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Comments by YACCS
Thursday, May 27, 2004

The failure of American journalism


The face of failure


Salon discusses the Times mea culpa today:

The failures of Miller and the Times' reporting on Iraq are far greater sins than those of the paper's disgraced Jayson Blair. While the newspaper's management cast Blair into outer darkness after his deceptions, Miller and other reporters who contributed to sending America into a war have been shielded from full scrutiny. The Times plays an unequaled role in the national discourse, and when it publishes a front-page piece about aluminum tubes and mushroom clouds, that story very quickly runs away from home to live on its own. The day after Miller's tubes narrative showed up, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News went on national TV to proclaim, "They were the kind of tubes that could only be used in a centrifuge to make nuclear fuel." Norah O'Donnell had already told the network's viewers the day before of the "alarming disclosure," and the New York Times wire service distributed Miller's report to dozens of papers across the landscape. Invariably, they gave it prominence. Sadly, the sons and daughters of America were sent marching off to war wearing the boots of a well-told and widely disseminated lie.

Of course, Judy Miller and the Times are not the only journalists to be taken by Ahmed Chalabi. Jim Hoagland, a columnist at the Washington Post, has also written of his long association with the exile. But no one was so fooled as Miller and her paper.

Russ Baker, who has written critically of Miller for the Nation, places profound blame at the feet of the reporter and her paper. "I am convinced there would not have been a war without Judy Miller," he said.

The introspection and analysis of America's rush to war with Iraq have turned into a race among the ruins. Few people doubt any longer that the agencies of the U.S. government did not properly perform. No institution, however, either public or private, has violated the trust of its vast constituency as profoundly as the New York Times.


There is, of course, a deeper question here than Judy Miller's bad reporting. Miller, long known for doing her best reporting on her back, is a supreme newsroom politician. The fact that she's still employed by the Times, and the fact they didn't use her name, indicates that she still has some pull in the newsroom. Anyone else would have been canned.

A lot of newly found critics on the left seem to think that the media is centrally controlled or the consolidation of the media plays some massive role in this. However, conglomorates care about one thing: the bottom line. If it makes money, you can do what you want, say what you want, act how you want. Viacom doesn't stand by Howard Stern because they like strippers. He brings in a billion a year in ad revenue. They could have cared less about the war as long as they made money.

The same with reporting. A lot of what happens in the newsroom is a dynamic of office politics. Judy Miller is the entre into upper Washington society for many of the editors. She's the one who goes on their arm to the big parties. She knows everyone and where the dirt is buried. Maureen Dowd is a much less reliable social partner, with her snarky comments and relatively moralistic world view. Miller, otoh, has been known for fucking her sources, a matter of journalistic debate for 20 years. Her ethics, personal and professional, have been questioned for as long as I can remember.

That, short of writing fiction on the news pages, is probably the worst thing you can accuse a journalist of. It's one thing to date someone you've interviewed, it's another to fuck people you rely on for stories. Miller's been accused of this for years. Her lack of professional distance has probably ruined what is left of her career. The blowback from these charges, that she helped manipulate the US into war, are so serious that the Times will not be able to protect her for long.

But Judy Miller is only one of many, many people who shirked their responsibility to cover Iraq failrly.

What I think turned the tide was not 9/11, because no one could reasonably object to hunting down Osama, but the Beltway Sniper. The shootings last year scared Metro DC to the core. Reporters and their families were scared in a very personal, very intimate way. It was up close terrorism and it scared many of them. The idea that Saddam had all these magic weapons which could kill Americans, which was a joke at the time for rational people scared the crap out of a lot of people. They accepted Bush's arguments based on fear.

No one wants to believe the president is a liar. No on wanted to believe Bush was as venal and evil as he has turned out to be. Even the Guardian was pro-war. They focused on the evil of Saddam and not what came next, which was known as early as December, 2002. Of all the major US and UK papers, only the Independent was seriously anti-war (and thus accurate) in theirn coverage. The Guardian ran a lot of stories which, while doubting Saddam's capability, also bolstered the claims of the exiles, especially in their opinion pages.

It's important to remember this, because the weight of the bad reporting is falling just on a few newspapers, and it's far more widespread than that. It wasn't just the Times, but nearly every major newspaper in both the US and UK which, if they didn't endorse the war, accepted the claims of the exiles, if not the US government, with scant questioning. The Guardian ran a long piece on what Iraqi exiles, especially pro-war exiles thought , with scant opinion coverage of experts who disagreed.

Few people, outside of Robert Fisk in the Independent, seperated evil Saddam from chaotic Iraq. Ken Pollack's The Threatening Storm set the intellectual basis for war, neatly glossing over Saddam's strategic challenges and making the case for overthrowing him, under some conditions. Conditions which were not met before the war. There were no stories about how Iraq had strategic and moral challenges with or without Saddam. No one looked past Iraq as Saddam's creation and as a set of other logistical challenges. Iraq was Saddam and not a country.

The US media, as well as the Democratic Party, made an assumption which a lot of people have not realized, they assumed the President would not lie about national security. This was a reasonable assumption for every other President, but not for Bush. But no one realized how politically driven and ideological the White House was. They took it on faith that Chalabi and his patrons were telling some version of the truth.

Given that, and the cudgle of patriotism, most accurate reporting, including think tank reports, foreign media, and NGO reports, didn't get much coverage outside the blogosphere and a few columnists. The mainstream media refused to believe the war in Iraq was mismanaged. Even when US soldiers expressed open disdain for the Secretary of Defense on camera, most of the media wrote it off to homesickness. Not a totally mismanged logistical system, which to this day has parents raising money for their kids in Iraq so they can get radios and armor.

The US media failed, not because they wrote uncritical stories about the war, given the political tenor of the times, that was the likely outcome. The failure of the media comes in the aftermath of the war. When it was clear that the GOPCPA was the new NKVD, driven by politics, few stories asked who was staffing our new colonial service and what they were up to. Many of the stories have shown less enterprise than local city hall reporters. The finances of the reconstruction have received far less coverage than the fighting, despite its long-term importance.

Despite ample evidence that the reconstruction was corrupt, only NPR's Marketplace has done the long form journalism needed to explain this.

The other major gap in US coverage has been the behavior of the US troops in Iraq. Abu Ghraib is the final stop in a chain of abuse which has left civilians dead, robbed and probably raped. The raids into homes have left a long chain of bitterness among Iraqis. Abu Ghraib is just poison into the wound. Yet, there is ample evidence that US troops lack fire discpline and routinely disrespect Iraqis as a matter of course. This doesn't make the US papers, even though it is widely discussed elsewhere. So Americans are left mystified as to why hostages are taken and others are burned alive and hung from bridges.

This is not the kind of thing which is politically popular, but is necessary to understand why Iraqis refuse to support the occupation, which they don't, and haven't.

The American media is only now, slowly, beginning to understand, how badly they did their jobs. However, they still have to do a lot more than finally firing Mattress Judy and writing off her malfeasance as a singluar act.

posted by Steve @ 1:09:00 PM

1:09:00 PM

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