Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Journalism Is A Responsibility

The American military has left Iraq, and, as is their job, journalists covered their departure. Offering gratitude to the troops for a job well done, solemnly analyzing the hurdles they face reintegrating into American society, measuring the political and geopolitical benefits of their return and passively mourning the tragedy of the engagement's elective nature. Unless you forced the memory yourself, you'd never know our brave military facilitated war crimes and is using fire to render evidence of its misdeeds to ash. Unless you take a moment to reach into the engagement's history, you'd never know that our indiscriminate bombing initiated a civil war that was policed by our military until the ethnic cleansing was complete. 

Indeed, while it was widely accepted as truth that bad, unfortunate things happened, you'd never think from anyone's remarks that it was anyone's fault. It's not the soldier's fault for choosing to join a military that was engaged in an unjustified and violent invasion against a people that didn't threaten us. It's not the administration's fault for using flimsy, contested evidence to start and commit to the invasion. It's not the reporter's fault for uncritically circulating the case for the war while its institutions fired and demoted anyone who made a case against it. It was all just a formal political misunderstanding that just happened to cause the deaths of several hundred thousand people and the loss of trillions of dollars. As always, when faced with an event that can and should be a source of controversy, our media retreats into the comforting solace of pablum, understatement and false assent. And when accuracy stands to indict you, who can blame the media for retreating? They know exactly what I do.

They know that to understand Iraq isn't to grasp its common framing as a "war". To understand Iraq requires us to see it as a media propagated massacre, where the media - in collusion with the Bush administration - made power the visage of truth, misinformation the standard for information and abstraction the only descriptive reference point for hundreds of thousands of entirely avoidable deaths. And it worked. As liberally peddled propaganda so often does. When you see the blood-tainted troops return from their fabricated battlefield you should remember that the American military and American public opinion were tools in this ordeal, not actors. This was a conflict where the only victory possible was the ability to get away with it. They didn't do it by lying about their role as government enabling propagandists. They did it by playing their role, but never actually addressing what their role was. Consider this, if you will
Nearly two thirds of all sources, 64 percent, were pro-war, while 71 percent of U.S. guests favored the war. Anti-war voices were 10 percent of all sources, but just 6 percent of non-Iraqi sources and 3 percent of U.S. sources. Thus viewers were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war source as one who was anti-war; with U.S. guests alone, the ratio increases to 25 to 1.


Official voices, including current and former government employees, whether civilian or military, dominated network newscasts, accounting for 63 percent of overall sources. Current and former U.S. officials alone provided more than half (52 percent) of all sources; adding officials from Britain, chief ally in the invasion of Iraq, brought the total to 57 percent.

Looking at U.S. sources, which made up 76 percent of total sources, more than two out of three (68 percent) were either current or former officials. The percentage of U.S. sources who were officials varied from network to network, ranging from 75 percent at CBS to 60 percent at NBC.

In the category of U.S. officials, military voices overwhelmed civilians by a two-to-one margin, providing 68 percent of U.S. official sources and nearly half (47 percent) of all U.S. sources. This predominance reflected the networks focus on information from journalists embedded with troops, or provided at military briefings, and the analysis of such by paid former military officials.

Of a total of 840 U.S. sources who are current or former government or military officials, only four were identified as holding anti-war opinions--Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.V.), Rep. Pete Stark (D.-Calif.) and two appearances by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D.-Ohio). Byrd was featured on PBS, with Stark and Kucinich appearing on Fox News.

Among British news sources, 95 percent were government or military officials; the remaining 5 percent, four individuals, were all journalists. More than a third of the British public was opposed to the war at the time of this study, according to a Guardian/ICM poll (4/1/03), but no British anti-war voices were carried by these six news shows.

