This installment of The American Enterprise is all about poor reporting. Unfortunately, there is enough of it out there that the issue was depressingly easy to put together.
I'm not talking about media lies like those generated by Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who was recently discovered to have simply fabricated dozens and dozens of stories, quotes, and facts--without the folks at his august employer ever figuring out that they had a pathological liar writing on their front pages. I'm talking about a much more endemic problem, a more permanent and serious trauma. I'm referring to the mistakes, manipulations, and misimpressions fomented by journalists not out of dishonesty, but out of ignorance, pack thinking, or lack of intellectual diversity in the newsroom.
Many members of the media establishment who read this critique (this is a subject they hate) will be tempted to roll their eyes and pronounce me a member of "the right wing conspiracy" for even giving credence to the idea that we have a problem with media bias in this country. That's how they've treated all who have drawn attention to this subject in the past. Top reporters and editors are an extremely clubby group, and they punish anyone who doesn't close ranks with the club whenever its competence comes into question.
When you are as powerful and unchecked as our major news sources are (72 percent of Americans now say "the news media have too much power and influence in Washington"), and as ideologically unified (a remarkable number come from the same schools, and the same parts of the country; 11 out of 12 national reporters currently vote the same way), then ignoring your critics, or marginalizing them if they somehow manage to get attention anyway, is often a clever defense strategy. But in this case, there is a problem with that course: The American people are on the side of the critics. On the day we sent this issue off to the printer, the editor and managing editor of the New York Times resigned--wounded by the tumbling credibility of that newspaper in the wake of recent reporting scandals. The time for denial of this problem is over.
The credibility of our major media, and public respect for their work, have nose-dived over the last generation. By 58-38 percent, Americans think today's news organizations are more inaccurate than accurate. Back in 1965, that ratio was almost exactly reversed. Only 31 percent of the public now say the news media "help society to solve problems;" fully 58 percent feel reporters "get in the way of society solving problems." Only 30 percent believe news organizations "care about the people they report on;" 55 percent say "they don't care." Just 23 percent of our citizenry say the news media are "willing to admit mistakes;" a troubling 67 percent say our news reporters "try to cover up mistakes."
Asked in late March of this year how much confidence they had "that the press is giving an accurate picture of how the [Iraq] war is going," only 30 percent of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center answered "a great deal of confidence." That is lower than the 40 percent who said they had "a great deal of confidence" that the U.S. military "is giving the public an accurate picture of how the war is going." If the supposedly neutral observers in the press corps are getting much lower marks for objectivity than the special interest whose performance they are examining, the press has a problem.
When survey researchers ask about specific news sources, they find that about one citizen out of four thinks he can believe all or most of what he sees on the major TV news networks today. This is down from as recently as 1996. Only about one out of five citizens gives his newspaper high marks for believability. Magazines like Newsweek and Time score at only 20 percent and 23 percent, respectively, for believability. Among broadcast media, National Public Radio comes in last. One of the ways the public is responding to all of this is by walking away: National TV news viewing fell by nearly half from 1991 to 2002. Newspaper readership tumbled from 54 percent to 41 percent of the public.
Asked whether news organizations are fair in the way they report on specific hot-button controversies, Americans respond by about two to one that the media tend to take sides. The number of citizens who believe the press is "politically biased" continues to rise, and currently stands at six out of ten (including the vast number of Republicans and also a clear majority of Democrats). And these citizens are not imagining things. National reporters admit that they vote for Democrats over Republicans by a ratio of about 12 to one. Sixty-one percent of Washington reporters place themselves on the left of the political spectrum, versus 9 percent who say they are personally on the right.
America's news media are out of balance. Our citizenry objects to this. (For some details, see the data assembled by Karlyn Bowman on pages 60-62.) If newspeople don't start taking today's complaints about poor reporting more seriously, public disaffection will only grow.
