It would hardly be an overstatement to say that the late spring and early summer of 2003 have been one of the lowest points in U.S. media history. And I’m not even including the highly dispiriting spectacle of eight-year-olds on Fox’s talent show American Juniors saying that what they want most out of life is “to be famous” or “to have a really expensive car.”
The Jayson Blair scandal has received the most coverage in recent weeks — not least by the New York Times itself. But very few news outlets (not surprisingly) have stood back to look at the broader trends at work. Certainly the most embarrassing (for the news media) and worrying (for the rest of us) has been their nearly complete abdication to the news-management and disinformation campaigns of Team Bush. (And let’s not ignore the increasingly central role the Pentagon seems to be playing in news production.) Team Bush’s short-term goal may be to use the press to report the administration’s version of events as if it were truth. But its long-term goal is to discredit, completely, the entire field of journalism.
Saving Private Jessica: oops, not the heroic Hollywood action film we thought it was. End of war in Iraq: oops, not the triumph Bush hoped to call a wrap when he zoomed in à la Tom Cruise onto the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. Weapons of mass destruction: oops, not the immediate dire threat Bush insisted they were in a March 6 audience with a supine, cowed press corps. Weapons of mass destruction probably destroyed by Saddam: oops, information may have been deliberately leaked to the Times’ Judith Miller by the Pentagon.
In mid-May, the BBC program Correspondent aired an investigative report that described the “saving Private Lynch” mini-drama as “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.” Disputes continue over whether the Pentagon deliberately staged the entire rescue, providing blanks for the soldiers to fire and ensuring that night cameras were there to capture the whole thing. But it turns out that Lynch was not stabbed, did not have to single-handedly fight off Iraqi troops, and that the doctors in the hospital where she was supposedly imprisoned not only took care of her but also reportedly tried to hand her over to U.S. forces and were rebuffed. (Whether she really has “amnesia” — how Hollywood can you get? — is also now unclear.)
But the U.S. press bought the original story, hook, line and sinker. Variety reported that NBC immediately planned a made-for-TV movie because “This story is Mission Impossible, but it’s real.” (One wonders, will NBC actually go through with this, given recent revelations? Keep your eyes peeled.) Newsweek featured a huge cover story titled, of course, “Saving Private Lynch.” (Newsweek later featured a huge cover story on the Jayson Blair scandal, but nothing on its own very public duping by the military in the Lynch affair.)
On May 29, when reporters asked Jessica Lynch’s parents about the recent revelations, they replied, “We’re really not supposed to talk about that subject.” Hmmm. This seems like a pretty big story. And in Canada and Britain, it was. But the following week, just days after the Lynch family press conference (and after the FCC handed over yet more media outlets to huge conglomerates), the second biggest story on the networks, after the “road map” pseudo-event, was Martha Stewart’s indictment. Newsweek covered that week with the story “Men’s Bodies.” Why aren’t the networks and other news organizations outraged about how they’ve been misled about virtually everything in Iraq? Is it really just too embarrassing? Can you imagine the young Dan Rather taking this from Richard Nixon?
There have been exceptions to the recent abject press prostrations, most notably the hard-nosed, ever-skeptical Martha Raddatz on ABC, whose reporting and demeanor suggest that she thinks the whole administration line on WMDs (as hip people call them) is as objectionable as a dead carp. In one report she reran a September soundbite from Donald Rumsfeld in which he insisted: “We know they have weapons of mass destruction. … There is not any debate about it.” Then Raddatz reported that Rumsfeld had in fact received a Defense Intelligence Agency memo stating, “There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons or whether Iraq has or will establish its production facilities.” And according to the Tyndall Report, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reminded viewers, “not a single one of the Baath Party regime’s 12 Most Wanted is in custody. There is no evidence that any of the top leaders have been killed.” And the Washington Post has just investigated its own credulous coverage of the Lynch affair. Can’t we have more of this?
In the aftermath of the various resignations at the New York Times, news coverage has emphasized the need for soul-searching at the “grey lady.” Not to let the Times off the hook (and to some of us the Judith Miller scandal, as laid out by Russ Baker in The Nation, seems much worse than Blair’s fictions), but the real disgrace is how the vast majority of the press corps has let Team Bush open up their nose and stick a giant gold loop through it to better lead them from one scripted event to the next. Now that the road map is already in flames, it’s not clear what Team Bush will trot out next to distract the media from the chaos in Iraq and the ongoing economic problems in the United States. Nuclear weapons in Iran? In Korea? But with 46 percent of those surveyed telling pollsters they trust the news media either not much or not at all, and with Bush news management making utter fools out of journalists and their news organizations, isn’t it time for the press to rip the ring out of their noses — or even loosen it just a tad?
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.