Story location:

May 31, 2007

"When the Press Fails..." From a New Book by Lance Bennett, Regina Lawrence, and Steven Livingston

"In the end, despite the momentary recognition that it somehow blew the [pre-war] story, the mainstream press still seems to have missed the larger possibility that it blew the story precisely because of following its own unwritten but binding reporting principles."

Special to PressThink

When the Press Fails…

by W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston

Among the greatest challenges facing the American democracy is the struggle to recover the soul of the American press. Legions of critics and off-duty journalists are searching for answers to why it is so difficult to be independent and get stories straight. Why is it so hard to resist the ever-present spin of those in power?

We explore this incapacity of the press to change—even when aware that it is off course—in our new book, When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina (University of Chicago Press).

The tragic history of US misadventure in Iraq is matched by the tragedy of the press bowing to the will of an administration taken by its own faith in being able to create reality through the sheer use of power. Ron Suskind famously reported that an official told him:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will— we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. (131)

This stance toward the press violates both reason and civility, as we note in the book:

For a nominally conservative administration, the Bush White House embraced a keenly post-modern epistemology. Like so many social constructionists or linguistic relativists, the administration seemed to believe that human engagement with material reality is mediated by social constructs. It is almost as if Karl Rove and George Bush were reading Jean Baudrillard. What is isn’t nearly as important as what is thought to be. Reality is first constructed to fit policy preferences and then reinforced through continuous news management, including pressure and intimidation.(139)

Why did so many news organizations buy it?

It may be that the administration simply played by rules that journalists could not fathom. Or perhaps being disciplined and punished time and again by administration-led truth squads for raising questions about the national course after 9/11 prompted leading news organizations to simply fall in line and duly reported the outlandish stories of nuclear threats and 9/11 connections manufactured to sell the war. Yet isn’t a free and independent press expected to withstand pressures, even in time of crisis?

What may be most disturbing is the recurrence of a breathless insider tone in much of the Iraq story. It was hard to miss the giddiness of reporting and punditry celebrating the Hollywood staging of the Mission Accomplished Moment aboard the carrier Abraham Lincoln.

From the beginning, nearly every major news organization helped publicize what they also must have understood to be a campaign to sell the war.

The question of course, it why did so many news organizations buy it? That was the topic of Bill Moyers’ powerful, yet oddly unsatisfying PBS program Buying the War. By detailing how reporters for Knight-Ridder were able to muster questions that apparently never occurred to most of the rest of the press, Moyers demolished reporters’ claims that they had no alternative but to buy what the White House was selling them. Moyers’ recap certainly helps us understand why the public, bombarded with endless repetition of mushroom clouds and other fear-laden images bought the link between Saddam and al Qaeda. Yet, the mystery remains why so many in the mainstream press were bamboozled.

Moyers participated in an online chat hosted by freepress after Buying the War was aired. He offered a tried-and-true explanation: the media failed to be objective. He also cited the true believers of a loud right wing media, and the insider aspirations of elite news organizations. These are surely reasonable opinions. However, we think that it is precisely what passes for objectivity today that rests at the heart of the problem.

The authorities are anything but objective

The long, untenable and checkered history of this core journalism norm has left American journalism at the doorstep of government for its very legitimacy. Since objectivity—even when dressed up as balance—is difficult to produce, and tougher to defend, the default option is to seek the views of authorities. In politics, however, authorities are generally anything but objective. Despite this nagging detail, journalists quickly learn that they need to be on the inside to advance their careers. In the end, they may aspire to be recognized, or otherwise share the glow of power of the sources they cover.

Only after the press party was over, did journalists wake up to the cries from their readers, and note for the record that the war was badly off script and that they had been spun. Despite rare admissions from editors at the Washington Post and the New York Times that their papers had, in essence missed much of the story on the run-up to war, they also predictably missed much the next big episode of the saga: Abu Ghraib. This was, perhaps, the most significant episode of the whole war in terms of damage to American ideals and credibility.

Despite commendable levels of attention devoted by prominent organizations to the spectacle of Abu Ghraib, most of the press fell quickly in line with the administration line that the episode was a regrettable case of low-level abuse. Yet just outside the mainstream, another side of the story revealed an historic national departure from laws and conventions against inhumane treatment and torture. That side of the story was reported in plain sight of the mainstream press by Mark Danner and Seymour Hersh.

Missing the will or the capacity to change

As a result of the gradual conflation of objectivity with authority, the press is so firmly established inside the process of government that it cannot extricate itself even when it recognizes it has a problem. The continuing public soul-searching and tacit apologizing do not imply the will or the capacity to change.

In the end, despite the momentary recognition that it somehow blew the story, the mainstream press still seems to have missed the larger possibility that it blew the story precisely because of following its own unwritten but binding reporting principles. When challenged on these matters, journalists generally invoke those principles, and point, often in frustration, back to government itself. (30)

When the press turns to government for cueing its big stories, the response to criticism is often that the government failed to police itself. This seems out of step with the ideal of a watchdog press dedicated to protecting the public interest at precisely those moments when government fails. Yet, as we note in the book, there is an implicit expectation that government, itself (often in the form of an opposition party, or whistle-blowers) will help the press do its job:

In one of many public forums about the performance of the media after 9/11, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest was asked by one of the authors why the press did not give more play to the doubts expressed by many experts and former government officials about the Bush administration case for the war. Her revealing answer was that a few pieces did appear, but they produced no public reaction from Democrats in Congress, and, thus, the counter story had little to keep it going.

