How Spencer Ackerman got Too Hot for TNR
By Clint Hendler
In October 2006, Spencer Ackerman was a twenty-six-year-old associate editor at the New Republic. He had joined the magazine four years earlier and, since then, had reported from Iraq, been twice promoted, and co-written the story that may land Lewis “Scooter” Libby in prison.
That article, “The First Casualty,” was a major investigation into the Bush administration’s deceptions about Iraq’s weapons capabilities and al Qaeda ties. It was published on June 19, 2003, almost three weeks before the New York Times printed Joe Wilson’s op-ed suggesting the Bush administration had ignored his finding that Niger was extremely unlikely to have sold nuclear materials to Iraq.
Apparently, the story, authored with TNR senior editor John Judis, got noticed. According to his federal indictment, Libby, then the vice president’s chief of staff, discussed the article with an aide shortly after it was published; the aide asked if they might discredit Wilson by leaking information about his trip to Niger.
The New Republic has never been a particularly modest publication; in the mid 90s it claimed to be the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One.” The Libby indictment gave rise to a new boast: “When The New Republic Makes History, Are You There?”
Ackerman wouldn’t be there much longer.
Less than a year later, his boss Franklin Foer called and asked him to come in for a talk. Ackerman was working from home that day, maintaining the magazine’s baseball playoffs blog and posting a bit on Too Hot for TNR, his personal blog which he had just set up that weekend.
Ackerman says his relationship with Foer had begun to deteriorate eight months before, in March of 2006, when Foer, who was thirty-one at the time, was given the magazine’s top job by Martin Peretz, TNR’s then owner and
“As I was on the bus on the way down, I thought, ‘This is it. I’m probably going to be fired.’ I’d thought that before, but this felt different,” says Ackerman.
This was different. Foer sat Ackerman down and told him that his behavior—both in the office and on his blog—had been unacceptable. His career at the magazine was over.
Over the years TNR has taken pride in being preternaturally iconoclastic, claiming to be the keeper of the liberal flame while thumbing its nose at progressive stances on health care, affirmative action, and the rulings of the Warren Court. But for the four years that Ackerman worked at the magazine, TNR was defined by its position on the Iraq war, the all-consuming debate of the era. The magazine galled many readers by vigorously supporting the invasion; even as the war floundered, TNR held fast. It wasn’t until June 2004 that the magazine printed its famous “Were We Wrong?” cover, a rather meek mea culpa.
While at the magazine, Ackerman’s position on the war underwent a similar evolution. But once he decided that the war had been a bad idea and that it was unwinnable, he preached with the zeal of a convert.
It wasn’t his first ideological shift. As a teenage punk rocker in Brooklyn, he drummed along with his band’s left-anarchist lyrics. In his sophomore and junior years at Rutgers, he read and agreed with Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing Weekly Standard and the conservative National Review.
He was also a “brilliant” if “temperamental” journalist, according to his friend and college editor Sally Goldenberg, who now writes for the Staten Island Advance. “He was born to do this and was a pro at—God, what were we in college?—
nineteen,” she says. “I don’t know how there are enough hours in the day for him to know everything he does.” By graduation day, his views had shifted again, and he’d settled on a new favorite magazine.
Luckily enough, that magazine, the New Republic, offered him a fact-checking job. By that fall he had been made an assistant editor.
“I was tremendously overjoyed. I was twenty-two and I had a job at the New Republic,” says Ackerman. The magazine has long been known for nurturing young talent; he would prove to be no exception.
After “The First Casualty,” Ackerman focused his reporting on national security. He scored a rare interview with Donald Rumsfeld’s confidant Stephen Cambone, then undersecretary of defense for intelligence. And in January of 2004, he was entrusted with his own blog, called Iraq’d.
It was aimed at liberals who, like himself, had supported the invasion because they were worried about WMD and Saddam Hussein’s links to terrorism, and wanted to see democracy supplant dictatorship. But as “The First Casualty”—and much other reporting—had already firmly established, the security concerns had proved unwarranted. So Ackerman focused his sights on the goal of building a stable Iraq. Iraq’d was started after Bush announced a plan to hand over sovereignty by a fixed date. Ackerman made the (retrospectively naïve) assumption that U.S. involvement would soon draw to a close. The purpose of Iraq’d, he wrote, was to “shame or convince the president to change course.”
The blog chronicled a year and three months of absolute chaos: bombings, the rise of militias, and repeated failures at building effective Iraqi security forces. When the last post went up in April of 2005, Ackerman had decided that the president’s open-ended commitment was now fueling the insurgency, and he called for a full withdrawal by the end of the year. Ackerman says that “the evidentiary basis and character of our presuppositions had effectively collapsed.”
He continued to write on Iraq—including accounts of his trip to the Kurdish North—but as he found his views at odds with those of his editors, his work became more descriptive than prescriptive. “I was increasingly upset with the tenor of the magazine and what it was willing to say—and not willing to say—about Iraq,” he says. The magazine had become an ideologically difficult place for him to be. But, he says, the biggest difficulties came after Foer was promoted. “Frank and I used to be friends. Or I at least I thought we were,” Ackerman says. “Frank is not particularly interested in national security. I am. We had struggled to find an equilibrium.”
