Collapse of the Fourth Estate

Jon Whiten

In March, on the five-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the nation’s major news outlets reflected on the war and what led us to the half-decade mark. But few evaluated their own roles in the disaster that has maimed countless Iraqis and U.S. troops, killed hundreds of thousands and, according to economists Linda Blimes and Joseph Stiglitz, could ultimately cost up to $3 trillion. 

Fortunately, two new books do examine the media’s role. Greg Mitchell’s So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits – and the President – Failed on Iraq (Union Square, March 2008) lays out a timeline of the media’s damning missteps, while When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina (University of Chicago, May 2007), co-authored by W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence and Steven Livingston, shows how these missteps are not aberrations, but byproducts of the American press.

In So Wrong, Mitchell, the editor at Editor & Publisher, collects and updates 79 of his columns from January 2003 to November 2007. The result: a history of the war as told through the mainstream media prism. Readers are painfully reminded of all the turning points” cited by war proponents and their counterparts in the press – from Mission Accomplished” to Gen. David Petraeus’ troop surge.

Mitchell offers gut-wrenching stories about the war that many Americans likely didn’t read about, much less see on television, such as the story of 27-year-old Army Spc. Alyssa Peterson, who shot herself with her service rifle after objecting to Army interrogation techniques in a prison in Tal Afar, in northwestern Iraq.

His columns on soldier suicides and on solatia” – the U.S. military’s practice of financially compensating Iraqis for physical damage or a loss of life – are haunting, leaving us to wonder why the general public didn’t see more work of this caliber.

But while So Wrong describes the who, what and where of the media’s Iraq meltdown, it doesn’t offer much insight into the why. Aside from Mitchell’s powerful introduction, which argues the press didn’t approach the Bush administration’s claims with enough skepticism, he doesn’t elaborate on the structural reasons the media fell down on the job.

That’s where When the Press Fails is useful. The book, though written in an academic tone, offers a blistering critique of the operating practices of American journalism,” which the authors say have grown entwined with power and officials.”

The authors, all professors of political science or public affairs, argue that America’s semi-independent” press is largely reactive, working within the sphere of official consensus.” Journalists cover what the administration does and says, and how critics inside-the-beltway respond. In other words, political controversy, rather than public deliberation, is the name of the game. 

When elite opinion shapers engage in vigorous and substantive debate, the authors say the press does a good job at reflecting that and nurturing a deliberative public. But when the public needs it most – say, when critical debate within government is most limited, like in the run-up to the Iraq War – the press often fails.

Both books explore the rise in critical coverage as the war dragged on, noting that by summer 2006, there was more solid reporting on the horrors of the Iraq War, including blockbuster stories like the Washington Posts exposé of CIA black sites and the New York Times’ reporting on domestic spying.

But despite the more aggressive stance, the lack of coverage of two recent events proves the press is still failing on Iraq, even if it has improved overall. In March, both the Pentagon memo refuting an al Qaeda/​Saddam Hussein link (again) and the Winter Soldier veterans’ hearings in Washington, D.C., got virtually no play in the mainstream press, with few exceptions.

So, is American journalism simply doomed? 

Not quite.

Both books thankfully offer a way forward. Mitchell suggests that journalists be held accountable. He notes that few of those who promoted the war … have lost any standing in the media.” He also advises the press to be rigorously skeptical of and fully critique dubious official claims. 

Bennett, Lawrence and Livingston argue that a new news standard” based on four key principles – from serving the public interest to using techniques other than political conflict to explore government policy – could foster a more democratic press. They admit that a rethinking of the journalistic profession would be fraught with difficulty,” but note that the current faulty standards didn’t magically appear, but were the product of media self-examination. 

As the media’s poor performance on the Iraq War makes clear, another such self-exam is due, stat.

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