We’re all familiar with the term groupthink and often invoke it when we see easy conformity. But when we are caught up in the social currents of thinking, how can we see through it? I recently saw the 2017 film Shock and Awe that recounts the story of Knight Ridder journalists and their reporting of the lead up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. It’s a case study in seeing through groupthink and the value of reason, truth, and critical thinking. Values that can help you and your organization make better decisions.1
To briefly recount: During the lead up to the Iraq invasion, most media outlets diligently reported the Bush Administration’s claims about Iraq without skeptically questioning their sources. A set of journalists—Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and Joe Galloway—and newspaper editor, John Walcott, published dozens of stories that questioned the Administration’s claims. As Walcott states,
When the administration made an assertion, a lot of people wrote it down and printed it and we looked at it and said “that doesn’t make any sense. Is that true?” And we proceeded to call people. And very often, and very quickly, people said “no, that’s not true,” or “there is no evidence that that’s true,” or “they left out part of the story.”John Walcott (Follmer, 2008)
In the aftermath of September 11th, there was pressure to conform, given the spirit of patriotism after a national tragedy. It became more difficult to be an independent voice against and within the Administration. In addition, many journalists were more concerned about faithfully reporting information from their high-ranking source to maintain relationships, rather than skeptically examining their arguments.
Walcott outlines the peril of falling into “pack behavior.” As he states:
Anyone who has covered a big story knows how easy it is to fall into pack behavior. You always worry that you don’t have what the other guy has. It takes a strong constitution to ignore the pull of the crowd…Too many journalists, including some very famous ones, have surrendered their independence in order to become part of the ruling class.John Walcott (Abcarian, 2013)
For Knight Ridder, their skeptical reporting proved to be accurate as no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found in Iraq, nor was a hidden program found. Many of the claims that supported the Administrations arguments were made by Iraq exiles who had a strong desire to see Saddam Hussein ousted, making their claims questionable. Nevertheless, the unsupported claims of Iraqi exiles made their way into many prominent news outlets.
While Landay, Strobel and colleagues weren’t the only individuals questioning the rationale for war, they were nearly alone as journalist in reporting skeptical stories. It was a lonely position without social validation. As Strobel states, “There was a period when we were sittin’ out there and I had a lot of late night gut checks where I was just like, ‘Are we totally off on some loop here?’” (Moyers, 2007).
Their skepticism proved true, but with any claim of “seeing through groupthink” is the law of large numbers. With enough people making different claims, some people are bound to be correct, based purely on probability. But that assumes all guesses are equal. The Knight Ridder journalists, however, had clear reasons to doubt the evidence. As Jonathan Landay, himself, states, he thought Saddam Hussein had WMDs until he looked into the matter more thoroughly. He says, “I simply spent basically a month familiarizing myself, with what Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programs had been and what had happened to them. And, there was tons of material available on that from the UN weapons inspectors. I mean, they got into virtually everything, and their reports were online” (Moyers, 2007).
In doing this background research, Landay changed his mind based on the evidence and outlined clear reasons that such a program would have been detected and thus produced more substantial evidence for its existence. Landay and his colleagues wrote stories that there was little evidence to back up the Vice President’s claims that Saddam Hussein had resumed his efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon. As Landay wrote in September of 2002 (several months before the invasion in March 2003), “The absence of intelligence pointing to a spike in the Iraqi threat contrasts sharply with Cheney’s warnings that Saddam soon will have a nuclear bomb, could move on his neighbors or could supply a weapon of mass destruction to terrorists” (Landay, 2002).
Their stories, however, didn’t gain much traction as Knight Ridder didn’t have a voice in the newspaper markets of New York or Washington, DC. The stories produced by the Knight Ridder journalists could only run in 30 potential partnership newspapers in various cities throughout the U.S. However, the newspapers could choose not to run the stories written by Knight Ridder, which they often did, especially because the Knight Ridder stories were not in-line with the dominant narrative in many prominent media outlets. In 2013, Jonathan Landay was asked by a CNN news anchor: “How did it feel…to be the lone holdouts in this pursuit of truth and fact?” Landay responded: “‘Lone holdout’ is a good word because even some of our newspapers—we work for a chain of 30 newspapers. Even some of our own newspapers wouldn’t print our own stories” (Wemple, 2013).
