The Docile Press


Some of us have been saying for some time–about three years or so–that the mainstream US media have been fairly shameless in their abject surrender to the Bush Admin, publishing the govt line without bothering to check the facts and ignoring or even discrediting opposition voices. Two new studies reported on by Scott Sherman in The Nation confirm what we’ve been saying–in spades.

Two new studies–one by Michael Massing in the February 26 New York Review of Books, which surveys news articles; the other by Chris Mooney in the March/April Columbia Journalism Review, which examines unsigned editorials–document the extent to which our elite press sailed with the stream in the decisive months leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Together, these articles paint a disconcerting portrait of a timid, credulous press corps that, when confronted by an Administration intent on war, sank to new depths of obsequiousness and docility.

No kidding.

The Massing study concentrates on the NYT in general and BA mouthpiece Judith Miller in paticular. You may remember that I called Miller “a BushCo shill…trumpeting Ahmad Chalabi’s fantasies on behalf of Perle and Wolfowitz in the months leading up to the Second Gulf War” and criticized in no uncertain terms her lack of independent research and her gullible acceptance of govt statements at face value. In essence, I said she was functioning as the WH propaganda arm at the NYT. I was taken to task for that statement by conservative posters who insisted that I was attacking Miller because I didn’t like Bush and didn’t want to hear “good news” about him, and by liberal posters who thought I was going overboard in making accusations which couldn’t be proved one way or the other.

Massing, god bless him, confirms what I wrote, and from Miller’s own mouth: he asked her.

Massing has produced the most authoritative account of her deferential posture vis-à-vis the Bush Administration. Massing asked Miller why her stories did not generally include the views of skeptical WMD experts; her reply is jaw-dropping: “My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself,” Miller averred. “My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought of Iraq’s arsenal.” Massing adds, with appropriate gravity: “Many journalists would disagree with this; instead they would consider offering an independent evaluation of official claims one of their chief responsibilities.”

(emphasis added)

At least she was honest about it. The problem, of course, is that Miller’s interpretation of her job description isn’t hers alone. Dozens if not hundreds of reporters covering the BA were clearly taking exactly the same road, and taking it to the point that they were allowing Karl Rove to script press conferences, approving questions in advance and even deciding the order in which they’d be asked. Junior was so confidant of Rove’s control that he actually gave the game away in one press conference when he chided a reporter for asking his question out of turn.

Mooney’s study of editorials shows quite clearly that management was playing the same game. Mooney examined more than 80 editorials for a 6-week period starting from Colin Powell’s now-infamous UN speech and ending with the invasion of Iraq.

The CJR report is largely about the reaction to Powell’s speech, which was rapturously received by editorialists. “Irrefutable,” proclaimed the Washington Post. Powell “may not have produced a ‘smoking gun,'” ventured the New York Times, but the speech left “little question that Mr. Hussein had tried hard to conceal one.” International newspapers–including the British Guardian–treated the speech as one side of an ongoing UN debate about Iraq’s WMD capacities and gave ample coverage to the opposing views of Hans Blix and the IAEA’s Mohammed ElBaradei, who maintained that Iraq did not have them. “Without appearing to weigh such contrary evidence,” Mooney writes, “the US papers all essentially pronounced Powell right, though they couldn’t possibly know for sure that he was. In short, they trusted him. And in so doing, they failed to bring even an elementary skepticism to the Bush case for war.”

Mooney calls the tone of the editorials “strongly nationalistic”, suggesting that an “almost knee-jerk tendency to distrust international perspectives” resulted in a wholesale dismissal of what the UN inspectors were saying.

In March 2003, [Mohammed El-Baradei] informed the UN that there was little evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear program, but the prowar newspapers in the CJR study simply “shrugged off” ElBaradei’s critique. At least one of them–the Wall Street Journal–heaped scorn on the inspectors. When Saddam Hussein insisted that he did not possess WMDs, the Journal sneered, “If you believe that, you are probably a Swedish weapons inspector.”

Bill O’Reilly–who was forced into it–is the only media honcho who has publicly apologized for unquestioning acceptance of the BA party line before the war. The denial of major media sources concerning their willing gullability continues, which, despite a recent increase in skepticism, doesn’t exactly give one hope that the adversarial press will be back anytime soon. Neither do the on-going institutional pressures on the modern media, which haven’t changed in the slightest–the largely right-wing character of the ownership; the fact that so much of the media remains in the hands of so few; the bottom-line, least-common-denominator-driven demand to cover trivial stories like Gary Condit or Scott Petersen while ignoring less sexy but more important stories about the Social Security raid or the handover of the govt to the corporate lobbyists who currently run everything from Defense Procurement to the Dept of the Interior.

Until this fundamental attitude–that newspapers and electronic news shows are just another business for making money–changes, we’re not likely to see much in the way of real reporting except as occasional reactive burps.

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