Why the Press Failed
By Orville Schell
When, on May 26, 2004, the editors of the New York Times published a mea
culpa for the paper's one-sided reporting on weapons of mass destruction and
the Iraq war, they admitted to "a number of instances of coverage that was
not as rigorous as it should have been." They also commented that they had
since come to "wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining claims" made
by the Bush Administration. But we are still left to wonder why the Times,
like many other major media outlets in this country, was so lacking in
skepticism toward administration rationales for war? How could such a poorly
thought through policy, based on spurious exile intelligence sources, have
been so blithely accepted, even embraced, by so many members of the media?
In short, what happened to the press's vaunted role, so carefully spelled
out by the Founding Fathers, as a skeptical "watchdog" over government?
There's nothing like seeing a well-oiled machine clank to a halt to help you
spot problems. Now that the Bush administration is in full defensive mode
and angry leakers in the Pentagon, the CIA, and elsewhere in the Washington
bureaucracy are slipping documents, secrets, and charges to reporters, our
press looks more recognizably journalistic. But that shouldn't stop us from
asking how an "independent" press in a "free" country could have been so
paralyzed for so long. It not only failed to seriously investigate
administration rationales for war, but little took into account the myriad
voices in the on-line, alternative, and world press that sought to do so. It
was certainly no secret that a number of our Western allies (and other
countries), administrators of various NGOs, and figures like Mohamed
ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Hans Blix,
head of the UN's Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission, had
quite different pre-war views of the "Iraqi threat."
Few in our media, it seemed, remembered I. F. Stone's hortatory admonition,
"If you want to know about governments, all you have to know is two words:
Governments lie." Dissenting voices in the mainstream were largely buried on
back pages, ignored on op-ed pages, or confined to the margins of the media,
and so denied the kinds of "respectability" that a major media outlet can
As reporting on the lead-up to war, the war itself, and its aftermath
vividly demonstrated, our country is now divided into a two-tiered media
structure. The lower-tier -- niche publications, alternative media outlets,
and Internet sites -- hosts the broadest spectrum of viewpoints. Until the
war effort began to unravel in spring 2004, the upper-tier -- a relatively
small number of major broadcast outlets, newspapers, and magazines -- had a
far more limited bandwidth of critical views, regularly deferring to the
Bush Administration's vision of the world. Contrarian views below rarely
As Michael Massing pointed out recently in the New York Review of Books,
Bush administration insinuations that critics were unpatriotic -- White
House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer infamously warned reporters as war
approached, "People had better watch what they say" -- had an undeniably
chilling effect on the media. But other forms of pressure also effectively
inhibited the press. The President held few press conferences and rarely
submitted to truly open exchanges. Secretive and disciplined to begin with,
the administration adeptly used the threat of denied access as a way to
intimidate reporters who showed evidence of independence. For reporters,
this meant no one-on-one interviews, special tips, or leaks, being passed
over in press conference question-and-answer periods, and exclusion from
select events as well as important trips.
After the war began, for instance, Jim Wilkinson, a 32 year-old Texan who
ran Centcom's Coalition Media Center in Qatar, was, according to Massing,
known to rebuke reporters whose copy was deemed insufficiently "supportive
of the war," and "darkly warned one correspondent that he was on a 'list'
along with two other reporters at his paper." In the play-along world of the
Bush Administration, critical reporting was a quick ticket to exile.
A media world of faith-based truth
The impulse to control the press hardly originated with George W. Bush, but
his administration has been less inclined than any in memory to echo Thomas
Jefferson's famous declaration that, "The basis of our government being the
opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right;
and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without
newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment
to prefer the latter."
The Bush Administration had little esteem for the watchdog role of the
press, in part because its own quest for "truth" has been based on something
other than empiricism. In fact, it enthroned a new criterion for veracity,
"faith-based" truth, sometimes corroborated by "faith -based" intelligence.
For officials of this administration (and not just the religious ones
either), truth seemed to descend from on high, a kind of divine revelation
begging no further earthly scrutiny. For our President this was evidently
literally the case. The Israeli paper Ha'aretz reported him saying to
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Prime Minister of the moment, "God told me to
strike Al Qaeda and I struck, and then he instructed me to strike Saddam,
which I did."
It is hardly surprising, then, that such a President would eschew newspapers
in favor of reports from other more "objective sources," namely, his staff.
He has spoken often of trusting "visceral reactions" and acting on "gut
feelings." For him as for much of the rest of his administration,
decision-making has tended to proceed not from evidence to conclusion, but
from conclusion to evidence. Reading, facts, history, logic and the complex
interaction between the electorate, the media, and the government have all
been relegated to subsidiary roles in what might be called "fundamentalist"
Just as the free exchange of information plays little role in the
relationship between a fundamentalist believer and his or her God, so it has
played a distinctly diminished role in our recent parallel world of divine
political revelation. After all, if you already know the answer to a
question, of what use is the media, except to broadcast that answer? The
task at hand, then, is never to listen but to proselytize the political
gospel among non-believers, thereby transforming a once interactive process
between citizen and leader into evangelism.
