The Great Media Breakdown

The press admits it fell for the administration’s line on weapons of mass destruction. But the media’s failure goes far beyond Iraq.

Illustration: <a href="" target="new">Nathan Fox</a>

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All governments lie, the muckraker I.F. Stone used to say. They
fudge and omit. They bury and muffle inconvenient facts. They do this repeatedly, relentlessly,
shamelessly. That’s hardly surprising. Why shouldn’t they seek— as a Marine
Corps public affairs officer, Lt. Colonel Richard Long, told a conference on journalism and the
Iraq war—to “dominate the information environment”?

But of late, the government has had plenty of help in its efforts at dominance.
To a disgraceful degree, the organs of news have been grinding out its tune. Many are the reasons
for deference. Reporters and editors are credulous, fearful, and flatly bamboozled. Timid about
getting out ahead of a public they respect more when it is “conservative” (read: rightwardly
radical) than when it is liberal, they bend over backward to accommodate spin doctors. They grant
officialdom the benefit of the doubt. They fear risking independent judgment, which they have
defined as occupational hubris. They are terrified of missing out on the perks of access. They fear
that detailing the anatomy of official distortion will turn off readers and viewers. Their proprietors,
seeking favor in high places, cool their critical engines. So the media yield to temptation and
morph into megaphones, and falsehoods too often and too loudly repeated take on the ring of plausibility.

Does that leave citizens clueless? Not quite. In a digital world, there’s
easier access to multiple sources of facts and analysis than ever before. But even as journalists
lose their hold on a distracted public, they remain indispensable for arousing democracy and holding
liars, bullies, and cheaters accountable.

If ever there were a time for unbridled journalism, this would be it:
terrorist mayhem, war, corporate scandal, ecological crisis, economic upheaval. Public passion
and curiosity have been stoked. But the potential investigators have been, to a considerable
degree, otherwise occupied. Historians will someday burrow among the musty artifacts of America’s
supercharged 24/7 news organizations—TV with its glammed-up sets, its convention skyboxes
and satellite feeds; the well-fed correspondents on a firstname basis with second-rate sources;
the newsmagazines with their gloss, gossip, and fluff—and they will rub their eyes and marvel
that a nation possessed of such an enormous industry ostensibly specializing in the gathering
and distribution of facts could yet remain so befogged.

Befogged we have been, and don’t take my word for it. With the nonappearance
of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the problem grew sufficiently glaring that, earlier this
year, the spirit of self-scrutiny spread throughout the nation’s prestige press like a belated
burst of antibodies. Here is the New York Times‘ ombudsman, Daniel Okrent, writing on May
30—14 months after the bombs began falling on Baghdad: “Some of The Times‘s coverage
in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized
by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines; and several fine articles that
provided perspective or challenged information in the faulty stories were played as quietly as
a lullaby.” Two months later, the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz issued his own paper’s
self-critique, chastising “coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting,
in hindsight looks strikingly onesided at times.” Make due allowance for the boilerplate
qualifications—”in hindsight,” “looks,” “at times”—and
you see a condemnation so harsh, you know the blunders must have been grave indeed. Never before
has American journalism been driven to correct itself so lavishly.

Yet even now, the news industry remains unwilling or unable to come to
grips with the full scope and system of its failures, and the narrowness of the media’s self-criticism
does not inspire confidence that they will refuse to swallow government propaganda the
next time. (Television news bigwigs, for one, have yet to admit any responsibility for having escorted
the nation into a calamitous war.) In fact, the malfunctions extend far beyond the question of WMD,
beyond even the routine deceptions of George W. Bush. The machinery of truth-telling has broken

THE MACHINERY was creaky already. In truth, journalism’s golden
age of Vietnam and Watergate exposés was not so golden. It took years to undo the lies about
“progress” in Vietnam, and for many months, most news organizations missed the magnitude
of the criminal operations running out of the Nixon White House.

Much of the time since then, the Fourth Estate has remained distracted.
The Iran-Contra scandal lay scattered about in plain view until the dots were connected by a Beirut
magazine. In the 1990s, any sense of proportion went missing: As murderous Islamism oozed out of
Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Osama bin Laden fine-tuned his massacre machine, O.J. beckoned… and
Whitewater… and Princess Diana. In 1998 and 1999, when Al Qaeda was gathering force and bombing
embassies, the obsession of America’s media was…Monica Lewinsky (and Clinton was accused
of only seeking to distract us when he bombed bin Laden’s camp).

