Sleeping Watchdog

You are just as biased with your far left wing, hate America style as is Newsweek. We are all getting tired of the left-wing propaganda and we do not trust your reporting of any news. You are owed (sic) and controlled by a California hate America group and we now trust our government over the Trbune [sic], Newsweek, and all of the other Dan Rather style of people who hate our country!!! We have stopped buying your propaganda!

That is the full text of an e-mail message sent to me as public editor of the Chicago Tribune on May 17, 2005. The references to Newsweek presumably were the result of that magazine’s publishing a report earlier that month-embarrassingly retracted on May 16-about abuses of the Qu’ran, the Islamic holy book, by American interrogators during questioning of inmates at the Guantánamo Bay detention center for “enemy combatants” in the “war on terror.”

The Dan Rather reference apparently was to CBS’s report, based on what turned out to be fabricated documents, about George W. Bush’s service during the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard.

It’s not clear what offense of the Chicago Tribune provoked the letter-which came from a man who lived in a far western suburb of Chicago-since the newspaper had had no journalistic disaster on the scale of those at Newsweek and CBS.

But it really wasn’t necessary for a news organization to have committed a blunder to incur the wrath of a citizen like this. It was enough simply to be part of what such people styled the “MSM,” or mainstream media. These were the big organizations that had the resources and, occasionally, the gumption to suggest that there might be something less than perfect in the way George W. Bush and his administration were running the country.

This and similar letters from people at the consuming end of the media chain kept coming to mind as I read When the Press Fails, which is, to my knowledge, the first serious academic study of the performance of the American news media in the run-up to, and the first three-plus years of, the war in Iraq.

When the Press Fails is academic in approach, but hardly dispassionate. The co-authors-political scientists W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston-are clearly no admirers of the Bush administration or of anyone who would give it aid and comfort.

They are hardly alone in that attitude, as the results of virtually every public-opinion poll of the last year or more attest. It’s not just the sympathy and admiration of the rest of the world that Bush has burned through during the four years of the Iraq war; it’s also the patience and trust of an overwhelming majority of his own people, though probably not dead-enders on Iraq like my correspondent from west of Chicago.

The thrust of the Bennett-Lawrence-Livingston argument is that the mainstream press allowed itself to be intimidated into silence and acquiescence in the Bush administration’s war plans during the run-up to the Iraq invasion; that it was intimidated after the invasion into soft-pedaling the truth of how the war was going; and that the press was liberated only by the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, a disaster the White House couldn’t spin, conceal, or deny.

This gross failure of the media at a time when the nation most needed a tough, independent press was only partly the result of manipulation by the Bush team’s spin machine. It was equally the result of fetters that the media put on themselves, especially the practice of “indexing” the views they present in news stories to their perceptions of the power alignments in Washington. In other words, the media have given the lion’s share of their attention over the last seven years to the Bush people because they have had the power; the Democrats, until very recently a weak, almost sickly opposition, have gotten relatively little attention. And sources outside that narrow alignment, although they may be equally authoritative and have information that would be of enormous value to a self-governing people, have gotten leftovers.

Even the liberation vouchsafed by Hurricane Katrina was only temporary, the authors argue, because as soon as the worst of the disaster had been absorbed, the media went straightaway back to their old habits of deferring to those in power.

As one who spent the period leading up to the war and its first three years as the Tribune’s official media critic and endured more than a little frustration in my attempts to criticize the performance of the press on that issue, I am in complete agreement with Bennett, Lawrence, and Livingston. The press served the American people badly. Not all the press and not uniformly badly, but overall it was a poor performance.

The media succumbed to the desire to be liked, and acquiesced in a cause that, while it may not have been what the administration cracked it up to be, looked as if it wouldn’t really be all that hard and wouldn’t do that much damage. And besides, Saddam Hussein was such a beast anyway. How could it hurt to oust him?

Traumatized by the horror of 9/11, the American people had said in effect to President Bush: “Make it safe again, Daddy! We don’t care what you have to do; just make it safe again!” And the media were not prepared to get in Daddy’s way.

That large dereliction aside, much of Bennett-Lawrence-Livingston’s argument reads as if it were addressed to a real fourth branch of government-one endowed with subpoena power and authority to clap liars and concealers of embarrassing truths and keepers of unjustified secrets in irons and march them off to some hellhole until they give the people the truth. But that is not the American press. Our news media have no subpoena power. They don’t even have the power to promise anonymity to their news sources without fear that they may later be hauled into court and ordered to break a pledge of confidentiality. (And I am one who believes they should not be given such power by law.)

All the American media have is a promise under the Constitution that they may not legally be interfered with in publishing or broadcasting what they are able to learn. And therein lies the problem. The reason the media were able to be aggressive and challenging and nondeferential to the Bush administration in covering the Hurricane Katrina story was that the story was beyond the ability of even a Karl Rove to manipulate. It was out there, fully available for all to see, with no need for military escorts or safe passage or interpretation by government minders.

The reason the media could not challenge the administration’s rationale for war in Iraq so readily was that that rationale depended on information that, very often, was secret. The administration was willing to invoke the most sacred of all justifications-national security-to legitimize not just the war in Iraq but also the secrecy that disarmed and frustrated anyone inclined to be critical of the White House.

There is no easy protection against people who are willing to manipulate the government in this way. There is no easy protection against people who have no shame, who are willing to cashier a general like Eric Shinseki for giving Congress his honest professional opinion, who will say the kinds of things that have been said about Cindy Sheehan, who are willing and able to denigrate a political opponent who went to war and served honorably while they laud and elect a man with a record of dubious military service.

In order to challenge administration spin, the press needs information, and information is developed through independent reporting-tough, often long-term (see the New York Times’s NSA wiretapping story, for example), sometimes dangerous (remember Daniel Pearl?) reporting.

And woe to the news organization that gets it wrong-a Newsweek, for example, or a CBS. Credibility is hard to win but can be easily and quickly destroyed.

And in its place? Blind faith.

“[W]e now trust our government over the Trbune, Newsweek and all of the other Dan Rather style of people who hate our country!!!”

Published in the 2007-07-13 issue: 
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