Iraq provided the only exception to the rule that official sources dominate the news.
This is the function of journalism to journalists. For reporters, the power of politics doesn't flow from participants of democracy and the necessity of politics doesn't flow from their concerns or needs. For journalists, the power of politics flows from the powerful and relevance is exclusively decided by what the powerful say and do. To the extent that the consequences of policy are important is only to the extent that it can decide who becomes powerful. Which is to say, journalism frames ostracizing a necessary constituency for election as more significant than the government causing harm - particularly to effectively powerless parties. What's decided and what's important from a media standpoint relates solely to the words and actions of politicians. As a result, the consequences and effects of those actions become secondary - if they're considered at all.

The modern conception of journalism draws its authority from access. In order to be considered "valid" and "important" it requires the presence of those they consider valid and important. This not only creates an environment for establishment overrepresentation in media coverage, media interviews and media analysis, it creates an institutional incentive to avoid the necessary antagonism that honest and nuanced analysis/criticism of politicians and their actions require. Journalists will wail endlessly about "neutrality" and "fairness" and how the latter requires the former, but all those positions do is make journalists passive parties that amplify government claims - regardless of their veracity.

When I say that journalists failed to address their role, this is precisely what I mean. Culturally, western democracies consider news organizations a useful means of getting the necessary facts to be "informed". The perceived value of journalism rests on the assumption that this is what they're doing. But journalism to journalists is premised on repeating, not informing. Granting politicians a fertile ground to spread talking points through interviews, quotes, anonymous sourcing, etc is "reporting" to journalists. Telling you whether those claims are true or telling you whether policies have consequences is not. Journalism is merely a podium for politicians step on. And journalists - exhibiting their comfort with that - exist only to provide them with a mic.

This distortion of traditional and quality journalism has crafted an institutional role for journalists where they're not watchdogs of government or advocates for the interests of their country's citizens or even mechanisms for crafting an informed public. Their degradation is so ingrained that they don't even see it as necessary to be those things. It's lost on the institution that making wise decisions in a democracy requires knowledge of a country's going-ons. It's lost on the institution that people who have jobs and who have familial demands lack the time, education or resources to research the history, content and effects of policy disputes. It's lost on the institution that their exclusive access to politicians grants them an ability to challenge their claims and pursue the truths that lie in that grey area where the government's interests and the public's interests fail to intersect. It's not because all reporters don't care about those things - I'm sure some of them do. It's because they don't see it as their responsibility. 

The founding assumption of The View From Nowhere is that it proves that a journalist is unbiased because they refuse to take a position on competing arguments. By adhering only to the information that doesn't step on "partisan" toes or by only repeating the information and arguments of the "different sides" they prove their trustworthiness and objectivity. It doesn't answer the central question of how you can demonstrate corruption, malfeasance or policy-damage without having a clear standard for what "corruption", "malfeasance" and "policy-damage" is. It avoids the question all together. By removing any rationale to critically view politicians and government actions, it superficially insulates journalists from the consequences of being perceived as wrong. It promotes political solipsism while painting anything that results from that stance as something that can't be blamed on them. So when misinformation becomes indistinguishable from information and the opinions of the electorate are affected accordingly, you're not supposed to think it's the fault of the people tasked with conveying that information:
An in-depth analysis of a series of polls conducted June through September found 48% incorrectly believed that evidence of links between Iraq and al Qaeda have been found, 22% that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, and 25% that world public opinion favored the US going to war with Iraq. Overall 60% had at least one of these three misperceptions.

Such misperceptions are highly related to support for the war. Among those with none of the misperceptions listed above, only 23% support the war. Among those with one of these misperceptions, 53% support the war, rising to 78% for those who have two of the misperceptions, and to 86% for those with all 3 misperceptions. Steven Kull, director of PIPA, comments, "While we cannot assert that these misperceptions created the support for going to war with Iraq, it does appear likely that support for the war would be substantially lower if fewer members of the public had these misperceptions."


Another key perception--one that US intelligence agencies regard as unfounded--is that Iraq was directly involved in September 11. Before the war approximately one in five believed this and 13% even said they believed that they had seen conclusive evidence of it. Polled June through September, the percentage saying that Iraq was directly involved in 9/11 continued to be in the 20-25% range, while another 33-36% said they believed that Iraq gave al-Qaeda substantial support. [Note: An August Washington Post poll found that 69% thought it was at least "somewhat likely" that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11--a different question than the PIPA/KN question that asked respondents to come to a conclusion.]