Journalists have missed many a boat. But the problem of the past few years
is that the media have taken to escorting the boat—amplifying disingenuous claims, downplaying
doubts, belittling dissent. As it thrashed about in a state of emergency, America needed solid
reporting—and solid skepticism—more than ever. Instead, large numbers of people
were left believing that some of the September 11 hijackers were Iraqis, that Saddam Hussein was
implicated in the terror attacks, and that the United States had actually found weapons of mass
destruction in Iraq.

that the press has let the public down on every one of the big life-and-death stories of our time.
Begin with those unforgettable 35 days in Florida in 2000, when reporters let Republicans get away
with their chosen story line: Bush was the presumptive victor and Gore was trying to deprive him
of his due. NBC’s Tim Russert again and again suggested that Gore be the statesmanlike gent
and bow out. Never once did I see a network bigfoot suggest that Bush do the graceful thing and step
aside. Bush was cast as president-in-waiting, Gore as the interfering usurper.

Then, from the moment George Bush walked into the White House, he was excused
from serious scrutiny. It would have seemed invasive, ungenerous, downright mean to inquire too
forcefully of a chief executive so, well, unchieflike. Anyway, this White House was known to slam
the door on overly feisty reporters.

In a remarkable piece three months into Bush’s term, John F. Harris
of the Washington Post wrote that Bush “has done things with relative impunity that would
have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton. Take it from someone who made a living
writing about those uproars…. Do you suppose there would have been an uproar under Clinton
if Democrats had been rewarding donors with special closed-door briefings by Cabinet secretaries?
GOP donors received just such a briefing with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson
as thanks for their efforts. Far from an uproar, the story has had only a faint echo. Clinton’s
‘donor maintenance’ coffees led to a year of congressional inquiries.”

Bush received an even broader pass after September 11. At least until
American bodies piled up in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib revelations cracked through, journalists clearly
feared that seeming to cast discredit on the commander in chief would smack of insufficient patriotism.
(The New York Times‘ chief Bush watcher, Elisabeth Bumiller, commented on a Bush press conference
on the eve of the Iraq war: “I think we were very deferential because… nobody wanted to get
into an argument with the president at this very serious time.”) Obsequious stenography
would protect the Washington press corps from cries of “liberal media.” There was—and
remains—considerable reluctance to invoke what a Times reporter I spoke to called
“reportorial authority,” which, as he put it, would require that “when the president
says the sun rose in the west, we take it upon ourselves to say no.”

And so, White House talking points crystallized in the news as established
fact. NBC’s Today show was just one of many to describe the creation of the Department of Homeland
Security and the federalization of airport security screeners as moves by “the Bush administration”
that were part of its “campaign to keep America safe”—even though Bush had opposed
both. TV news regularly described the war in Iraq as the centerpiece of the “war on terror.”

The run-up to the war saw a chain-reacting scandal of gullibility. When
the administration brandished Saddam’s purchase of aluminum tubes as proof that he was developing
nuclear weapons, journalists snapped to attention and buried the intelligence agencies’
doubts. When Bush claimed that Saddam had shopped for uranium in Africa, journalists duly recorded
his words even though the claim had already been dismissed by the International Atomic Energy Agency
and it was obvious that the documents in question were forged. When Colin Powell flaunted a slide
show at the United Nations with then CIA director George Tenet posing behind him as a prop,
that was good enough to establish the “nearly encyclopedic” (the New York Times
front-page term) nature of the secretary of state’s case.

After the invasion, some news organizations played impressive catch-up
on the WMD issue and others (the failure to predict looting, the range of Iraqi opinion regarding
the occupation). But on other fronts, news departments—often emblazoned with flags and
gung-ho logos—strived to prove nothing except that they were on the team. Rather than seeking
the Iraqi side of the battles, they played along with the Pentagon’s “embedding”
game and sanitized the war. News chiefs neglected pictures of civilian casualties that ran everywhere
else in the world. They hyped the takedown of the Saddam statue. They bent the Jessica Lynch rescue
into a distorted escape movie, as Pfc. Lynch herself later dared to point out. One has to wonder whether
the Abu Ghraib revelations would have splashed their way onto the front pages had whistleblowers
not supplied digital photos. Journalists on their own were simply not digging hard enough.

