The Society is thoroughly confused and self-contradictory in how they handle second-century Christianity. To highlight their own presumed authority in contrast to "Christendom," they utilize the "great apostasy" myth (anticipated in the NT itself) which construes the post-apostolic period as a time of falling away from the "true faith" of the apostles, an apostasy which supposedly grew and grew until the time of Constantine, who thoroughly corrupted the religion with paganism. What is almost comical is that their attempts to characterize this apostasy are inherently inconsistent and each cover up inconvenient aspects of the history. In an article published a little while ago (15 July 1990 Watchtower, pp. 21-23), the Society holds Irenaeus up as a "hero" of sorts, bravely fighting this apostasy in his condemnations of gnostic ("knowledge falsely so-called") heretics. In fact, they go so far as to refer to Irenaeus' writings as almost an index of apostolic teachings still current in the second century. In some ways, Irenaeus does comport well with Watchtower doctrine; he was a chilliast, for instance, and looked for a material establishment of the estchatological kingdom on earth. And by lauding his attempts to fight the gnostics, the Society also throws their support to Irenaeus....despite the fact that the Society endorses a docetic view of Jesus' resurrection (i.e. that Jesus was not raised in the flesh), exactly the kind of gnostic view that Irenaeus was vehemently against. And no mention of course of Irenaeus' faith in the Deity of Christ, the immortality of the soul, and other doctrines of "Christendom" that the Society wants to attribute to the apostasy. So was Irenaeus part of this apostasy, or bravely fighting it?
Now, Irenaeus' teacher was Polycarp of Smyrna. Again, the Society holds Polycarp up as a fighter for truth (15 November 1989 Watchtower, pp. 21-23; subheading "Upholds Basic Truths"), who in fact was martyred by the Romans for his faith in Christ. Now, the Society regards the belief in the Deity of Christ as resulting from the "great apostasy," so they make no mention of the fact that Polycarp referred to Jesus as God. Polycarp also strenuously argued for the fleshly resurrection of Christ (another apostate view according to the Society), and accepted the system of bishops and deacons then in existence. The two primary developments that the Society wants to attribute to a "great apostasy" (to discredit the Catholic faith, and Christian orthodoxy in general) is the belief in the Deity of Christ (conflated with the Trinity doctrine by the Society) and the rise of the Catholic ecclesiastical structure. Now, the heroic Polycarp (as characterized by the Society) was close friends with Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius wrote his own personal letter to Polycarp, and the latter played a key role in the preservation of Ignatius' letters (as he notes in his letter to the Philippians). Ignatius also lived very close to the apostolic age compared to Irenaeus, having written his letters in c. 115 AD. What is amusing is that the Society, in separate places, either portrays Ignatius as an apostate or as holding fast to the faith. In various articles (cf. 15 November 1971 Watchtower, p. 691, 15 September 1983 Watchtower, p. 12, 22 June 1989 Awake!, p. 24), Ignatius is blamed for introducing the episcopacy and monarchical hierarchy of clergy into the Church (despite the fact that he was anticipated to some extent by the Pastorals in the NT). He is also slighted in some articles for believing "in a two-in-one God made up of the Father and the Son" (1 August 1984 Watchtower, p. 23), while this aspect to his theology (i.e. his exuberant and frequent reference to Jesus as God) is minimized in other articles (cf. 1 February 1992 Watchtower, p. 21). From these credentials, Ignatius should play center stage in the supposed "great apostasy". And yet Ignatius is also mentioned as one of the Christians who heroically died for his faith, killed by the Romans in their persecutions (cf. 1 September 1951 Watchtower, p. 517).
And on and on it goes. The Society quotes the Epistle to Diognetus (c. AD 160) approvingly to prove that early Christians were "no part of the world" (cf. 1 March 1951 Watchtower, p. 140; 1 July 1993 Watchtower, p. 14), and yet dishonestly fails to mention that they are selectively quoting a lengthy passage assuming the immortality of the soul (i.e. Christians dwell in the world and are no part of it, just as the immortal soul dwells in the body and yet is separate from the body). They approve of Justin Martyr and claim that he "rejected Greek philosophy" and noted that he too died for his faith (i.e. 15 March 1992 Watchtower, p. 30), yet utterly fail to mention that he frequently employed Greek philosophy to talk about Christian ideas, that he explicitly referred to Jesus was dying on a cross (and used Platonic-style allegorical interpretation to find the cross prefigured in the OT), that he accepted the immortality of the soul, and so forth.
So on the one hand, the Society would have to assume that these men were influential "apostates" leading Christianity astray from the faith of the apostles, and at the same time they are lauded as people who defended to the death the "basic true doctrines" of the apostles. Either everyone was an apostate, or no one was.