In the run-up to the war misperceptions were also highly related to support for going to war. In February, among those who believed that Iraq was directly involved in September 11, 58% said they would agree with the President's decision to go to war without UN approval. Among those who believed that Iraq had given al Qaeda substantial support, but was not involved in September 11, approval dropped to 37%. Among those who believed that a few al Qaeda individuals had contact with Iraqi officials 32% were supportive, while among those who believed that there was no connection at all just 25% felt that way. Polled during the war, among those who incorrectly believed that world public opinion favored going to the war, 81% agreed with the President's decision to do so, while among those who knew that the world public opinion was opposed only 28% agreed.

While it would seem that misperceptions are derived from a failure to pay attention to the news, in fact, overall, those who pay greater attention to the news are no less likely to have misperceptions.

Of course, we know now that the Bush administration was quite canny in its understanding of journalism. The establishment of the White House Iraq Group existed to play on the susceptibility of journalists to starkly painted, Factual and Important sounding drama from fancily titled "official sources". They understood in a way that journalists could not that the modern conception of journalism makes no distinction between a lie or the truth. There are only ever positions from one side and positions from another. And when one position is stated often enough in the right places, a world where journalists fail to challenge the claims of politicians is a world where the claims of politicians don't become significantly challenged. 

When Judith Miller (who ended up at Fox News) used her platform at the NYT to lie about Saddam's capacity and intents and successfully sell a false rationale for war to the American public, journalists didn't see it as their role to question her sources or to demonstrate skepticism about how thin that sourcing was. They saw it as a Big Story, and brought Bush officials on media outlets like Meet the Press (which Cheney used to "control the message") to answer fawning questions without the slightest hint of suspicion. When we went to war and when Americans were persuaded to support a war under pretenses that were subsequently discovered to be false, they didn't see it as evidence of a system-wide disaster. It wasn't seen as a demonstration that modern journalistic philosophies are dangerous. It wasn't even viewed a rationale to reject the principle architects of a horrendous policy. It was just politics. 

The lives of hundreds of thousands, the survival of cities/countries, the sovereignty and self-determination of whole peoples and the expenditure of our tax dollars were not issues for the media so much as they were details. Stated without context and squandered without repercussion. Most of the journalists who pushed the Iraq war and gave ample pretext for the commission of a war crime not only still have their jobs, but were given promotions. Of the White House Iraq Group (and other Bush Administration officials), Ari Fleischer (CNN), Michael Gerson (Washington Post), Tony Snow (CNN), Mary Matalin (CNN), Sara Taylor (MSNBC), Karl Rove (Fox News) and others all went on to have nice little stints at mainstream media outlets as correspondents.

It's not enough to say that the media "got it wrong". It's not enough to call them irresponsible or misleading. It's no longer adequate to paint them as shameless, craven or ignorant.  These terms only serve to avoid the necessary levels of introspection that transforms observations into conclusions. It makes them sound like children that unwittingly stumbled onto something forgivable instead of influential adults who consciously embraced an evil that they refuse to account for by using a professional system they refuse to reject. In understanding the failures of journalism, you mustn't let the presumption of decency obscure the pervasiveness of systemic fault. 

Shorn from any sense of responsibility and shielded from any significant amount of accountability, journalism internalizes its role as a weapon for the powerful rather than an instrument that heeds the interests of those the powerful are tasked to protect. Removed from the considerations that make journalism worthy, journalism becomes anathema to both democracy and to the qualities that can make a democracy work. The Iraq War is illustrative, not merely because of the mistake's enormity, but because it exposed - for all to see - the essential failing of journalism-as-practiced. To journalists, journalism is a posture. It exists as a set of preestablished norms, unspoken traditions and tonal orientations that prize "neutrality", "dispassion" and "fairness" in order to look the way a reporter is "supposed" to look. The essential failing isn't that they got it wrong, but rather that nothing about its professional ethos, nothing about its ethical trends and nothing about its institutional incentives made it their job to get it right. 