To be sure, journalists in Iraq have been inhibited by the dangers of reporting
outside the safety zone of American force protection. But important stories are still missing
even though there would be no personal risk in covering them—for example, the construction
of up to 14 well-nigh permanent American military bases in Iraq (under, no surprise there, a contract
with Halliburton).

If journalism’s lapses on Iraq were exceptional, we might be more confident
of its performance on other subjects. But the media have been buffaloed with regularity, to the
point where the great game of catch-up now seems more the rule than the exception. Consider one of
the greatest dangers facing humanity: convulsive climate change. As the world continues to binge
on oil and coal, the temperature of the atmosphere soars while the weather goes haywire. Yet for
years, the news media considered the question of climate change a matter of legitimate debate.
A small band of paid-for scientists were ushered into the media spotlight again and again, obscuring
the fact that most of the world’s experts had long since agreed on the nature and scope of the
crisis. After years of this obfuscation—which helped make Bush’s dismissal of the
Kyoto agreement seem more acceptable—U.S. journalists have, thankfully, seen reason.

Partially, anyway. Nowadays, “Study Finds Climate Shift Threatens
California” does land in the New York Times—on page A18. What, me worry? One academic
study has shown that, during a six-month period in 1999-2000, Britain’s Guardian devoted
three times more coverage to the climate issue than the Washington Post, more than twice as much
as the New York Times, and nearly five times as much as the Los Angeles Times. These days, the news
distributes occasional snippets about melting glaciers and fragmenting ice shelves—better
than nothing, but scarcely a full-blown investigation of a condition that is rapidly changing
the fundamental conditions of life on earth. TV news serves up breathless updates on the latest
hurricane, flood, heat wave, or wildfire—but, as Ross Gelbspan points out in his new book,
Boiling Point, without any hint that severe weather has anything to do with human-created climate

One network news editor told Gelbspan that the one time his broadcast
did run a story linking extreme weather with climate change, the network received “a barrage
of complaints” from industry lobbyists. This is one reason why, on this and other
issues, news organizations resort to stenography—he-said-she-said as a substitute for
research and judgment. Some people say the climate is changing catastrophically. Some other people
say the first crowd are Chicken Littles. End of story. Similarly, even as the Swift Boat veterans’
lie-and-distraction campaign crashed against John Kerry’s amply documented record, journalists
decreed that there was a certified “dispute” about the candidate’s wartime actions.

Stenography plays into the hands of liars, self-deluders, and obfuscators
of all stripes. The obfuscators know this, of course, which is why they make sure to keep boxing journalists
about the ears, ragging on them as “filters,” toying with them. It’s a dominance
game played against “girlie men.” It’s a hit-and-run gambit the Bush crowd has
been perfecting since the days when they turned Willie Horton into the poster boy for liberalism.
And it’s a game they routinely win as long as reporters, cowed by the “liberal media”
charge, turn themselves into megaphones for the right-wing noise machine.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States singled
out the press for special mention and protection not because the founders admired the press of their
time—it was raucous and wildly unreliable—but because they well understood the self-aggrandizing
tendencies of unbridled power. They shielded the press not because they believed publishers to
be saints or savants, but because they knew it might take unshackled sinners to curb the grandest
sinners of all. Had they imagined global carnage and global warming two centuries hence and more,
they might well have thought, “In the face of such dangers, now we will be vindicated for caring
so assiduously for the liberty of the press. Surely in times that retry men’s souls, the watchdogs
of the press will bark.” Imagine their chagrin if they could see the press becoming that sagging
branch of distraction, “the media.”

But they would also never say die. They would say that perhaps the journalistic
passion to “undo the folded lie,” as W.H. Auden put it—to curb what Walt Whitman
called “the never-ending audacity of elected persons”—is only asleep. Perhaps
the yearning for truth and reason does not succumb so helplessly. Perhaps the public will refuse
to keep flying blind.


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