Monday, March 29, 2004

US Press as "Stenographers" for Bush War

This is long but an excellent analysis relating to my entry from March 22.

Reuters reports that the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies released a report on Tuesday slamming the US press for not questioning the arguments put forward by the Bush administration for war, and acting as a virtual stenographer for the White House.

Interestingly, Susan Moeller, the author of the report, argued that "The 'inverted pyramid' style of news writing, which places the most 'important' information first, produced much greater attention to the administration's point of view on WMD issues at the expense of alternative perspectives."

I suppose she means that in an American context, whatever the president says would always go in the first paragraph, and Scott Ritter's comments would come several paragraphs down--even though Ritter knew what he was talking about with regard to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and Bush did not.

The inverted pyramid style is favored in US journalism, but is not necessarily used in other countries. French news columns often are more essayistic, and likewise Arabic news. I spent a year one time mainly putting Arabic-language wire reports into English and arranging them in inverted pyramid form, which is not how they arrived.

While it may be appealing to journalists to try to blame the form of their writing for such lapses, however, there are many better explanations in my view.

1) The US print press is largely a capitalist press, which means you are trying to sell newspapers. (The old saw was that "Anyone can own a newspaper, all you need is a million dollars.) That makes it a reader's press, not a writer's. You have to give readers what they want, or else they won't plunk down their 50 cents. If the mood of the country is such that 85% of the people are supporting a war in Iraq, challenging the need for that war could make the newspaper unpopular and its sales might plummet. Advertisers could also pull their ads from an "unpatriotic" rag.

2) Journalists thrive on access. If you anger the Bush administration, then you are likely to be completely cut off from leaks. There is a strong incentive not to call Bush administration officials liars, if you have to deal with them every day and hope to get more than platitudes from them. This is why Paul Krugman, who is in Princeton and writes abstract analysis of policy that does not depend on insider sources, is such a brilliant dissector of the dishonesty and hypocrisy of the Bushies. He can tell them to jump in the lake.

3) Journalists are mostly generalists. They are talented at pulling information about a new subject out of the experts and putting it together coherently. I worked for a newspaper once and so know a little about how hectic their lives are, and what new challenges they face every day. But the fact is that most American journalists in the fall of 2002 had no idea what Iraq was like, or what a Shiite was, or the difference between an ayatollah and a grand ayatollah. They had no independent means of gauging whether Iraq had a nuclear weapons program or not, and had to go by what the experts said. If you don't follow a place like Iraq for thirty years, as I have, you don't have a good sense of what is plausible and what is not. Then, how do you tell what an expert is? Judith Miller of the NYT thought Ahmad Chalabi looked like an expert--he was a major expatriate Iraqi politician. Khidir Hamza, a former Baathist nuclear scientist looked like an expert. I think the journalists' preference for powerful "insiders" as sources is a problem with the trade. In this case, Scott Ritter was the better source, and even he exaggerated Iraqi WMD.

4) Journalists are often part of the political establishment themselves. Judith Miller is a Neocon who co-authored with the highly unreliable Laura Mylroie, and so was predisposed to buy the nonsense she was fed by Chalabi and his contexts. (The NYT seems to have a fair number of Neocons on its staff, for a supposedly liberal newspaper).

5) Journalism does not practice, or sometimes sufficiently respect, peer review. As editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies for Cambridge University Press, when I receive an article on Iraq I send it out to five or so of the major experts on Iraq in universities. If they all come back and say it is weak in evidence and argument, I don't publish it. This way of proceeding ensures that articles in my journal are solid. There is no time to referee newspaper articles, though some national magazines, like The Nation, do excellent fact checking. We can contrast academic peer review to the practice at think tanks. The American Enterprise Institute just publishes the book, without peer review. It publishes books that push or support policies to which the think tank is dedicated. This is why silly books like those of Mylroie or Khidir Hamza can see print, and sometimes even sell well. Some journalists do not know the difference between a solid book by Peter Sluglett on Iraq, published by a major academic press, and some screed put out of a Washington think tank by someone who does not know Arabic and has never been in an archive. (I hasten to add that there are lots of real intellectuals in the ranks of journalists, and there are even many former academics, who know these distinctions all too well, but I believe they are a minority). Lee Bollinger at Columbia University is thinking seriously about how this sort of problem could be solved by tinkering with the degree program in journalism there.

I have to say that often when I watch television or read the mainstream press, and I see this parade of self-proclaimed "experts" who say the damnedest things, I feel like Alice in Wonderland. No such shoddy rhetoric or posturing could be gotten away with in my department, but here are people who make literally hundreds of thousands of dollars from peddling unsound information.

The rise of expert and journalistic blogging, and the way it is interacting with professional journalism, may well change these dynamics a bit. Blogging needn't be a capitalist enterprise, and where it is not, it can afford to be more writerly. It can tell readers things at some length that are too complex or controversial for the print media. It can allow voices to be heard that contradict whoever the White House spokesman is that year. It should not be overestimated as a force for change. It is still a relatively minor phenomenon. But at the margins it may begin making a difference.

--Juan Cole at 3/10/2004 07:16:12 AM
The Donald Rumsfeld Comedy Hour

I maintain that this is one of the funniest administrations our country has ever not elected.
An Open Letter To President Bush





(This open letter to President George W. Bush was brought to you in part by Overlord.)