Many specific studies have documented today's media spin. An analysis of CBS News transcripts found that in one year of reporting on George W. Bush's proposed tax cut, the number of opponents cited on air outstripped the number of supporters by two to one. Another content analysis of news broadcasts from several TV networks during the period January to April of 2001 found that the environmental reporting on ABC, CBS, and NBC included not a single source who disagreed with claims that global warming is a dire global threat. Similarly, when the U.S. rejected the Kyoto Treaty, 69 percent of air time was given to critics of that decision, versus just 31 percent for supporters.
In the feature section of this magazine we pile up many examples of unfair, twisted, and adversarial reporting (as well as some exemplary good reporting), on subjects ranging from gun ownership, to the sources of local economic growth, to pollution questions. Our first feature article, by Karina Rollins, chronicles some of the many unnecessary errors of fact and interpretation that colored our news during the Iraq war.
One of my own favorite in-stances of war-reporting idiocy was NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten's statement on March 21--exactly one day after troops crossed the Kuwait border into Iraq--that "if the war is still going on a week from now, that will be a bad sign." Priceless. Here is a guy who I'm willing to bet has never won a fistfight, never mind a battle, telling Americans that if it takes more than a week to subdue a nation bigger than the entire northeastern United States, that constitutes failure.
By the end of March, many of Gjelten's fellow lemmings, er, I mean reporters, were following the same defeatist line. On April 1, Robert Wright of the online magazine Slate diagnosed with great authority "the Pentagon's failure to send enough troops to take Baghdad." "As the war drags on," he droned, "as more civilians die and more Iraqis see their resistance hailed across the Arab world as a watershed in the struggle against Western imperialism, the traditionally despised Saddam could gain appreciable support among his people." That same week, The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh (who has filed enough false reports and way-off predictions over the years to justify a new Guinness Book entry for unreliability) blubbered that "Rumsfeld simply failed to anticipate the consequences of protracted warfare. He put Army and Marine units in the field with few reserves and an insufficient number of tanks." Uh, fellas, U.S. forces entered Baghdad on April 5--before many subscribers had even finished reading your gloomy tales.
Around the same time, the BBC aired claims that the U.S. "could take, bluntly, a couple to 3,000 casualties." Actually, a lot less than 200 U.S. soldiers were killed during combat.
Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin had an interesting idea in mid April. She decided to compare the pessimistic reports published in the liberal press with real-life photos sent back from the front by cameramen. She quotes from the captions on photos from all parts of Iraq. They document Iraqis kissing, waving to, hugging, and giving flowers to American soldiers. The pictures showed that developments weren't nearly so dark as the reporters' words suggested.
The true course of the war--when compared to much of the media analysis that accompanied it--was the story of the dog that didn't bark. "Contrary to the predictions, there were no homeland terrorist attacks, no chemical gassings of the troops, no mass mobilization of Arab killers, no 100-percent-of-the-vote fierce support for Saddam Hussein, no quagmire of unending length, no public-opinion debacle for President Bush, no hopelessly fractured alliances," points out media critic Brent Bozell. "But," he continues, "being a journalist means never having to say you're sorry."
For some journalists, it also means never having to admit you're a nincompoop. Take a whiff of the megalomaniacal egotism in this war-time statement by TV correspondent Peter Arnett:
Jayson Blair's World, And Iraq|
The first plan has failed...clearly the American war planners misjudged the determination of Iraqi forces. And I personally do not understand how that happened, because I've been there many times and in my commentaries on television I would tell the Americans about the determination of the Iraqi forces.... But me, and others who felt the same way, were not listened to by the Bush administration.
That's five uses of "I," "me," or "my" in three sentences. Gosh, Peter, I don't know how the boys finally managed to win without you about one week later (after you were fired for an even more tasteless interview aired on Iraqi TV).
Of course, no respectable media outlet should have sent Peter Arnett to the Middle East in the first place--for Arnett has a long history of making false claims and reporting unsupported inflammatory statements. This is the same journalist who back in 1991 peddled Iraqi misinformation about a "milk factory" bombed by Americans, the man who aired a famously false report on CNN claiming the U.S. military had used nerve gas on defectors in Vietnam, who once said he would let G.I.s die rather than reveal enemy plans he discovered as a journalist. Sending Geraldo Rivera to Iraq was a bad idea on the part of the TV fluffernutters. Using the thoroughly discredited Peter Arnett was out-and-out malpractice.
