Media Culpa

Cynthia Moothart

I confess, I’m a sycophant, even if my bootlicking inclines less toward, oh say, Bush administration officials than foul-mouthed and amusing anti-propagandists. You know, people like Mark Crispin Miller, that muckraking New York University professor whose books include Boxed In: The Culture of TV; Mad Scientists: The Secret History of Modern Propaganda; Spectacle: Operation Desert Storm and the Triumph of Illusion; and The Bush Dyslexicon. I dig him, have for some time, although we’ve never met — that is until last week when he left his home number on my voicemail.

I tell you this because the U.S. media have joined the broader confessional culture in which we live, that inclination to prostrate oneself before the likes of Dr. Phil and, when liquored-up straight from the trailer park, Jerry Springer on late-night TV. And I’m part of that media, too — or at least an underpaid wannabe from the independent press.

You may have read these self-indulgent accounts. The United States’ two premier print outlets recently expanded journalistic convention to include public atonement for reported sins. David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post, was the first to go with his piece from April 27 titled Red Flags and Regrets,” in which he laments his and his colleagues’ coverage mistakes” following 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism,” he wrote. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn’t create a debate on our own. … My own mistake was thinking more about the justice of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime than about the difficulty of building a new postwar Iraq.”

Not to be outdone, the New York Times followed with an apologia of its own, no less than a half-dozen times owning up to its failures in verifying what clearly was half-baked jingoism served up to journalists as news.” Because it was really important to set the record straight, the editors ran it on Page 16.

So I called Mark, we’re first-name familiar now, to ask about these confessions. What passed between us appears here.

The Times piece felt less a real consideration of the paper’s conduct than a ritualized cleansing post-Jayson Blair. With no action taken against reporters or editors, what happens to accountability?

The Times did something similar after the collapse of Chinagate,” once Wen Ho Lee was cleared of treason. The Times had run so hard with the non-story of the scientist’s perfidy that his acquittal — highlighted by the judge’s blunt apology to the accused — obliged the Times to run a sort of mea culpa. It was striking, although its tone was less contrite than last week’s recantation.

Now, there’s an important difference between those two cases and the scandal over Jayson Blair. Chinagate” — a rightist fiction meant to further hobble Clinton — had dire consequences for Wen Ho Lee himself (he spent months in solitary confinement). It also affected U.S. national security, as the furor over China’s nonexistent effort to subvert U.S. democracy was just one more distraction from the real threat of Islamist terrorism. And, of course, the recent myth of the Iraqi danger — a rightist fiction meant to further strengthen Bush’s hand — has had far graver consequences: hundreds of Americans killed and thousands wounded, untold thousands of Iraqis killed, maimed, tortured, the threat of terrorism worsened exponentially, the U.S. economy placed under crushing strain. In short, by certifying those two strokes of rightist propaganda, that newspaper has done great harm to all of us, endangering our lives and our democracy.

Jeff Gerth was the Timesman who helped do in Wen Ho Lee, and Judith Miller served as the paper’s primary medium for Bush & Co.’s pro-war propaganda. After each of those destructive episodes, all the paper did was give itself a public scolding. Neither Gerth nor Miller has been disciplined in any way. Their irresponsibility was ruinous — as opposed to Jayson Blair’s, whose fictions, while deplorable, had no dark consequences in the world beyond the Times’ own offices. But he was fired, and over his misdeeds the paper’s management went crazy, doing endless loud soul-searching” and discharging two top editors.

Blair was small potatoes (as well as black), while Gerth and Miller are big-foot reporters, tightly linked to the establishment. What they did cannot be appropriately punished, because their errors were the errors of the Times itself, in its capacity as PA system for the Bush White House and Pentagon. Gerth also was the Times’ authority on Whitewater, which also turned out to be a rightist crock — but management has not done any penance over that. Nor has the paper wrung its metaphoric hands over its failure to do justice to the Florida debacle in 2000, or over its insistence that Al Gore throw in the towel, or over its long silence on the Bush team’s efforts to prevent the 9/11 inquiry. There must be hundreds of examples of that liberal” institution being one of Bush & Co.’s foremost enablers.

So what does the paper’s mea culpa mean? About as much as Donald Rumsfeld’s readiness to take responsibility” for Abu Ghraib. In neither case is anybody held accountable for what went down, and neither Rumsfeld nor the Times is able or inclined to do real self-examination. That rare apology was just public relations, not much more.

Last September on CNBC’s Topic A with Tina Brown,” Christiane Amanpour offered a smart critique of the mainstream media along the lines of what David Ignatius and the editors of the Times until only recently sought to consider. Despite this critique and others from the time, media coverage remained much as it ever was. What’s different now and will these apologies” have any real effect?

The problem is systemic. The U.S. corporate press is now corrupt beyond redemption. No one’s mere critique, however sharp, can make the slightest difference, since the mainstream press’ overall conditions are unchanged, and no insider has begun to think about the need to change them.