At the same forum, New York Times Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman was asked about Abu Ghraib: Given the chain of evidence and credible sources such as Red Cross reports that all pointed to administration policies skirting laws against torture and “taking the gloves off” in dealing with detainees, why was the story allowed to be driven by administration spin and congressional hearings that ultimately framed it as a case of regrettable but isolated abuse? His reply was simply that without government investigations pointing to a policy of torture, the press simply lacked the “wheel” it needs to sustain or advance another side to the story. In both cases, government failed to feed another side to the story, and so, the press, alone, could not sustain it. (30)

This ingrained dependence of journalists on officials leads to a social coziness. Even when dressed up as access, coziness ends up making the press part of the political process instead of its independent chronicler. Witness the sad spectacle of the White House Correspondents Association reeling from Stephen Colbert’s stinging satire one year to the invitation extended to the inoffensive Rich Little the next.

The obsession with insider politics

The combination of dependence on high officials and the insider coziness this produces makes it impossible for most of the press to resist being spun. Consider a case in point that appeared on April 25 of this year as a platoon of New York Times reporters jumped all over the story of how Vice President Dick Cheney attacked congressional Democrats in general and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in particular. The Times surely knew that Cheney was running at full spin, but the press loves a food-fight, no matter how contrived and meaningless. Times reporters even noted in the initial website version of the story that Cheney looked for reporters and cameras on a visit to the Hill, tipping off awareness by the reporters of their role in the charade. The clues were subtle but unmistakable. The Times noted in passing that the GOP spin strategy included singling out Harry Reid, latching onto his comment from the week before that “this war is lost.”

“Republicans have turned their fire on Mr. Reid,” the Times reported. A subtle clue concerning the legendarily taciturn Cheney’s eagerness to unburden his innermost thoughts about Capitol Hill Democrats offers an insider wink to those in the know. Of course, the Democrats were—this time—equally engaged in spinning the press: “Mr. Reid fired back directly at Mr. Cheney on Tuesday, appearing at the same microphones just moments after the vice president.”

Despite the clarity of the insider’s game that was afoot, the Times did its part and put the story all over its website (page one) within minutes of Cheney’s hunt for a camera, and on the front page in the next day’s print edition.

Why do self-aware and sophisticated news organizations routinely fall prey to such blatant manipulation? Part of the answer is the news media’s obsession with insider politics. The media provide the stage for the high drama of personal politics. Covering manufactured drama like the Cheney-Reid sniping allows the press to dodge riskier endeavors, like a substantive and sustained exploration of the consequence of failure in Iraq, and instead stick with inside baseball reporting of manufactured squabbles.

Not unlike an abusive relationship

In this way, the press doesn’t have to get into the messy and complicated business of critiquing policy or appearing to conclude independently that a policy has failed. This is the same pattern we found in press complicity in the attacks on former counterterrorism czar Dick Clarke, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff Larry Wilkerson, and of course Ambassador Joe Wilson. In When the Press Fails, we call this the “tactical management of the news.” But it is rooted in the perverse news norm of running from any hint of independent assessment of many big stories and into the arms of he said-she said reporting. The press facilitates this “reality management” by habitually turning to a narrow range of sources it regards as legitimate and credible.

The strange result of all this is not unlike an abusive relationship between mistrusting and wounded partners. To return to our initial concern: just what makes it so difficult for reporters and their editors to find more independent perspectives from which to address important issues? Spin can only work with willing victims. This problem of a dependent press will not go away until journalists can look squarely at why, despite being aware of their common vulnerability to catastrophic failure, they seem unable to change how they operate.

Perhaps the path to reform is too obvious. Let every organization start each day by deciding whether they are reporting events from the standpoint of the people or from the viewpoint of those in power. Let them take the megaphones that they possess away from officials mouthing the scripts written by media consultants and opposition researchers, and put them in the hands of independent experts, civic groups, and international organizations. Above all, replace the failed norm of objectivity with a simple commitment to look at where the trail of evidence leads in the story. Much of that evidence in the Bush war years was in plain sight. It is just that the judgment of so many news organizations was obscured by their proximity and deference to power.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

W. Lance Bennett is professor of communication and political science at the University of Washington. Regina G. Lawrence is associate professor in the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. Steven Livingston is a professor in the political communication program at George Washington University’s school of media and public affairs.

From Words in a Time of War: Taking the Measure of the First Rhetoric-Major President byy Mark Danner at TomDispatch (May 31, 2007).

Those in the “reality-based community” — those such as we — are figures a mite pathetic, for we have failed to realize the singular new principle of the new age: Power has made reality its bitch.

Given such sweeping claims for power, it is hard to expect much respect for truth; or perhaps it should be “truth” — in quotation marks — for, when you can alter reality at will, why pay much attention to the idea of fidelity in describing it? What faith, after all, is owed to the bitch that is wholly in your power, a creature of your own creation?

Of course I should not say “those such as we” here, for you, dear graduates of the Rhetoric Department of 2007, you are somewhere else altogether. This is, after all, old hat to you; the line of thinking you imbibe with your daily study, for it is present in striking fashion in Foucault and many other intellectual titans of these last decades — though even they might have been nonplussed to find it so crisply expressed by a finely tailored man sitting in the White House. Though we in the “reality-based community” may just now be discovering it, you have known for years the presiding truth of our age, which is that the object has become subject and we have a fanatical follower of Foucault in the Oval Office. Graduates, let me say it plainly and incontrovertibly: George W. Bush is the first Rhetoric-Major President.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 31, 2007 8:50 AM