Some of the most overwrought bits of reporting during the Iraq War--subsequently echoed and re-echoed around the globe by pouncing critics--centered on the looting of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. The initial reports that thousands of priceless artifacts had disappeared gushed out when low-level museum employees entered the building after American forces liberated Baghdad, saw empty cabinets and shelves, and shrieked to drama-seeking foreign reporters that all the best pieces were gone.
But the reporting that sparked all this storm and fury was wrong. Completely wrong.
Yes, the cabinets were empty. Because the museum's senior employees had stashed all the really valuable parts of the collection in vaults just as fighting broke out. "We knew a war was coming, so it was our duty to protect everything," explained a museum director.
Alas, only one reporter in Baghdad bothered to check beneath the surface of the juicy treasure-looting story for the real facts--Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal. (More on pp. 24-25.) And by the time Trofimov's revelation was printed on April 17, the reporting frenzy had proceeded so far that the international public had become irrevocably convinced that the national treasures of Iraq had all been hauled off or destroyed by vandals. Even after the facts were in, the media did very little to correct the record. I dare say most readers of this magazine will be learning for the first time that the museum-looting story was almost entirely bogus.
The media were guilty of more than just reporting unchecked information and then rumor-mongering that falsehood into an artificial scandal. Right from the beginning, there was an accusatory tone to much of this reporting. Why were American soldiers blamed because Iraqi yahoos decided to go wilding the day after they threw off Saddam's 30-year yoke?
There was no intelligent differentiation in the reporting between the several varieties of looting: righteously outraged citizens plundering Saddam's palaces and government offices (political behavior); scavenging by desperately poor people long denied life's very basics while the oligarchs among them luxuriated (survival instinct); thefts from museums, libraries, and banks that included some inside jobs carried out by Baath Party bosses with keys; simple criminal activity; and everyday post-Super-Bowl-style anarchy. Worse, in all these cases, media castigation tended to be directed not at the Iraqi perpetrators, but at American troops for "not doing enough" to stop them.
There was much criticism of U.S. officers, by anchormen and sniffing Western curators safely ensconced far from where the bullets were flying, for their "failure" to stop Iraqis from breaking into the national library. But this failure to intervene was no casual dereliction. It was a battlefield decision taken to avoid casualties and the destructive fire of weapons into a sensitive site. Once again, the Wall Street Journal was the only media outlet in Baghdad enterprising enough to discover the truth. As the Journal eventually reported, Lieutenant Colonel Eric Schwartz of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division's Task Force 1-64, "whose functions also include feeding the lions in the abandoned Baghdad Zoo next door, couldn't move into the museum compound and protect it from looters because his soldiers were taking fire from the building--and were determined not to respond."
It didn't occur to the people casually excoriating American G.I.s for not saving more manuscripts and artifacts that doing so would have required ending a good number of equally priceless Iraqi and American lives. And very likely have done even more physical damage to the building and its contents. Can you imagine the reaction of these very same critics if the U.S. had used force to secure the structure and killed Iraqis and damaged collections in the process?
One must ask where this kind of negativity toward soldiers operating in difficult circumstances comes from. The answer is: from the inchoate anti-military suspicion that is permanently in the air in most editorial suites. Most of the pressies I ran into in Iraq were just typical reporters--meaning they were disproportionately left-wing, cynical, wiseguy Ivy League types, with a high prima donna quotient.
Some media outlets made wise and careful choices as to whom they sent to Iraq. Fox, for instance, embedded Greg Kelly, a correspondent who is himself a Marine reservist, with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. He hit the ground running in terms of shop knowledge, and enjoyed instant credibility with both his military informants and viewers. But there are numerous studies today showing that members of the major media are now nearly as out of the mainstream politically and culturally as university professors. I ran into plenty of those folks in Iraq and Kuwait.