The problem is complex. Why has the press completely failed its constitutional obligation to inform the people of this country? That, and not, say, full-frontal nudity, was the whole purpose of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press.

The problem has to do with corporate concentration and the disappearance of our press into the media”; a press corps compromised by too much wealth and too much personal fondness for the people at the top; the over-dependence of American reporters on official sources; the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, and other such deregulatory moves; the winning propaganda drive against the liberal media”; the complicated influence of TV, with its over-emotionalism and obsessive focus on TV itself; and a sense of institutional trauma after Watergate and Vietnam, so that the corporate press will never wander near the brink again.

There are other factors, too. What we need now, however, is not just more analysis of our dilemma but fundamental change. We need a radical program of media reform, ASAP.

Nineteen days after David Ignatius issued his regret, he was interviewed on NPR as the official source for news and analysis out of Baghdad. Given a person can admit his judgment was seriously lacking yet nonetheless remain credible indicates there’s no fallout to producing bad coverage. So who really cares what David Ignatius regrets or that he’s feeling particularly uncomfortable in his self-sewn hairshirt.

Equally, why are we willing to accept — particularly from a columnist given extraordinary latitude to express himself at a paper renowned for its investigative reports — ridiculous assertions about professionalism” like the one noted above? Is Ignatius actually arguing that journalists merely function as stenographers? If that is the case, the Post owes Richard Nixon an apology.

Although more journalists than ever get it” now — that is, they see that their profession has been ravaged by commercial pressure — it’s still the case that people in the media are often quite incapable of grasping the true problem. Especially the successful ones, who are neck deep in the status quo, and therefore can’t allow themselves to see how far they’ve strayed from their true path. To the likes of Jeff Greenfield and Aaron Brown, journalists are not obliged to do investigative journalism. All they are obliged to do is tell us what the White House said today, or (sometimes) what the Democrats replied. 

At a symposium at American University a few years back, Judy Woodruff actually said that it is not our job to get out front” on stories. That would be news to Madison and Jefferson. Bad news.

What do these expressions of regret” tell us about today’s journalists, who seem to place greater emphasis on their feelings of sorrow and self-pity than on their judgment, allowing obvious half-truths and lies to be treated as legitimate and above critique?

In the culture of TV, gestures are all. When it comes to the acknowledgement of one’s own wrongdoing, the individual performance of repentance is the only thing that counts. As long as the perp can stand there in the camera’s eye, look clean and sober, stay composed and speak in very simple terms with what appears to be conviction, he or she is in the clear. Take Condoleezza Rice’s stonewalling at the 9/11 inquiry. She answered not a single question, and even told a number of new lies. Because she didn’t stammer or look shifty, and otherwise projected certainty, she did well” televisually speaking — at least according to the New York Post and other Bushevik media.

TV’s endless emphasis on personality and feelings” is a limitation, certainly. And yet in Bush’s case, TV has lately started to expose the lunacy that’s rampant at the top. That Bush himself is psychologically incapable of doubt, and quite unable to express or feel remorse, is well worth demonstrating to the public. What matters isn’t only that the president himself appears to be a sociopath, but that the Christo-fascist right in general is driven by the same demented sense of perfect rectitude.

Adam Gopnik, writing less than a decade ago in the New Yorker, documented the aggression culture that took root in the media after Watergate — an aggression that sought to bring down power and expose even the smallest foible. What social forces account for the administration’s recent success in creating the equivalent of a state-run news service as it relates to its own coverage?

Dan Rather, speaking to the BBC, claimed that fear of being labeled unpatriotic led to this complicity. What separates Rather today from, say, those Southern editors who suffered real and serious consequences when they came out early in support of civil rights?

By and large, our mainstream journalism has been pretty lousy from the start. The real Golden Age of News in U.S. history was the epoch of the so-called muckrakers, an extraordinary bunch of independent journalistic sleuths. They were intrepid advocates, eager to bust open scandals and make waves — completely antithetical to most mainstream reporters nowadays. What enabled their achievement was a broad range of independent magazines, which derived their profits not from advertising but from newsstand sales and subscription fees. The readers, not the advertisers, paid the publication’s bills. Once the entire print scene went commercial, a process complete by 1912 or so, the age of muckraking was history.

Decades later, U.S. mainstream journalism had a moment of surprising glory. It was in the 70s when certain crises made it necessary for the corporate press to cover stories that they would surely rather have ignored: the true state of our war effort in Vietnam, Richard Nixon’s subversive activities as president, the congressional inquiries into the history of abuses by the CIA. Such news was so big and so important that it could not be suppressed — although it often barely got reported, as it faced considerable opposition from within the journalism world itself. That anomalous moment gave us great reporters like Lowell Bergman, Seymour Hersh, Frances Cerra, Sidney Schanberg, Robert Parry, John L. Hess and others. Most of those paragons have trouble getting any visibility today, because the kind of journalism they did 30 years ago is generally impossible today. And our democracy is much the worse for it.

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Cynthia Moothart is managing editor for content at In These Times.
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