission, Beinart would change his ways, and do, ya know, real reporting the next time he opens his mouth about Iraq.

But you would be wrong.

In his latest Washington Post column, Beinart claims that "the war has receded" as a priority for Americans. As proof, he cites himself reading a live-blog from a New York Times reporter covering a Democratic presidential debate. I kid you not. Here is Beinart's lead "proving" his assertion that "the war has receded" as a priority:

Last month, Katharine Q. Seelye of the New York Times live-blogged the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas. As the discussion bounced from subject to subject, she marked the topic and the time, then gave her thoughts. At 8:34 p.m., it was driver's licenses; 8:55, Pakistan; 9:57, the Supreme Court. By night's end she had 17 entries totaling almost 1,500 words. And she hadn't typed "Iraq" once.

As the Atlantic Monthly's Matt Yglesias says, "Basically, the evidence for Beinart's side is that media elites who control the debate questioning process don't want to talk about the war." In other words, just like he pushed America to war based on "reading the statements and the things that people said" and not actual reporting, he is trying to downplay the Iraq War as a major issue by simply reading the punditry of other Washington reporters, rather than looking at the actual facts.

It's no wonder why he has chosen to do this: The actual facts blow his entire thesis about the Iraq war "receding" to smithereens. As Editor & Publisher reports, "a new Gallup poll reveals that when 'asked which issues will be most important in determining their vote for president in next year's election, Americans by a wide margin say the war in Iraq, with more than one in three mentioning the war.'"

What's really offensive about Beinart's behavior is as much his desperate propagandizing about the war he helped push America into as his disregard for any semblance of intellectual honesty. This is not some casual error here - this is a person who was quite literally embarrassed on national television just a few months ago and is now employing exactly the behavior he originally was embarrassed for - as if journalistic integrity and ethics are just nuisances to be ignored. Most normal people would react to getting factually crushed on television by sitting back and thinking about how to avoid such egregiously irresponsible behavior in the future. Not folks in D.C. like Beinart - it's full-speed ahead for them.

Equally appalling (though, frankly, not shocking) is the fact that the Washington Post continues to publish him, and that for all his dishonesty, he has been rewarded with a perch at the Council on Foreign Relations. Apparently in Washington, helping push America into the worst foreign relations disaster in contemporary history and then continuing to lie about that disaster is a resume builder, rather than a blemish. Yes, you actually get a bigger platform and get paid more and get a cushier job in D.C. the more inaccurate and deliberately off the mark you are willing to be.

The Peter Beinart Story is not troubling because this one insignificant warmonger continues to live the good life in D.C. It is deeply disturbing for what it says about the sorry state of the media's role as a check and balance on power. The Peter Beinart story is, pound-for-pound, the saddest, sickest commentary of all on a Washington media culture whose insularity has totally divorced it from even the most basic tenets of journalism. And that's a tragedy for those of us outside of Washington, living in the reality-based community.

Cross-posted from Credo Action