Although in the Bush political universe, "freedom has been endlessly
extolled in principle, it has had little utility in practice. What possible
role could a free press play when revelation trumps fact and conclusions are
preordained? A probing press is logically viewed as a spoiler under such
conditions, stepping between the administration and those whose only true
salvation lies in becoming part of a nation of true believers. Since there
was little need, and less respect, for an opposition (loyal or otherwise),
the information feedback loops in which the press should have played a
crucial role in any functioning democracy, ceased operating. The media
synapses which normally transmit warnings from citizen to government froze
Television networks continued to broadcast and papers continued to publish,
but, dismissed and ignored, they became irrelevant, except possibly for
their entertainment value. As the press has withered, the government,
already existing in a self-referential and self-deceptive universe, was
deprived of the ability to learn of danger from its own policies and thus
make course corrections.
A Universe in Which News Won't Matter
Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor, bluntly declared to New
Yorker writer Ken Auletta that members of the press "don't represent the
public any more than other people do. I don't believe you have a
check-and-balance function." Auletta concluded that, in the eyes of the Bush
Administration, the press corps had become little more than another
special-interest lobbying group. Indeed, the territory the traditional media
once occupied has increasingly been deluged by administration lobbying,
publicity, and advertising -- cleverly staged "photo ops," carefully
produced propaganda rallies, preplanned "events," tidal waves of campaign
ads, and the like. Afraid of losing further "influence," access, and the
lucrative ad revenues that come from such political image-making, major
media outlets have found it in their financial interest to quietly yield.
What does this downgrading of the media's role say about how our government
views its citizens, the putative sovereigns of our country? It suggests that
"we the people" are seen not as political constituencies conferring
legitimacy on our rulers, but as consumers to be sold policy the way
advertisers sell product. In the storm of selling, spin, bullying, and
"discipline" that has been the Bush signature for years, traditional news
outlets found themselves increasingly drowned out, ghettoized, and cowed.
Attacked as "liberal" and "elitist," disesteemed as "trouble makers" and
"bashers" (even when making all too little trouble), they were relegated to
the sidelines, increasingly uncertain and timid about their shrinking place
in the political process.
Add in a further dynamic (which intellectuals from Marxist-Leninist
societies would instantly recognize): Groups denied legitimacy and disdained
by the state tend to internalize their exclusion as a form of culpability,
and often feel an abject, autonomic urge to seek reinstatement at almost any
price. Little wonder, then, that "the traditional press" has had a difficult
time mustering anything like a convincing counter-narrative as the
administration herded a terrified and all-too-trusting nation to war.
Not only did a mutant form of skepticism-free news succeed -- at least for a
time -- in leaving large segments of the populace uninformed, but it
corrupted the ability of high officials to function. All too often they
simply found themselves looking into a fun-house mirror of their own making
and imagined that they were viewing reality. As even the conservative
National Review noted, the Bush administration has "a dismaying capacity to
believe its own public relations."
In this world of mutant "news," information loops have become one-way
highways; and a national security advisor, cabinet secretary, or attorney
general, a well-managed and programmed polemicist charged to "stay on
message," the better to justify whatever the government has already done, or
is about to do. Because these latter-day campaigns to "dominate the media
environment," as the Pentagon likes to say, employ all the sophistication
and technology developed by communications experts since Edward Bernays,
nephew of Sigmund Freud, first wed an understanding of psychology to the
marketing of merchandise, they are far more seductive than older-style news.
Indeed, on Fox News, we can see the ultimate marriage of news and PR in a
fountainhead of artful propaganda so well-packaged that most people can't
tell it from the real thing.
For three-plus years we have been governed by people who don't view news, in
the traditional sense, as playing any constructive role in our system of
governance. At the moment, they are momentarily in retreat, driven back from
the front lines of faith-based truth by their own faith-based blunders. But
make no mistake, their frightening experiment will continue if Americans
allow it. Complete success would mean not just that the press had
surrendered its essential watchdog role, but -- a far darker thought --
that, even were it to refuse to do so, it might be shunted off to a place
where it would not matter.
As the war in Iraq descended into a desert quagmire, the press belatedly
appeared to awaken and adopt a more skeptical stance toward an already
crumbling set of Bush administration policies. But if a bloody, expensive,
catastrophic episode like the war in Iraq is necessary to remind us of the
important role that the press plays in our democracy, something is gravely
amiss in the way our political system has come to function.
Orville Schell is Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the
University of California, Berkeley. This piece is adapted from the preface
to a collection of New York Review of Books articles on the media's coverage
of the war in Iraq by Michael Massing. It will be published soon as a short
book, Now They Tell Us (The New York Review of Books, 2004).
Copyright C2004 Orville Schell