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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Did journalism let the public down?

UPDATE: Check out this column in Nieman Watchdog. Former DeMoines Register editorial page editor Gilbert Cranberg asks a series of questions about press failures in pre-war coverage. As I read through the list of questions it became clear that the ones who really failed the public were the editors who determined story placement, didn't push reporters for alternate sources, didn't properly question claims and allowed themselves to succumb to either some bizarre sense of patriotism or, worse, pressure from big-media owners. Cranberg says the public deserves "an independent and thorough inquiry of pre-war press coverage." And NOT by the press.

I’m no conspiracy theorist, but revelations about big journalism and the Bush Administration keep getting curiouser and curioser. We are seeing this exposed in all its seemliness thanks to Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

Consider the chain of events: President Bush made the case for a preemptive attack (remember shuddering at those two words?) against Iraq using 16 words from his 2003 State of the Union speech:

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

With that, we were off to war. He convinced former Secretary of State Colin Powell to make the case before the United Nations and sent then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice to Judith Miller talking about mushroom clouds. We were going to “shock and awe.” Remember all that?

One individual dared to expose himself to ridicule, humiliation, political suicide and professional suicide to tell the Bush Administration it was wrong, that it’s reasoning was based on faulty intelligence. When he couldn’t get an audience with them, he took it to the New York Times and the public. He paid the price, but so did his wife, who was outed as a CIA agent.

Reporters knew who she was because administration officials told them. They had to understand on some level that this was retaliation against someone who dared to speak out against the war.

Reporters cried “stop the leak” loud enough to get investigators interested. But when the investigators turned to them and said, "Tell us what you know, the only evidence of the crime is in conversations with reporters," they shouted back reporters’ privilege. "Wait a minute! We don’t want to get to the bottom of this if we have to tell you what we know."

Big journalism was talking out of both sides of its collective mouth. Did reporters and editors stop for a minute to ask a key question: Is the public better off knowing or not knowing? Is it better that the public know a key White House official leaked the information, or that the Office of the Vice President may have been masterminding the effort?

When the investigation put them in a tough spot, they repeatedly downplayed its significance, making it sound as if it were a meaningless episode, one of many that occurs hourly in national politics and government. They went on “Larry King” and “Hardball” and “Meet the Press” and talked about its relative insignificance and how any charges Fitzgerald made would be minor, unable to dent this administration.

Bob Woodward actually squirmed on Larry King the night before the indictment while pontificating on the leaker. We later learned he had known the leaker's identity all along because he was told. Talk about duplicitous. Tell Larry you can’t make it if you have to, but don’t sit there and lie on CNN!

Was Woodward protecting his source for his upcoming book, “State of Denial”? Or was he protecting himself? He did more to damage his journalistic credibility with that appearance and his attempt to snow his editors than anything else he’s done in his career.

Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail protecting Libby, but could it be, as Don Zachary, a media lawyer with Fox Spillane says, more an attempt to “atone for the sins” of faulty reporting on the weapons of mass destruction issue? After all, Libby claims he waived his confidentiality long before her 85 days were up.

In big journalism’s efforts to challenge subpoenas and avoid damage to reporter/source relationships (to protect its own interests), an investigation that could have resulted in an indictment in October 2004 — let’s say that again, in October 2004 — was now delayed another year to October 2005.

This trial has exposed more about the cozy nature of reporters and governmental officials. Maybe the public isn’t paying attention and maybe they don’t care about the nature of the relationship between government and journalism. But they should care, because journalism let them down. The ability to weigh the pros and cons of a preemptive attack, the consequences of launching the war, an exit strategy, the stress it would place on the military as it wages a global War on Terror. These things were not sufficiently debated at the time. We were like bobble heads as the administration made the case. "Shock and awe! Yeah, shock and awe!"

I’m not saying this was a deliberate effort to pander to the government, but I am saying that if reporters and their editors had stopped long enough to ask themselves the hard questions about their own motivations, the administrations assumptions; if they had pushed their sourcing beyond the usual suspects, had spent more time following events where they were happening and less inside the Beltway; and had honestly challenged and investigated source claims, then events may have turned out differently.

If the reporters had agreed to limit the scope of their grand jury testimony earlier and we had an indictment in October 2004, before the Presidential election, where would be today?

I think that’s a fair question and I think reporters who cover government need to think about whom they are protecting? Are they protecting a government source or are they serving the public’s right to know?

Because from what I’ve seen through this trial, the administration believed it could master and manipulate journalists. Whether that is in fact the case is not the issue, it’s the perception that they are puppets of the administration and White House stenographers that is most damaging.

There are always exceptions to the rule. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest has done some time-consuming, meticulous and downright courageous reporting on national security. The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh is another example of someone consistently and courageously challenging the administration's claims. Now that President Bush's popularity has declined, journalism has again grown a set of balls, pushing this Administration for proof and details on the troop escalation and shift (if there is one) in strategy.

But is it too late? We are sitting here with a President who doesn’t really know how to get us out of the “preemptive” war he started. With only two years left in his term, it’s safe to believe that he has passed that burden on to the next guy—or gal.

Watergate was exposed by two young journalists who capitalized on the collective malaise of a Washington Press Corps that had largely fallen down on the job because of stonewalling from a paranoid administration. Hmmm, sounds familiar, eh? Let’s hope journalism learns from this and doesn't have a relapse. Because if it doesn't serve the public and ask the hard questions and hold government's feet to the fire, there are plenty of citizen journalists willing to do the work for them.


Jill said...

Could not agree more, Wendy. Especially because of those of us who LISTEN can remember the few places where we DID hear dissent. I distinctly remember listening to a Diane Rehm show before we went into Iraq during which experts were saying, it's a mistake this isn't a military problem, this is a cultural, political problem, factional, religious and so on. The dissenters were out there and the media refused to give it play. Why that's so should be the question for serious investigation.

Wendy Hoke said...

Read the piece by Cranberg because he asks a lot of the questions that I think need to be asked. Many stories critical of the administration's plans got buried in the paper against the advisement of reporters covering the beat. Someone lost nerve during all this post-9/11 stuff.