US press: from watchdog to lapdog
By Andrew Sullivan
THERE are many reasons for the seemingly unstoppable collapse of much of the mainstream US media, but one seems to have been overlooked.
Many American newspapers have simply become pale, quivering shadows of what they once were. Once, they aggressively scrutinised the powerful and exposed secrets, but they have - with some exceptions - become mouthpieces for the powerful, enablers of propaganda and prim schoolmarms when it comes to telling people what they want to know.
Why, for example, did we have to find out from the National Enquirer the entire truth about the character of John Edwards, the former presidential candidate, when he was exposed as having an affair? Why did we have to rely on blogs to ask the question that every Google search revealed was the most common with respect to Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court nominee: is she a lesbian? Why did Al Gore's encounter with a masseuse, which cannot have been irrelevant to the former vice-president's surprising divorce, appear first in a tabloid?
Why did it take a freelance reporter from Rolling Stone to expose the rifts and tensions among President Barack Obama's Afghanistan team? Every leading newspaper has a Pentagon correspondent; this was a story that changed history; the reporting skills it required are not spectacular. Michael Hastings, a freelance, simply took advantage of a stopover in Paris, close access and, yes, a notebook . . . and wrote it up. Where was the rest of the press?
Other reporters were there, it seems, and they knew the story, it seems. They just decided not to publish it because offending General Stanley McChrystal, the Afghan war commander since sacked by Obama, would have hurt their future access.
More to the point, they admitted it. Here's a little insight into how the Washington press corps sees its function. Politico, the Washington reporter's and political obsessive's source of news, published the following: "As a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal's remarks."
Lara Logan, CBS's Pentagon correspondent, exploded in fury: "Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has." She went on: "The most telling thing about what Michael Hastings said is that he talked about his manner as pretending to build an illusion of trust and, you know, he's laid out there what his game is.
"That is exactly the kind of damaging type of attitude that makes it difficult for reporters who are genuine about what they do, who don't - I don't go around in my personal life pretending to be one thing and then being something else. I mean, I find it egregious that anyone would do that in their professional life."
It would be hard to beat Rolling Stone's columnist Matt Taibbi in response: "If I'm hearing Logan correctly, what Hastings is supposed to have done in that situation is interrupt these drunken assholes and say, 'Excuse me, fellas, I know we're all having fun and all, but you're saying things that may not be in your best interest! As a reporter, it is my duty to inform you that you may end up looking like insubordinate douchebags in front of two million Rolling Stone readers if you don't shut your mouths this instant!' "
If you wonder why this hopeless war has gone on for 10 years, the American press's decision to act as an extension of the Pentagon's $5 billion annual PR budget must be part of it.
And if you wonder how torture became an accepted part of US government, despite being a war crime, the media are also partly to blame. The mainstream outlets simply went along with the insistence of former vice-president Dick Cheney that waterboarding someone 183 times was not torture but a legal "enhanced interrogation technique". No Orwellian bells seem to have rung in the offices of The New York Times. It simply accepted the new term - even though in almost every article before the Cheney era, the Times had used the word "torture" to describe waterboarding.
A Harvard study recently examined the full record. This was its finding: "(From the 1930s to 2002) The New York Times characterised waterboarding as torture in 81.5 per cent (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and the Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3 per cent of articles (26 of 27).
By contrast, in 2002-08 the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just two of 143 articles (1.4 per cent). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8 per cent of articles (three of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterised the practice as torture in just one of 63 articles (1.6 per cent). USA Today never called waterboarding torture."
What could possibly account for this remarkable reversal? The New York Times explained: "As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture. When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture."
So if anyone wants to get the NYT to use a different word to obfuscate the truth, all they need to do is make enough noise so there is a political dispute about a question. If that happens, the NYT will retreat. So we now know that its core ethos is ceding the meaning of words to others, rather than actually deciding for itself how to call torture torture. Orwell wrote about this in his essay, Politics and the English Language. If newspapers will not defend the English language from the propaganda of governments, who will?
Over time this kind of editorial cowardice gets through to the average reader. She senses she is not reading a truly independent press, eager to offend, sceptical of the powerful and determined not to mince words. And so she looks elsewhere. The editors and producers of American journalism have long wondered why their industry has been in decline. Perhaps they should try looking in the mirror.
America's good, subservient press
On Independence Day, noting that the truly independent American journalists don't work for big organizations
GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa -- Journalists tend to take themselves too seriously, and their craft not seriously enough. So it is apt that some famous and obscure quotations and aphorisms about the value and function of a free press adorn the tiled walls of the restrooms at Rhodes University's African Media Matrix -- the building that houses what is widely considered the continent's top journalism school.
One of those quotes is from Nelson Mandela, spoken in 2002, and it feels dismayingly correct today:
In the wake of a major journalistic scandal in the United States, broken open in the last week, I have to say that America's establishment press has never been technically better, but never more pathetically subservient. My hopes increasingly ride on an often bad free press that is getting better all the time.
Let me also say, upfront, that there are honorable exceptions in the top ranks of America's major media organizations. But in what may well be seen someday as a seminal event in U.S. media history, senior people at the two newspapers widely considered to offer the most comprenensive political coverage have admitted -- and, God help us, defended -- their technically good subservience to the American government.
Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald has discussed in detail the truly disheartening response to a Harvard study showing that the Washington Post and New York Times skewed their coverage of America's post-9/11 torture policy, using the Bush administration's newspeak language -- "harsh interrogation techniques" was a favorite -- instead of plain old "torture," the word they'd previously used to describe the same acts. More
Fmr. CNN journo: Attacks on Rolling Stone reporter make media look servile
Last week, CBS News Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan blasted a Rolling Stone reporter whose article cost Gen. Stanley McChrystal his job as commander in Afghanistan. More
Petraeus emails show general scheming with journalist to get out pro-Israel storyline
The emails show Petraeus encouraging Max Boot of Commentary to write a story-- and offering the neoconservative writer choice details about his views on the Holocaust:
Does it help if folks know that I hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night?! And that I will be the speaker at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps in mid-Apr at the Capitol Dome... More