This led to what Ackerman diplomatically calls “a couple of heated editorial disputes.” The most notorious of these occurred after U.S. bombs killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June of 2006. At an editorial meeting, Ackerman warned the assembled staff that Zarqawi’s martyrdom might actually make things worse in Iraq. He was accused of being soft on the dead al Qaeda operative. So he demonstrated his hatred of Zarqawi by offering to “skullfuck” the corpse.
“The magazine is not filled with shrinking violets,” says Ackerman, recounting the incident. “I stand by it, damn it. I would skullfuck the guy if I could!”
There were other disagreements. Ackerman thought that his posts to the magazine’s group blog—The Plank, started six months after Iraq’d was shuttered—were getting undue editorial scrutiny. And he was disappointed that he was not invited to participate in a major Iraq roundtable to be published November 2006.
But by then Ackerman would be gone.
On Sunday, October 15, he launched his personal blog, Too Hot for TNR. Over the next three days, he wrote two posts needling his employers. One joked that it was appropriate that the magazine’s web-publishing software was named “coma.” When he saw that an indie-rocker he liked linked to a blog that regularly tussles with the New Republic, Ackerman half-joked that “all the cool kids hate TNR.” (“I still think that’s true, basically,” he says months later.)
He was fired on Wednesday. Ackerman and Foer have described the blog as a “proximate cause.” But Ackerman maintains there is more to it. “There is an element of atmospherics. In conversations that Frank and I used to have, Marty would be a factor,” says Ackerman.
“I got the occasional angry email and phone call, and would hear through the grapevine when [Peretz] wasn’t happy with a piece of mine,” says Ackerman. “Frank made the calculation that for his editorship, it was better for me to leave.” (Foer did not respond to requests for comment.)
That night Ackerman went to the movies to see Fearless, a Jet Li film, with some friends. By the time the credits rolled, he had a message on his cell phone from Harold Meyerson, acting executive editor of the liberal—and more consistently antiwar—American Prospect, offering Ackerman a writing contract.
“It was an easy fit,” says Meyerson. “He’d fought the good fight at TNR on national security and the war, which isn’t an easy place to fight the good fight. . . . And if I was going to offer him this, I thought I should do it when it would cheer him up.”
Early Friday morning, Ackerman let his blog readers know that he’d been fired. “The ostensible reason for my release concerns my relationship with Franklin Foer and the magazine’s other editors,” he wrote. “However, the irreconcilable ideological differences between myself and the top editors at the magazine have been clear to me for months now, and clear to them as well.”
His readers rose to his defense, and to criticize the magazine and its record on Iraq. “You were the best part of TNR,” wrote one. “Their loss,” wrote another.
Over the next six months, Ackerman would give these fans plenty of red meat. He called Franklin Foer “the worst of them all—a deceitful coward.” When TNR announced it would run an article that rattled sabers at Tehran, Ackerman asked Foer in a post if he had preemptively written a 2011 editorial apologizing for the magazine’s support for invading Iran. When Matt Yglesias—his housemate and a Prospect staff writer—got in a debate with a TNR blogger over Peretz’s views on Arab society, he came to his friend’s defense and called the magazine’s owner a racist.
Sally Goldenberg says that Ackerman has made the best of his firing. “He’s ambitious. And if he feels that someone has slighted him or done him wrong, he’s not going to crawl into a corner,” she says. “He’s going to use it.”
Although Ackerman says he doesn’t know his website’s traffic statistics—he says he’s too computer-inept to find out—the blog has grown and changed. A fan redesigned the site to mimic the look of TNR’s own website. Ackerman has an ongoing series blending memorial and protest by posting the Department of Defense’s cookie-cutter press releases on soldiers who have died in Iraq. And in March 2007, he embedded in a military police unit and covered the war for the Nation, the Guardian, and the American Prospect. But the first pieces of reporting from the trip were published on the blog.
Just before that, in February, Peretz sold the money-losing magazine to a Canadian media conglomerate. The New Republic, after ninety-three years of weekly publication is now a biweekly. As part of a new editorial and business strategy, Foer and the new owners say they are planning a major relaunch of their website—blogs and all.
Looking back at his time at TNR, Ackerman admits that he “was probably the most vulgar person to have worked there in recent memory.” He has also concedes that he can be immature and self-righteous. But Ackerman has no regrets for anything he has written or said about Iraq—or his old bosses.
He does regret one thing. “In retrospect,” he says, “I should have just quit.”
NB: The web version of this article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Ackerman made only one trip to Kurdish Iraq while working for the New Republic. Some incidents described in the piece were first reported in October of 2006 by Michael Calderone of the New York Observer. The author deeply regrets not acknowledging this in in the original text.
Illustration by Justin Landers