Monday, July 18, 2005

All The News That's Fit To Print

I remember when I first encountered the acronym MSM - for those not familiar, "Main Stream Media". I was perusing blogs, having stared from the right of the political spectrum for some odd reason. I've since stopped deliberately going to right wing blogs, in particular the military blogs, as I often found myself taking exception with some point or another, commenting on it, and finding myself getting absolutely nowhere in the bargain. This certainly shouldn't have been a surprise to me, but I suppose some lessons in life have to be re-learned a few times before they sink in.

The big complaint from the righties had to do with how the MSM has nothing better to do than bad mouth the war, the current administration, and the man leading it all. I suppose at the time the silliness of this didn't quite sink in, I just shrugged it off in an unthinking sort of way, but I have recently found myself drawn back to this issue after finishing Michael Massing's Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq:

Massing wrote a few pieces for the NY Review of Books which have been compiled into this book, with an excellent preface by Orville Schell tacked on. Massing makes the point that the MSM, by and large, supported the Bush administration and all parties concerned as they brought this country into the war in Iraq. The exemplar of liberal east coast MSM, the one most excoriated by the right wing, the NY Times, was pretty much running at the head of the pack when it came to buying the administration's line on Iraq, etc., and ignoring naysayers who weren't comfortable with the spin they were expected to kowtow to coming out of Bush and his minions. On the whole the MSM wasn't asking the hard questions, and fundamentally wasn't being nearly as skeptical as one would expect based on its ostensible function in our society.

Massing offers the following explanation to explain why the American press came off so lamely:

"And why, he might have added, didn't the Post and the other papers devote more time to pursuing the claims about the administration's manipulation of intelligence? Part of the explanation, no doubt, rests with the Bush administration's skill at controlling the flow of news. "Their management of information is far greater than that of any administration I've seen," Knight Ridder's John Walcott observed [Blogger's note: Massingly cites Knight Ridder for actually getting the coverage reasonably on the mark, but there are no Knight Ridder papers in New York or Washington, DC, thereby limiting whatever exposure this different take on things would or should have gotten.] "They've made it extremely difficult to do this kind of [investigative] work." That management could take both positive forms --- rewarding sympathetic reporters with leads, background interviews, and seats on official flights --- and negative ones --- freezing out reporters who didn't play along. In a city where access is all, few wanted to risk losing it.

"Such sanctions were reinforced by the national political climate. With a popular president promoting war, Democrats in Congress were reluctant to criticize him. This deprived reporters of opposition voices to quote, and of hearings to cover. Many readers, meanwhile, were intolerant of articles critical of the President
[Blogger's note: I think I visited some of their blogs.] Whenever The Washington Post ran such pieces, reporter Dana Priest recalls, "We got tons of hate mail and threats, calling our patriotism into question." Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and The Weekly Standard, among others, all stood ready to pounce on journalists who strayed, branding them liberals or traitors - labels that could permanently damage a career. Gradually journalists began to muzzle themselves."

So the Fourth Estate was running scared at losing its access to information, in spite of the fact that the information it was relying on was tainted by faith-based reality, and there was a reluctance to be labeled a traitor by virtue of doing one's job. Of course you have to ask how close to the truth Massing has it, but then what we can pretty clearly see is that news coverage going into the war was pretty squarely behind the administration and the sort of hard questions that should have been asked weren't. Why that was I don't know, but it's pretty clear what did or didn't happen.

Now there's Judith Miller. She's the reporter that went to jail for not revealing her source regarding the CIA agent exposed by someone, apparently, within the Bush administration. Of course Miller, a veteran reporter for the NY Times, never wrote a story about Valerie Plame, the CIA agent in question, unlike Robert Novak who did and who talked to the source in person but for some reason isn't sitting in a prison cell. It does seem that Miller's something of a victim of an overly zealous Department of Justice prosecutor with too much time and money on his hands. That said, there's also the issue of to what degree any reporter in this situation is entitled to protection. I am one of those who's not sure that Miller was entitled to blow off a subpoena to testify before a grand jury when what she's protecting is someone within the administration using the press to forward a personal agenda. Now were the issue one of protecting a bonafide whistle blower I'd be a bit more conflicted by this, and would indeed be behind Miller. This is just to set the stage, my following point with regard to Miller and the Times is not to do with the freedom of the press.

While Miller may well be the victim of an overreaching prosecutor, there's one thing you can be sure and that's that this is NOT the administration's way of going after Miller for negative reporting, not at all. Massing makes the case that if anyone was a cheerleader for the Bush effort, if anyone was uncritically sucking up the information tripe spewing out of the government and questionable Iraqi defectors, and presenting to the readers of the Times poorly evaluated source information, it was Miller. So you can be sure that Judith Miller is not sitting in a prison cell because she torqued off someone, or a group of someones, within the administration as she was far more their friend than anything else when it came to selling this lovely war we now find ourselves mucking our way through. But there's irony here, no doubt, and maybe some twinge of poetic justice to boot - though, alas, there are many more people involved in the Iraq war fiasco who are FAR more deserving of poetic justice.

Massing's point is that the American MSM, in spite of what the right would have us believe, allowed itself to be cowed into being uncritical about the administration and what brought us to the war, and to this day sustains a myopia on how the war's being executed and the effects it's having on the people in the region. There are some, the Economist is one, that make the argument that many in the MSM, not the least being the NY Times, that are presently circling the White House with the scent of blood in their nostrils regarding Carl Rove or whomever it was that specifically blew the identity of Valerie Plame, are so zealous in their pursuit of this matter due to a desire to get even for their treatment by the administration leading up into the Iraq war; likely nothing is that simple, but then basic truths sometimes are wrapped in odd paper.

In this country the idea of the fourth estate was to provide an independent source for the illumination of the truth, as a tool to help ensure that politicians and government officials wouldn't lie, steal, or cheat and if they managed to do these things that eventually they'd be exposed doing so. But these days it seems that the MSM is only good in this role when the
situation it reports on is egregious, i.e. it's so obvious a thing that a first year journalism student would have a hard time getting the story wrong. This administration and how it works has brought us to this point, though the MSM enabled the process by virtue of it not having adequately done its job, and we all should be concerned about this. We may not always like the press, in fact many times we may deservedly despise it, but when it's so easily manipulated
ultimately we the people are the ones that are set up to be manipulated, and led into things that a more comprehensive and honest appraisal may well have caused us not to indulge or allow.


Blogger : Joseph j7uy5 said...

Personally, I think the most important consequence of the Karl Rove issue is that it seems to have gotten the MSM in gear to ask -- and persist with -- really tough lines of questioning.

We can only hope that this is a new trend: something that won't evaporate once the story is over.

9:39 AM  
Blogger James said...

I can't at all disagree with your assessment of what "good" has come out of the Rove incident. I'm not very sanguine, though, regarding whether this will cause the MSM to sustain a backbone with regard to its investigative function. I want to believe it will, but ... I guess the lack of seriousness with which the MSM in this country by and large takes itself just doesn't imbue a great deal of hope. I certainly would like to be wrong on this one, without question.

9:55 PM  

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