For journalists, the Iraq War - and politics generally - are not events that involve people. They're not actions that carry consequences. And those consequences have no true moral dimension. For journalists, politics is a thing. The fact that it involves humans, their livelihood and the question of whether they'll have life generally is substantively tangential. Their perspectives and their careers are dedicated to politics and to international events as paltry trivialities where power and the exercise thereof exists in vacuums where its usage has no effect. Supporting the Iraq War to these people wasn't supporting the indiscriminate bombing of people who've done nothing to us. It wasn't condemning the innocent to fire, ethnic cleansing and neoliberal serfdom. It wasn't lying the country into a conflict that cost us the trillions that could be use to strengthen the well-being of our own citizens. It was a position. The fact that it did and could affect people was less than immaterial to journalists. It was an abstraction.

If you wonder about media-wide detachment. If you wonder about the empty pedantry that leads "journalists" to declare truths to be lies. If you wonder about the forces that cause "journalists" to pivot every noxious political remark into a horse race assessment. If you wonder about what motivates "journalists" to characterize disputes that relate to something as fundamental as government functionality to the false cry of "both sides do it!". If you wonder what can lead "journalists" to casually entertain reducing all spending to combat the nonexistent specter of debt while we're facing mass unemployment. If you wonder how "journalists" can remain largely silent on the unprecedented state-level attack on the physical autonomy of women. If you wonder why it took a throng of protestors to show "journalists" that income inequality exists. If you wonder how wars can be waged, and civil rights can be shamelessly eroded without so much as an establishment outcry. If you wonder at all, look no further than who modern journalism serves: no one.  

The moment journalists defined their purpose as something unrelated to the interests of their readers is the moment journalism lost any rationale to have a voice. Whereas activists and voters have interests to protect and consequences to consider, journalism subsists on the fallacy that such considerations are beneath it. Objectivity demands an Above The Fray detachment that looks at the truth and the lie as equivalent and that views the repugnant and the acceptable through a lens that purges them of any responsibility to outline the difference. Journalism's sin is inherent to its decision to abandon the tangibly human effects of the political. By denying that the very politics they cavalierly comment on is about us and what happens to us, they've denied the need to be accountable for or reflect on how their reporting guides the discourse and how a missed qualification, or a removed bit of context, or a pulled criticism can mean the embrace or the false depiction of a policy that harms and kills thousands, hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions. 

Lost in the volume of bad reporting, false equivalences, lazy fact-checking, shallow policy-understanding and dry, empty policy/political articulation is the sense that journalism is a responsibility. Not to the political process, not to the institution, not to professional norms, not to advertisers, not to the inclinations of your peers, but to us. By casting our grievances into the realm of the blandly political, by pretending that politics are just a series of arguments that should be pursued just to show how courageous you are for considering them, by pretending that no one in politics can ever truly be right, journalists detach themselves from those who inevitably suffer from their ill-considered negligence. They contribute to the very things that lower our standard of living and then say that their inability to act, or their willingness to give a podium to those who do "is not our fault" and "not our job".

Yes, it

Edit: Here's Paul Krugman - a real journalist, with actual credentials and the ability to grasp policy - explaining why he takes a fearlessly honest approach to the implications, substance and consequences of his opponents' and politicians arguments:
Cowen apparently wants me to make the best case for the opposing side in policy debates. Since when has that been the rule? I’m trying to move policy in what I believe to be the right direction — and I will make the best honest case I can for moving in that direction.

Look, economic policy matters. It matters for real people who suffer real consequences when we get it wrong. If I believe that the doctrine of expansionary austerity is all wrong, or that the Ryan plan for Medicare would have disastrous effects, or whatever, then my duty, as I see it, is to make my case as best I honestly can — not put on a decorous show of civilized discussion that pretends that there aren’t hired guns posing as analysts, and spares the feelings of people who are not in danger of losing their jobs or their health care.

This is not a game.

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