You have to realize that soldiers start out suspicious of reporters. And given the major media's checkered record of interaction with the military, who can blame them? Yet few of the reporters I observed did much to earn the trust of the fighting men they were writing about.
This was aggravated by the strong tendency of journalists to gang together. The pack mentality of the press can be observed in many settings--at major news events, in political campaign buses, any place where the press descends en masse. Rather than walking a mile in the shoes of the people they're reporting on, many journalists rely on the gossip and shop talk of their fellow scribes to find their storylines. During my Iraq sojourn I observed media folk passing far too much time hobnobbing with fellow reporters, mocking military mores in snide jokes, chafing at the little disciplines required by the military's life-and-death work, banding off as a group to watch DVDs on their computers in the evening, eating separately with each other in the mess hall during meals, and otherwise failing to take advantage of an unparalleled opportunity to enter deeply and perhaps sympathetically into the lives and minds of Americans in military service.
If you want to file accurate and illuminating stories, a lot more homework and humility toward your subject are called for. Especially on this subject--because few reporters know much about the fighting life. Worse, many show scant respect for the fighter's virtues. Many of the journalists embedded among U.S. forces with whom I crossed paths were fish out of water, and showed their discomfort clearly as they hid together in the press tents, fantasizing about expensive restaurants at home and plush hotels in Kuwait City, fondling keyboards and satellite phones with pale fingers, clinging to their world of offices and tattle and chatter where they could feel less ineffective, less testosterone deficient, more influential.
It was amusing on one level. But reporters are the interpreters for the rest of America of what's real and what's important in the world. And the vast politico-cultural gulf that separates most of them from martial ideals often produces portrayals of military work that are twisted in one fashion or another.
I observed this media-military gap myself when I filed reports from Iraq. There was, for instance, a story I sent to the Los Angeles Times describing certain of my interactions with the 82nd Airborne's infantry commander, whom I characterized as an impressive leader. An editor back in L.A. refused to run the article without inserting a sentence at the end warning that this positive assessment may have been influenced by the fact that I was embedded with U.S. troops myself, and therefore perhaps too sympathetic to their point of view. I was unreachable in the desert after sending the report in, and knew nothing of this outrageous attempt at back-seat editorializing. Thankfully, my magazine staff fought on my behalf and managed to get the offensive disclaimer watered down to a relatively innocent half-sentence attached to my conclusion: "Those who claim that 'embeds' have fallen under the mystique of the military may dismiss my view, but this man I see before me is very much a leader rather than a ruler."
For the record, my views of the U.S. military's performance in Iraq were formed by nothing but close daily scrutiny of their operations. I was on no leash. I went wherever I wanted without handlers. I talked to everybody, from major general to machine gunner to military dentist. Every reasonable request for information was satisfied.
The embedding program was an enormous gamble by the Pentagon. If there had been any serious slip-ups, there would have been scribes all over it, up-close and personal, with no chance to sweep anything away or airbrush the details. As someone who inveigles himself into other people's worlds for a living, I can tell you that I have never been given as much freedom to explore and talk to staff without restriction, so many chances to see sensitive information and procedures, so many open doors, and so many shoulders to peer over as the U.S. military allowed me during the Iraq War. I can assure you that the New York Times, CNN, ABC, and Newsweek are not about to let any similarly snoopy observers into their boardrooms or staff offices during some equivalent period of crisis operation. This openness reflects the U.S. military's confidence in the righteousness of their work, the competence of their leadership, and the professionalism of their rank-and-file. I am full of admiration for the people who took this risk, and--I freely admit--impressed that we have a military this candid.
And I am quite certain I'm more qualified to pass objective judgment on these soldiers than some newsroom spinner who has carefully avoided "mystique" by never in her life spending any time actually observing military folks in action. I find it sad that James Poniewozik of Time magazine would criticize the embedded journalists as "biased," scalding us for spotlighting the swiftness and sureness with which American forces crushed the ballyhooed Republican Guards. It is pitiful, and disturbing, that John MacArthur, the trust-fund baby who uses grandpa's money to publish Harper's magazine, would brand both the embedded media and the U.S. military as "propagandists" for the Bush re-election campaign. What the hell does he know about what really happened in Baghdad and points south?
