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The Washington ‘PR’ess Corps

Have the U.S. media become followers instead of leaders in enabling informed public discourse?

August 22, 2003

Have the U.S. media become followers instead of leaders in enabling informed public discourse?

It's the cocktail hour at a hotel near the White House. Friends are in town — and they have invited some folks for a get-together.

Soon enough, a senior Pentagon official joins the round. I cherish the opportunity to ask him a couple of — admittedly critical and inquisitive — questions.

Puzzled, he replies: "Why are you asking all these questions? Aren't journalists just supposed to report the facts?"

Welcome to the modern world of Washington media. And if you believe that the attitude of this Bush official is not characteristic of his administration's handling of the media, then you are in for a real surprise.

For what is truly shocking about the state of the U.S. media today is that, to an amazing extent, the belief to restrict themselves to the facts — as they are provided by the government — is willingly accepted by the mainstream U.S. media.

So far, so good — or bad. But your faith in the independence of the U.S. media really takes a hard hit when, on another occasion, you sit next to a prominent White House correspondent who is answering a call on his cell phone. A senior White House official is on the line, as he is happy to indicate.

Predictably enough, the policymaker was keen on re-spinning the next day’s front-page story — but was doing so in all too transparent a manner.

The shock came upon getting the paper in question the next morning — and seeing how this well-respected reporter had fallen for the spin. Lock, stock and barrel.

That's when you begin to wonder whether the political reporters of major U.S. papers really see it as their job to provide truly independent news and analysis — or are all eager to act as undercover government spokesmen.

Increasingly, it looks as though they are all too pliable in order to preserve top-level access.

Too harsh a judgment? Hardly. After all, one needs to factor in that many U.S. journalists' self-perception of their professional courage is sky-high.

But instead of printing all the news that’s fit to print, they waffle on printing news that would give those in power the fits.

What gives me further reason to pause is to hear our real White House correspondent — the one who let himself be spun like wool — intone in a panel discussion the next day about the importance of the independent media as the “fourth estate.”

But the trouble does not end there. In recent weeks, I have had several long conversations with proud and smart reporters who had always called a spade a spade — until they went to Iraq as "embedded reporters."

Challenge them now on their new pliability — and they will look at you in disbelief. "200 million Americans can't be wrong in their support of the President — and the war with Iraq. That's something that we as the media have to take into account," said one well-traveled senior Washington reporter.

One has to wonder why the media, once again, went along so willingly with the storyline provided by public officials. Why are the media followers — rather than leaders — in enabling an informed and critical public discourse?

During and after the Iraq war, the U.S. media — to an astounding degree — took President Bush's assertions about Saddam Hussein's WMD program at face value.

But the evidence, which many experts and foreign governments had described as quite flimsy at the time, was presented as absolute proof in much of the U.S. media's coverage.

The U.S. media model works beautifully — for the governing, not the governed, that is.

During the formulation and implementation phase of a given policy — say, war with Iraq — the U.S. media tend to take a low profile in asking hard questions about the implications.

Then, of course, after things go awry, it's the follow-the–story phase of another kind: Throw all the reporting resources into finding out what went wrong. But it's always follow, follow, follow. Or: "Let them shoot first, ask questions later."

One possible explanation is that the U.S. media is suffering from a post-9/11 syndrome, under which it finds itself unable to question — let alone criticize — public officials during periods of perceived or actual emergencies.

It is certainly easy enough to feel with officials who are busy trying to get a hold on a confusing situation.

But journalists also have to realize that, in today's world, the attempts by politicians and other officials to spin any situation are relentless and instantaneous. The aim, of course, is to shape the early coverage of any event to the greatest possible extent, preferably by turning what was meant to be reporting into cheerleading.

If you doubt the story so far, go back and ask any of these fine journalists about the importance of a permanent "opposition spirit" as a key ingredient of the profession — in the sense that an essential role of the media is to challenge those in power. All you will earn is blank stares.

"We are not here to support the Democrats," one says. Never mind that the Democrats offer precious little opposition. That means that the job of acting as checks and balances falls to the media — independent of party politics.

As a result, all that happens is that the media and the Democrats reinforce each other in their cowardliness.

"Unfair," cry some venerable journalists. They argue that they cannot write stories — until facts are there to make it a story. Many questions can be asked about the facts that are already in.

If, however, all questions against the powers-that-be are relegated to the scarce space for "news analysis", then that indicates a serious imbalance in the U.S. media model.

In most countries with a strong democratic foundation, journalists choose their profession with a proud claim that they are part of a permanent opposition. They act as a checks-and-balances mechanism for those in power — and ask vital questions concerning the nation's future.

It is high time for many in the U.S. media establishment to reconsider their establishment-enhancing ways. The media must once again learn to be critical.

That is especially important at times when it may be unpopular. In the end, that is how journalists will best serve their real constituency — the U.S. public.