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The U.S. Media and Global Respect

Is the U.S. media such an opinion-shaping force it believes itself to be?

April 11, 2003

Is the U.S. media such an opinion-shaping force it believes itself to be?

There have certainly been journalistic heroes with an American passport. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, for example, are part of the global media lore. With their courage and relentlessness, they took down the Nixon Administration during the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.

Of course, most U.S. journalists endeavor to live up to that reputation. They dream that one day they, too, will score a media coup of similar proportions.

Unfortunately, the U.S. journalistic profession as a whole today seems to have a somewhat exaggerated sense of its own importance. Too many journalists — in particular many of those based in Washington — are too docile in not wanting to challenge the powers-that-be. They much prefer to stay within the general consensus.

As a result, they regale news-hungry audiences with such “strategic” insights as the information that President Bush gave up eating sweets on the day the Iraq invasion started — as USA Today recently reported on its front page.

Even when U.S. reporters go into the field of battle and risk their lives, they are not necessarily doing a service to their profession.

In fact, the decision by virtually all U.S. media organizations to accept the Pentagon's offer to "embed" themselves with the advancing U.S. troops made some of the problems of the media industry glaringly obvious.

First, there's the obviously troublesome terminology. "Embedding" reporters implies that they are "in bed" with the troops they accompany. The fact of the matter is that by embedding themselves, the journalists have lost much of their independence — at least as far as perceptions are concerned.

Not only are they forced to accept some censorship but also a plethora of restrictions on what they can and cannot report.

By joining up with individual military units and coming under fire along with their comrades, they also cannot help but become imbued by the battlefield solidarity that is the glue of any fighting force. This, of course, tends to skew their reporting.

And then there are those "reporters" whose breathlessly triumphant pieces leave readers — and viewers — with the distinct impression that they are being treated to a curious revival of German battlefield reporting from World War I.

Of course, there are embedded reporters, too, who are worth their salt. But these are the exceptions. As a group, the embedded reporting pool has gotten dangerously close to reducing its role to supplying real-time video of the U.S. victory parade — a peculiar kind of celebration of American might in the joystick era.

Just ask yourself how many images U.S. audiences got to see of Iraq’s population in the weeks and months leading up to the war. Virtually all material that was broadcast involved U.S. military preparations.

The Iraqi people were not really present in the U.S. reporting — until the victory parade emerged.

If you wanted to see images of Iraqi citizens before that, you better have had access to non-U.S. media like those from “nasty” France or Britain’s unruly BBC.

Most amazingly of all, the handful of journalists who had the sense of self-respect to go into Iraq on their own are called, ironically, "unilateralists."

They do provide some of the most informative reporting — and even let the U.S. public get a feel for the story from the Iraqi side as well.

Now, as lamentable as all of that is in and by itself, what the U.S. media do not realize is this: Regardless of one's sense of self-importance and global status, what really matters on the world stage is one's reputation — and the true respect that one garners in the four corners of the globe.

And on that front, the U.S. media — in the eyes of many people around the world — are actually in a position that is very similar to that of the U.S. military.

Nobody in his right mind would dispute the "overwhelming force" of the U.S. military. On a global basis, the U.S. media are very much in the same position.

U.S. media organizations are simply larger and better financed than those from nearly all other countries. But that material superiority does not translate into more meaningful — or better — journalism.

All it really adds up to is more channels and other media outlets that need to be filled with more material.

Witness the near-identical coverage of the war on numerous U.S. cable news channels, as well as on the major networks. The pressures of filling more hours can become oppressive — and result in journalism losing its teeth.

Why would that be happening? In part, it is because of the pressures of advertising.

Typically, the reporters cannot offend their advertisers — and they cannot “offend” — read: challenge — the public, either. As long as the public wants to hear reassuring news, that's what it gets.

Now, undoubtedly, there are a lot of hard-working print reporters trying to undig the "real" story.

But with newspaper readership declining, especially among young audiences, the influence of television on keeping the public informed is clearly paramount.

Ultimately, the problem is two-fold: First, major corporate media all mimic each other — which means that they are increasingly less willing to go beyond the implicit consensus on almost any debate. The reason for this herd mentality is simple.

In fact, it's the same as with all those economists who seek to forecast future growth by always staying inside the "consensus." As long as they don't stick their necks out, these people believe, nobody can berate them for getting out of line.

The second problem is that the same herd effect also works in reverse — making the whole U.S. media business, especially in print and cable news reporting, highly pro-cyclical.

What this means in practical terms is that the media tend to enhance, rather than counter, the preconceptions and viewing preferences of the public-at-large.

On a comparative basis, there is relatively little opposition spirit in them. That’s at least how journalists in many democracies would define the most essential character ingredient in their chosen field.

Having the guts to stand up to the “big guys,” not to go with the flow, but to challenge the powers that be — that’s the distinguishing criteria for journalists all over the democratic world.

For a multitude of reasons, among journalists in the media in and around Washington — as well as on U.S. TV — that vital ingredient is increasingly in short supply.

The tragedy in all this is that the American people do not get enough forward-thinking reporting from their media. Instead, many U.S. media endeavor to achieve little more than to ratify the consensus. That is no way to behave if you're the fourth estate in the world's only remaining superpower.