A classic example of a media figure abusing his access to national microphones to rave in unobjective ways was the commencement address given at Rockford College in May by New York Times reporter Chris Hedges. He described the U.S. unseating of Saddam as a grab for "empire" that showed Americans to be "pariahs, tyrants to others weaker than ourselves." He charged that "the only two ministries we bothered protecting" in Baghdad were "the oil ministry and the interior ministry"--because America came to Iraq "for oil and occupation."
On and on Hedges thundered: "We do not understand...", "We bumbled in...", "It will be a cesspool...", "Damaging to our souls...", "We have blundered...." Claiming that America has lost sight of "our own capacity for atrocity--for evil," Hedges argued that, yes, this was now a war of liberation: "A war of liberation by Iraqis from American occupation." (His middle-American audience of Illinois students and family members turned their backs, catcalled, and walked out during the address.)
This is appallingly over-inflated rhetoric from a daily reporter of America's self-styled newspaper of record. Alas, it is the sort of thing one encounters very often in the offices and overseas hotel rooms of our media elites. Again, the roots are cultural. Hedges is a committed leftist who says he grew up admiring the communists in the Spanish Civil War and "wanted that epic battle to define my own life." He proudly describes being raised by a pacifist father who "took us as children to anti-war demonstrations," mocked soldiers, and insisted that war is always an "abomination." "If we visited museums, he would never allow us to see the displays of weapons." Both parents "were social activists," and his father "was very involved in the gay rights movement." All of which is fine in our nation where people are free to believe whatever they damn well please. But is this the right man to be objectively interpreting America's defense and foreign policies in the pages of the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, and other publications where he was entrusted with critical reporting? Is it reasonable that this man was given a Pulitzer Prize for war coverage?
Shortly after I returned stateside, Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel, two wise observers of American culture (and lifelong Democrats) who closely followed the media war coverage on the home front while I was in Iraq, wrote a review pronouncing "the prestige media" to be "big-time losers" in the second Gulf war. As Kotkin (who writes for us on a different subject on page 32) has warned elsewhere, today's media is a caste--a highly inbred, insular, self-referential group, largely Ivy League, urban, and politically homogeneous, that lacks connection with many traditional American institutions and values. The cultural gap separating the media from our military in turn reflects a more general divide yawning between our military and the nation's liberal elites as a whole.
Out in the real America, citizens feel pretty closely intertwined with the U.S. armed forces. The little church I attend in our rural New York village of 2,000 people had 19 relatives and neighbors on the prayer list all through March and April because they were serving with our military in the Iraq theater. But in the typical graduating class of an Ivy League university today, there are no more than three or four individuals who enter military service. On many college campuses, ROTC continues to be banned. The number of congressmen with military records is at an all-time low, and the number of congressmen with children in the armed forces can be counted on one hand. Very few top journalists personally know anyone in the military, much less anything accurate about military work.
Too many American professionals exhibit an ugly sense of superiority toward the military. In his new book Keeping Faith, author Frank Schaeffer describes how, after sending other children to New York University and Georgetown, his affluent Boston neighbors expressed disappointment at his son's decision to become a Marine. "He's so bright and talented and could do anything!" blurted one man. "What a waste!"
In his Illinois speech, New York Times reporter Hedges presented outrageous misinformation betraying exactly the same bias. He described American soldiers as "poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and joined the Army because it was all we offered them." What a scandalous misrepresentation of the fighting men and women I encountered in Iraq! And one built entirely on this reporter's unwitting sense of superiority to people serving in the military.
With a little more objectivity and professionalism, most of the reporting distortions we highlight in this issue could be drastically reduced. But first, more decision makers in the press have to recognize that there are serious problems in the way our media now operate--and that the American public is not amused.
The American Enterprise Online: