12/11/2005 05:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Great Story

Like some fabulous groundhog, former New York Times editor Howell Raines sticks his head out of his cave this week in an e-mail to Ken Auletta, which Auletta prints in his New Yorker piece on Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and the New York Times. The article is an instructive episode in this era of The-Buck-Stops-There: in it, Keller blames Raines, Raines blames Lelyveld and Abramson, Sulzberger doesn’t think anyone did anything wrong, and Judy Miller, thinner-than-ever, cries and claims that she tried to write a story about how she came to be so misinformed about those darned weapons of mass destruction but no one would let her.

One of the most serious questions Auletta raises is whether Howell Raines tolerated and encouraged Miller’s W.M.D. coverage because it gave him a defense against critics who felt he was too liberal to be the editor of the Times. I don’t know if this is true, but while we’re thinking about it, it’s probably a good moment to introduce one additional theme in the perfect storm of motives that led to this misadventure: how much journalists love going to war.

In 2002, when the run-up to the war began, the New York Times, with Raines at the helm, was coming off more than a year of 9/11 coverage and seven, count them, seven Pulitzer Prizes. September 11 was a tragedy; it was also what’s known in the business as a great story. A great story is a complicated event; it brings out the best in terms of morale and first-rate work, and in addition it feeds every newsroom beast, the beast of sanctimonious virtue, the beast of untapped patriotism, the beast of vanity, the beast of self-importance, and the beast of attention-deficit-disorder that draws so many gifted writers to a profession that provides a constant series of distractions and big bangs. A Presidential assassination (to take another example of a tragedy that’s also a great story) lasts only a few weeks, but 9/11 provided months and months of sustained adrenalin hits, and then, just as the New York Times was starting to run out of dead people to write Portraits of Grief about, along came this war.

More Pulitzers. More excitement. More ways to be the very center of the universe. Bring it on.

Now, for one moment, let’s be fair to Judy Miller. There was a point in the run-up to the war when the war was going to happen. The troops were sitting there in the Gulf. The rhetoric had traction. The people of the United States overwhelmingly believed that Saddam Hussein had crashed the planes into the twin towers. The UN hearings were relegated to C-Span, where Hans Blix raised his doubts to a national audience of hundreds. Like a movie with a start date but no script, the war was scheduled to begin –- had to begin -- in the spring, when weather conditions were supposedly favorable. Blaming the little drummer girl for it isn’t really fair; where was everyone else? I know, I know, there were those guys at Knight-Ridder and a couple of grumblers at the Times, but the truth is that the rest of the press ignored all the amber lights because it was way too busy suiting up. The words “embedded journalists” ought to have raised some concerns. But no; they took courses in wearing gas masks, and then they marched off to war. Let’s face it: all of them slept with their sources.

Historians will be writing about how and why this war began for the rest of our lives; hard as it may be to believe, the journalists involved will play very small supporting roles in the saga. But for all the comparisons to the quagmire that was Vietnam, this war is different. The United States lost the war in Vietnam, but the New York Times won it. This war, so far, has only losers.