Thursday, December 14, 2006

Some Thoughts on a Free and Responsible Press

One of the first journalists to talk specifically about the Nixonian qualities of George W. Bush was Jules Witcover, formerly of The Baltimore Sun. I started reading Witcover because he had a knack for noticing things other journalists kept missing. So it was something of a shock one day when his column simply disappeared. I checked around on the internet and found out that he apparently had been 'fired,' 'let go' or was unable to 'get his contract renewed.' As far I can tell, and it's not always easy to tell in this odd era, Witcover was apparently the victim of a cost-saving move largely because, as a senior journalist, he was earning more than the other journalists on the paper.

I bring up the story of Witcover simply to point out that there are multiple reasons the media has not being doing a good job of covering and analyzing the news in recent years. Glenn Greenwald of Unclaimed Territory has a post on the need for journalists and newspapers to be more than stenographers for government officials:
The Iranian President convened a convention this week to "debate" whether the Holocaust occurred, whether it is exaggerated, etc. In reporting on this event, The New York Times did not simply convey the views of both sides, but instead, declares definitively that one side of the "debate" -- the side of the Holocaust deniers -- ignores evidence, uses discredited sources, and relies upon false claims...

(snip)

By pointing out the reality that the Holocaust denialists are making false and unsupportable claims, the Times is not reporting this incident in a "biased" or subjective way. It is not being unfair to the holocaust deniers by siding against them. To the contrary, even though it is clearly siding with one side over the other in terms of whose statements are truthful, the article is reporting on this issue objectively, because it reports the objectively verifiable fact that the arguments advanced by holocaust denialists are simply false.

That is what objective and meaningful reporting requires -- not merely uncritically conveying what statement a person makes, but scrutinizing that statement for accuracy and clearly reporting if it is false. That is what the Times did here by labelling the denialists' claims "fantasy" and pointing out the fact that their claims are contradicted by abundant documentation. ...

If anyone thinks this is an abstract or even obscure argument, I saw a cartoon this morning which reminds us of the problem with Holocaust deniers: if one ignores history and the obvious moral lessons one can learn from it, one is free to repeat the mistake. Nor, by the way, is the problem currently only restricted to Iran's leaders or a few Muslims. In his book, Ethics During and After the Holocaust, the philosopher John K. Roth criticizes Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, for ignoring the distorted history and conditions that led to the Holocaust in the first place: "The problem is that Gibson's film has much more in common with pre-Holocaust Christian animosity toward Jews than it does with post-Holocaust reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism. (p. 49)." Christianity did not cause the Holocaust (Nazism had little to do with Christianity), but the point is that it was the distortion of facts and history through the centuries that clearly led to an environment that facilitated the Holocaust.

Journalism can never be simply a recording of what other people say, even if those people represent our government. Even a president can be wrong (yes, we need to say that). Without a press that challenges his assumptions and challenges his facts, a president can make major blunders.

Among others, we have seen two kinds of errors in journalism in the last six years. One type of error is to record the predictions of government officials or 'experts' who support them without noticing how often they get it wrong. If a government offical says a missile will intercept another missile and destroy it in a test, he can be forgiven if he is wrong the first time; it's a no-brainer that a journalist needs to inform the reader that the official has been wrong three times when three tests fail and the official is now making a prediction of a successful fourth test. In the last five years, the neoconservatives have frequently been wrong about terrorism, Iraq and a number of other issues and journalists have frequently failed to point it out; the same neoconservatives continue to be appear on TV as if their advice should still be taken seriously.

The second error has to do with accepting the word of government officials when it comes to the accuracy of information that is given to reporters; during the Bush years, the failure to test the accuracy of information, to investigate reports that contradict the government, and, in some cases, simply recording major, outright lies of the government went on until well after the 2004 election and continues in some quarters.

Recent history should have put more journalists on guard during the last six years. Some of the players in the Bush Administration were players in the Reagan Administration during the 1980s when isolated reports of death squads in El Salvador were reaching The New York Times; some of those tips were from doctors who worked for Doctors without Borders and ought to have been considered reliable (certainly worth more than a phone call or two). The story I hear is that one or two reporters from The New York Times decided to check out the stories by calling... our State Department. It took another year or two before the story of the death squads was confirmed.

When a president and his advisers lie to the American people and it takes years for mainstream journalists to 'uncover' the story despite abundant evidence early on, we need to think long and hard about where journalism stands these days and exactly what kind of creature American journalism has become. I strongly suspect that without the blogs and the internet message boards, a great deal might have fallen through the cracks that appeared in obscure places like the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau or the British paper, The Guardian— or even the back pages of The Washington Post or The New York Times, particularly on Saturday mornings, the black hole of mainstream journalism.

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