Iraq and the Failure of American Journalism



The abject failure of the American journalistic model–long worsening–has become depressingly apparent in the run-up to what appears to be almost certain war with Iraq.

Although there are clear and rational and compelling arguments being made against war both at home and abroad by professional soldiers, seasoned diplomats and millions of ordinary people, the American corporate media, both print and electronic, have become virtual parrots of the Administration line that war is necessary because Saddam Hussein is evil and a clear threat to America.

If the administration’s warning that a terror strike was imminent and that Americans should all buy plastic sheeting and duct tape to enable them to protect their homes in the event of a gas or germ attack was akin to someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, the resulting panic stoked by the media’s breathless and uncritical repeating of that self-serving nonsense was like a gang of ushers echoing the cry while goading theatergoers into a stampede for the exits.

Some critics of the media have blamed this on a conspiracy–a conscious desire on the part of the corporate media to support a pro-corporate government agenda. While there certainly is a commonality of interest, particularly as the major media have fallen into the hands of just a few giant corporate holding companies, there is something else at work too. Ordinarily jaded and cynical journalists and their editors seem of late to have entirely lost their grounding in reality. Constrained for years by a tradition that requires them to remain scrupulously “objective” and devoid of ideology, they have allowed themselves to be manipulated into the role of little more than purveyors of government press releases.

Standard American journalistic practice calls for reporters to recount faithfully what they are told by official sources, and then to go to the other side for comment. But where war is concerned, the other side is perceived as “the enemy,” and is deemed not worthy of comment. Ordinarily, the other easy source of critical comment on government pronouncements and opinions would be the opposition party, but in this instance, with a war in the offing, the Democrats (not much in the way of opposition in any case), have become largely silent, afraid of being labeled unpatriotic. That has left the Administration with a free hand to present its case for war in Iraq in the corporate media virtually without comment or criticism.

How different things are in the U.K., where newspapers are expected to have their own political viewpoints, and where journalists are permitted, even expected to have opinions. The Mirror, for example, was actually a sponsor of the giant Feb. 15 peace march in London. Imagine The New York Times as a sponsor of a political demonstration in New York!

Of course, the feigned disinterest and neutrality of the American media is a fraud. Publications like the Washington Post and the Times view themselves as part of the ruling Establishment, and rarely if ever challenge the policies of the government except in the margin. In this case, whether to go to war is not a question that is even on the table–only whether or not the U.S. should go it alone if it cannot gain UN support.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer put it in a page one news analysis the day after UN inspector Hans Blix undermined President Bush’s and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s plans to demand a Security Council war resolution by reporting that in fact the inspections were making good progress: “President Bush now faces an unpleasant choice. He must decide whether to launch a final round of diplomacy aimed at repairing the breach with many U.S. allies and thus winning broader backing for war, or to abandon the United Nations, ignore global opinion, and launch an invasion with whatever allies will follow.”

There simply was no mention by the author of a third choice: not going to war at all.

In its initial coverage of the demonstrations the evening of Feb. 15, CNN actually focussed not on the numbers (the AOL Time Warner network claimed, rather ludicrously and without any attribution, that there had been only 100,000 protesters in New York City), but on alleged violence, with a headline saying “protesters get rowdy.” In fact, despite the presence of an army of police and as many as half a million protesters, many of them angered that the city and the courts had conspired to prevent them from reaching the UN, arrests numbered only two dozen, mostly for the minor charge of “disorderly conduct.” Actually, in reading the coverage of the dramatic worldwide protest against war the morning after, one could almost sense, as they wrote of the hundreds of thousands of marchers and demonstrators in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and the millions in Europe and elsewhere around the world, some reporters’ chafing at the artificial yoke of “objectivity” under which they have labored for months. Finally they could safely and honestly quote some of the obvious arguments against the rush to war–the inevitable wave of terrorism that would follow, the terrible and unavoidable slaughter of innocents in Iraq, the unreality of the Bush Administration’s blitzkrieg fantasy, and the lack of any pressing need to unseat Saddam Hussein, whose military machine has withered.

All these are arguments against war the media have known of for months, but as self-constrained as American journalism has become, they can only get into print if someone else besides a journalist says them. And under current practice, even for a reporter to go to some university and seek out an expert to articulate such anti-establishment points of view would be seen as evidence of media bias–or worse, liberal bias. Only when they have been spoken during a legitimate news event, such as a demonstration, can the reporter safely purvey such contrarian thoughts without risk of being labeled biased.

The public is ill-served by this tradition of so-called “objectivity,” but it all works beautifully for those in power. If President Bush or one of his cabinet secretaries says something, it is considered legitimate news, and can be quoted without being challenged. Such statements, though clearly political, are considered to be “facts.” In the same way, a police estimate for the number of people at a demonstration, such as the Berlin police estimate of 500,000 protesters in Berlin, can go unchallenged in the New York Times, but in the case of an estimate of 400,000 demonstrators in New York, made by organizers, the reporter felt obliged add a caveat. “Crowd estimates are often little more than politically tinged guesses, and the police did not provide one,” he warned, but then added, “given the sea of faces extending for more than a mile up First Avenue and the ancillary crowds that were prevented from joining them, the claim did not appear to be wildly improbable.” (Actually, on page one, the Times article by Robert McFadden said, without giving a source, that there were 200,000 demonstrators in Berlin, only 40 percent of the number reported by Alan Cowell in his story on page 20 of the same edition.)

Like bloodied Christian penitents, the media repeatedly flagellate themselves, citing polls that say the public is losing respect for and confidence in the media. Inevitably, the response to these polls is for editors to yank even harder on the leashes constraining their reporters to the “objective” reporting of stories. Yet this is precisely why the American public has lost confidence in the mainstream corporate media.

As the line between entertainment and news has blurred, Americans, long adept at spotting snake-oil salesmen and deconstructing advertising, have realized that they are getting fed a line by the newsmedia. Their response has been to tune it out, the same way they mute the sound during commercials.

Unfortunately, with so few mass media sources of information available, that response has left the public largely ignorant, and vulnerable to manipulation during times of crisis.

This crisis in American journalism makes alternative politics, like this week’s global protests, and alternative media, crucial for the development of any serious opposition the government’s plans for war, corporatism, and the assault on civil liberties and democracy.

At the same time, serious committed journalists in the U.S. need to begin a grassroots struggle in the media workplace to challenge the paradigm that has turned them from a Fourth Estate into little more than propagandists for the Establishment.

DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html


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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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