Belatedly, a serious hat-tip to Salon’s Gary Kamiya for the very thoughtful analysis he wrote last week on the topic of Iraq: Why the [U.S.] media failed.
His contention-- based on a well-organized survey of the ample evidence plainly available on this subject-- is firstly that, "perhaps the press’s most notable failure was its inability to determine just why this disastrous war was ever launched." In this connection, he cites Kristina Borjesson, the author of a collection of interviews with 21 journalists about why the press collapsed, recently published under the title Feet to the Fire as saying,
The thing that I found really profound was that there really was no consensus among this nation’s top messengers about why we went to war... [War is the] most extreme activity a nation can engage in, and if they weren’t clear about it, that means the public wasn’t necessarily clear about the real reasons. And I still don’t think the American people are clear about it.(For my part, I’m not so sure that what was needed was either a consensus from the nation’s leading journalists or their own ability to reach a clear determination of what the war was about... But I think what was needed, much more, was the clear-eyed readiness of these journos to cast into question all the assertions made by all sides-- but most especially, by the administration-- about the reasons for going to war, and to aggressively test these assertions against the facts. It was that failure to stand aside from the Bushites’ circle and subject it to rigorous reality testing that was the MSM journos’ biggest professional failing. I also feel distinctly uncomfortable with the definition of journalists as being "this nation’s top messengers", which sounds far too "official-sounding" for my ears. I think I would prefer a tag like "the nation’s leading (and very handsomely paid) truth-seekers". Ah, but that’s not what most of them were, was it... "Chroniclers and amanuenses of the administration in power" might be more accurate... Anyway, I evidently need to buy Borjesson’s book when I get back to the US next week.)
But back to Kamiya. He introduces the real meat of his article within this frame:
Why did the media fail so disastrously in its response to the biggest issue of a generation? To answer this, we need to look at three broad, interrelated areas, which I have called psychological, institutional and ideological. The media had serious preexisting weaknesses on all three fronts, and when a devastating terrorist attack and a radical, reckless and duplicitous administration came together, the result was a perfect storm...Under the "psychological" rubric, he produces a small vignette from his own experience with cautious editors:
A personal example: In a Salon piece I wrote before the 2004 elections, when the worst of the patriotic fervor had long subsided, I wrote, "Heretical as it is to say, the terror attacks proved that it is possible to overreact -- more specifically, to react foolishly -- to an attack that left 3,000 dead." The idea that we had "overreacted" to this sacred event was so explosive, even then, that my editor flagged the line and questioned me about it. In the end the line stayed, but I write for Salon -- one of the few major media outlets that were consistently against the war from the beginning, one that has no corporate owner and is aggressively independent. How many such sentiments ended up on cutting-room floors across the country -- or were never even typed? As Mark Hertsgaard noted in his important study of the media’s weakness during the Reagan years, "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency," the most effective censorship is self-censorship.He also notes this:
Not all was lost. Some of the best breaking commentary was on the Internet, on blogs like Juan Cole’s "Informed Comment" and Helena Cobban’s "Just World News," but these sites had a limited readership. There were some notable exceptions on the print side, like the superb reporting of Knight Ridder’s Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, who aggressively reported out the Bush administration’s bogus claims about the "threat" posed by Saddam Hussein. The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus also questioned Bush administration claims about WMD (his big pre-war story on this subject, after almost being killed, was relegated to page A-17). And the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh and Mark Danner, writing for the New York Review of Books, also distinguished themselves with excellent coverage of Abu Ghraib, following the thread that led directly from the blood-spattered rooms outside Baghdad to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
I certainly second the plaudits he gives to Landay and Strobel, in particular (since I don’t think their work has received nearly enough general recognition.)
But such authors and journalists were few and far between, and they were almost never seen on TV. Long into the Iraq war, much of the mainstream media continued to fixate on Saddam Hussein’s missing WMD and bloviate about the challenges of "reshaping the Middle East," ignoring these deeper arguments. It was a stark illustration of the difference between journalism and scholarship.
And I thank Gary for what he wrote about me there. On the last page under "ideology"-- and specifically the ideology of entrenched pro-Israelism that pervades the vast majority of the US MSM-- he notes this:
the U.S. media works within a tiny ideological spectrum on the Middle East, using the same center-right and right-wing sources again and again. To take just one specific example, the New York Times, when it needs comment on Israeli affairs, often relies on experts from the Washington Institute on Near East Affairs (WINEP), a center-right, pro-Israel think tank. The Times rarely asks center-left or left-wing Middle East experts like Cobban or M.J. Rosenberg to comment on Israel. There is no evidence that the Iraq debacle, which these right-wing pundits almost universally supported, has led the media to rethink its sources or its ideological orientation.I think he’s generally correct there. But I live in hope that further constructive change in the attitudes of the MSM-meisters is still possible!
So has the media learned its lesson? And what does the future hold? In many ways, the media has definitely improved. After the war turned south and the WMD failed to appear, most news organizations began to get much tougher on the Bush administration. The New York Times, in particular, has found its backbone, roasting the administration for its incompetence and duplicity and turning an increasingly skeptical eye on its claims of progress in Iraq. And from the beginning of the war, the media’s reporting from the field in Iraq has been far better than its analysis.
Good piece. If JWN readers haven’t yet read it all, you should.
The problem, of course, is that the press only really turned on Bush when his ratings began to fall -- another indication that the Fourth Estate has become more of a weathervane than a truth teller.
The final verdict is not yet in. The media has improved, without question, but it has a lot of making up to do. The structural problems -- psychological, institutional, ideological -- that played so big a role in its collapse have not gone away, and there is no reason to think they will. And then there’s war, which reduced so much of the media to flag-waving courtiers. If the media has learned that a bugle blast can be sounded by a fool, that not every war the United States launches is wise or necessary, and that self-righteousness is not an argument, maybe something can be salvaged from this sorry chapter after all.