Portrait of the US Press in the Hour of Its Fall

I once shot at Donald Trump, property magnate and possible Republican candidate for the presidency, with a small green plastic frog that squirted water. It was at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner at the Washington Hilton in about 1994. His chunky form was an easy target as he walked between the tables, though he was clearly mystified by his sudden wetness. I heard him mutter:  “Even in New York they don’t spit at me.”

I had gone to the dinner with my friend Nina Burleigh, an author and journalist, then working for People magazine. Male guests in tuxedos and women in formal dresses sat at round tables in the Hilton’s gloomy and cavernous hall. Nina recalls: “The White |House dinner can be boring and one must bring one’s own entertainment. I believe those frogs would still make it past the metal detectors at the Hilton. I think we hit or aimed at Janet Reno [then attorney-general] as well.”

I remembered the incident when watching on television President Obama deride Trump at the most recent White House Correspondents’ dinner 14 years after we squirted him with the frogs.  The reason for Obama’s jabs was Trump’s successful campaign to get the president to publish his long-form birth certificate proving that he was born in the US and not in Kenya and was therefore eligible to occupy the White House. Obama was full of snide remarks about Trump, after his victory on the birth certificate question, suggesting that Trump now move on to the big serious issues like aliens landing  or whether  the moon landing was faked.  In the end Trump glowered sullenly as he sat at the Fox table.

The White House Correspondents’ dinner has always been a gruesome affair with journalists, celebrities and politicians in unseemly embrace. The president addresses the throng in a spirit of phony self-deprecation and lumbering jocularity which is often reported, as were Obamas’s jibes at Trump, as subtle and witty barbs.

It is curious to see the dinner with its embarrassing rituals go on year after year regardless of the state of American journalism. US newspapers and television networks have famously been in a state of deepening crisis in the last few years. But the Arab Awakening has been a watershed in this decline. It was CNN’s reporting of the first Gulf War from Baghdad in 1991 that made it the channel that presidents,  prime ministers, foreign ministers and journalists around the world had to watch. Back in 2003, CNN and the US networks CNN and the US networks still had the most ample coverage of the start of the war in Iraq. But since the start of the  Arab Awakening even the White House has reportedly been watching al-Jazeera English to find out what was happening (though the BBC has not been far behind).

It is depressing how swiftly the corps of American foreign correspondents has shrunk over the last five years. Papers like the Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe, which once had a full roster of reporters, no longer do so. US television networks that used to rent whole floors of hotels, to the envy of non-American broadcasters, are now down to a single journalist to cover a story. At least one US network did not send a single correspondent to report the uprising in Tunisia in January that began the capsizing of the regional political status quo.

Does it matter? In one sense it obviously does, since there are fewer effective journalists in the business. The drop in their numbers would be more evident if so many Arab countries in turmoil like Syria and Yemen had not banned reporters from obtaining entry visas. The consequences of  more limited journalistic resources being deployed is also masked by the use of YouTube,  photographs taken on mobile phones, and conversations with eyewitnesses on satellite phones.

This sort of evidence is powerful but easier to manipulate than it looks. Governments that kick out foreign correspondents may breathe a sigh of relief without realizing that they have created a vacuum of information that can easily be filled by their enemies. Thus much of the reporting of demonstrations, arrests, shootings and killings in Syria now comes courtesy of opponents of the regime.

It is difficult to feel much sympathy for governments whose abortive attempts at censorship make them vulnerable to hostile propaganda, but it does make it very difficult to verify what is going on. For instance, at the end of February I was in Tehran where exile websites reported that there were continuing street demonstrations. I could see none of these though there were plenty of black-helmeted riot police. Local Iranian stringers for foreign publications had mostly had their press credentials suspended so they could not write.

“In any case,” one of the stringers complained to me, “the news agenda for Iran is now being set by exiles and, if we report that nothing much is happening, nobody will believe us.” On YouTube I noticed one video of a demonstration in Tehran that had supposedly taken place in February showing all the men in shirts and without jackets, though the temperature in the Iranian capital was only a couple of degrees above freezing. I suspected that the video had been taken at the height of the Iranian protests in the summer of 2009.

This is not to say that flickering films of atrocities by the Syrian security forces are not true, but collection and control of such information by the exiled opposition, makes it impossible to judge the extent of the violence.

It is na?ve to be too nostalgic about the passing of the age when the US dominated the foreign news media. What made CNN’s coverage so distinctive in 1991 was that Peter Arnett, their correspondent in Baghdad, was prepared to take a sceptical approach to US government claims about the accuracy of its bombing and the identity of its victims. CNN lost its critical edge over the years, while network correspondents, often privately critical about US government policy, were prevented by their bosses in New York from straying too far from conventional political wisdom

The press has always been more dependent on the powers-that-be than it likes to admit.  American journalists outside Washington often express revulsion and contempt at the slavish ways of the Washington press corps. But it is difficult to report any government on a day-to-day basis without its cooperation, cooperation that can be peremptorily withdrawn to bring critics into line.  Also, contrary to every film about journalism, people tend not to admit voluntarily to anything that might do themselves damage. Woodward and Bernstein learned about Watergate almost entirely from secondary sources such as judges, prosecutors and government investigative agencies which could force witnesses to come clean by threatening to put them in jail.

The media is often credited or blamed for an independent sceptical spirit which it seldom shows in reality. In wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan effective media criticism has tended to follow rather than precede public opinion. Even then it usually needs important politicians to be standing on the same side of the fence. The Afghan war is unpopular in the US, but there is no effective anti-war movement because the Democrats, once so critical of the Iraq war, are now in the White House and, if Obama goes on being  presented with targets as vulnerable as Trump, are likely to stay there.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”


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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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