In contrast to the journalists at Knight Ridder, the vast majority of high-profile media outlets were insufficiently skeptical in their reporting leading up to the Iraq invasion, including the New York Times. The New York Times even apologized to their readers for “coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been…Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged – or failed to emerge” (From the editors; The Times and Iraq, 2004).
One factor that helped the Knight Ridder journalists get the story right was that they were, to some degree, outsiders to mainstream media outlets. They didn’t rely on high-ranking sources, but instead did more painstaking work of speaking to mid-level government employees who would have less interest in conforming to the Administration’s narrative (Massing, 2004).
The journalists at Knight Ridder would eventually win numerous awards for their reporting, especially as the Bush Administration’s claims for going to war were found to be inaccurate. These awards were recognized as early as the beginning of 2004 when they were honored for stories that discredited the claims that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium in Africa (a claim that President Bush had made in the State of the Union address). (Knight Ridder Newspapers, 2004) With Knight Ridder’s reporting we see many of the hallmarks of independent thinking and how having a strong value placed on reason and truth helps one overcome the forces of groupthink. They weren’t content to simply recount the stories of those in charge, but skeptically examined claims asking if they were true. They felt the pull to conform and were concerned that they might be “off on some loop.” While they did have the social validation of each other, they were largely alone among media outlets in their skepticism of the Administration.
As individuals, what can we do differently based on understanding this case study in seeing through groupthink? The Knight Ridder team was partially successful because they were “outsiders” in the journalistic community—not concerned with pleasing high ranking sources and not worried about conforming to the dominant narrative. This is one benefit of not being in (and not trying to be in) the mainstream. Second, the team demonstrates the hallmarks of critical thinking: not blindly accepting authority, seeing there was excessive “motivated reasoning,” and digging deeper into claims by asking: Is that true?2 Critical thinking helped them see through flimsy claims. Finally, they weren’t solo individuals seeing through groupthink. They were able to support each other through the sense of invalidation that they were “out on a limb.” Similarly, find allies to help build a case that your organization may be heading in the wrong direction.
In sum, seeing through groupthink is not for the faint of heart, but being an “outsider,” relying on your critical faculties, and building social support make it more likely. And when the stakes are high, this is all the more important.
- The term “groupthink” was coined by Irving Janis with his 1972 publication of Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascos. Janis chose the word “groupthink” to be consonant with Orwellian terms such as “doublethink.” For a review of groupthink research see Esser (1998).
- For an excellent overview of rationality and critical thinking see Steven Pinker’s Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems so Scarce, Why It Matters. Viking.
Abcarian, R. (2013, March 19). Iraq war 10th anniversary: A dark mark for news media. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2013/03/iraq-war-anniversary-a-dark-mark-for-the-news-media.html
Esser, J. K. (1998). Alive and well after 25 years: A review of groupthink research. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2/3), 116-141.
Follmer, M. (2008, March 28). The reporting team that got Iraq right. The Huffington Post. Retrieved https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-reporting-team-that-g_n_91981.
From the editors; The Times and Iraq. (2004, May 26). The New York Times. Retrieved https://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/26/world/from-the-editors-the-times-and-iraq.html
Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Knight Ridder Newspapers (2004, February 4). Knight Ridder journalists honored for stories on war planning. Retrieved https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/special-reports/iraq-intelligence/article24470662.html
Massing, M. (2004, February 26). Now they tell us. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2004/02/26/now-they-tell-us/
Wemple, E. (2013, March 19). The media’s Iraq War failure. The Washington Post. Retrieved https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2013/03/19/the-medias-iraq-war-failure/
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