Monday, March 22, 2004

The Responsibility of Intellectuals

As the political landscape changes, it's become much easier for members of the press and intellectual community to question government policy. This article describes some of the ways journalists felt pressure not to challenge official claims during the war.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Wealthiest Americans Must Pay More

This letter was published in yesterday's Metro, under the above title (not mine), and in co-ordination with the initiative to debunk Bush campaign ads as they are aired.

In a new campaign ad, George Bush claims that opponent John Kerry will raise taxes by 900 billion in the first 100 days as president. In fact, Kerry's proposition is to cut taxes for middle- and lower-income families, while rolling back the Bush tax cuts for families making over $200,000 to pre-Bush rates.

Alternatively, President Bush has cut taxes for upper-income families, raising the cost of living for everyone else. Think SEPTA fares are too high? Gas bill? Tax money can be used to defray the cost of services we all use--but not if the wealthiest Americans don't contribute.
Saudi Allies

Some of the administration's actions have been so strange that those who reported them were initially accused of being nutty conspiracy theorists. For example, what are we to make of the post-9/11 Saudi airlift? Just days after the attack, at a time when private air travel was banned, the administration gave special clearance to flights that gathered up Saudi nationals, including a number of members of the bin Laden family, who were in the U.S. at the time. These Saudis were then allowed to leave the country, after at best cursory interviews with the F.B.I.

--Paul Krugman

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Excerpt of a letter to a Blood-Relative

I just read an article in the New York Times that claimed sedentary lifestyles to be a leading cause of death in the US--just behind smoking. It's really important to be active; I think it's a shame that the need is not better addressed in our society, along with countless other human needs like meaningful work, scheduling flexibility, or just more free time generally. If you've ever heard of the Israeli "kibbutz"-style of work (basically a communal system), necessary labor and manual tasks are distributed within
the community, so that no matter what your professional specialty may be, everyone gets a turn doing these more physical, labor oriented tasks. Anyway, quite a bit different from what we're used to in the States--although I can't see how we especially benefit from unemployment on one end and the stress-related health problems of working 60 hours a week on the other. The necessary tasks of any community can be distributed sensibly; if everyone has work then no-one works too much. It has similar applications for technology, which can be used either to produce in order to provide
(people work less and benefit more), or to produce in order to profit (people are replaced by automation in the name of "productivity"). Anyway, just some thoughts on the way our economic system meets our needs as people--or doesn't, as I am inclined to think--including our need for integrated active lifestyles. The irony is that educated professionals are among those with the least time for exercise.

Friday, March 12, 2004


"Haiti, again, is ablaze... Almost nobody, however, understands that today's chaos was made in Washington--deliberately, cynically, and steadfastly. History will bear this out."

--Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics at Columbia University

The press coverage of Aristide fascinates me. Here's a former Roman Catholic priest who spent his career campaigning for the poor, who was elected repeatedly by overwhelming majorities; who utilized his nation's resources to fund social services; and who was told last month he could not be protected by American troops and had to either resign or remain unprotected in the country while opposition forces overthrew his government.

The American press has generally cast Aristide as a despot, staying close to the themes offered by the administration as justification for his removal--restoring "democracy" being the most widely invoked. In this case, American support has been denied the democratically-elected president in favor of an US-selected diplomat who arrived from Florida on Wednesday. It's important to understand democracy as the fulfillment of US policy goals if we are to understand anything in our own newspapers.

Thursday, March 11, 2004


I was too tired to tell about the feminist argument anyway. It was practically two in the morning, and I couldn't stop yawning. The place was winding down. A lot of the girls had stopped dancing and were socializing instead. My friend was trying to locate the Korean stripper on account that she had disappeared. Instead, he found this other girl he was already friendly with named Money. Money had been holding his ornamental scarf when we came back. She wasn't very Korean--she was Italian--but there was no point arguing about it. That Korean girl had fled like a refugee, and the place was closing. Despite her unfortunate moniker, Money didn't know the exchange rate either--and so descended the hand of bitter reluctance upon my wallet. The going rate, Money said, was ten American dollars for the duration of one song. Every fiber of my feminist being grew suddenly taut--and I don't mean that in a good way.

While the kids were out I enjoyed a very brief opportunity to reflect on my experience that evening. I was still very critical about the stripping enterprise. I can't help it. Women should not have to take off their clothes for money--least of all at drafty warehouse spaces along I-95. Women should take off their clothes for free, at 1210 Ellsworth Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19147. The road to equality is long--particularly if you are traveling from Northern New Jersey--but well worth the reward. Real intimacy begins where the conspicuous stain of monetary wealth will never be detected: I live on the third floor, to the rear.

Monday, March 01, 2004


A lap dance at Show and Tel is ten dollars. Ten American dollars--not yen. For some reason my friend still had all this yen on him, if you can imagine that. He'd given away all his American currency in exchange for not having an opportunity to at least have sex with someone. Anyway, the Korean stripper wouldn't accept yen as payment for a lap dance. Yen is Japanese, after all, and the stripper was Korean. It's not all the same to them--even when you insist it should be. I told my friend to ask for a Japanese stripper instead. But you could tell he wasn't too hot on that idea, on account that he just broke up with a Japanese girl. I couldn't blame him, really. He probably didn't want to risk having his lap danced upon by somebody too much resembling his ex-girlfriend. She would have to be just Asian enough to create the right effect, though, that's for sure. That's why I thought it couldn't hurt to ask.

For my part, I was against the whole idea. It wasn't only because I knew my friend would hit me up for the cash. It wasn't only that, is what I'm saying. Because the truth of the matter is that I am something of a feminist, actually. I'm not really a practicing feminist--I haven't been in any parades or anything--but I've dated some girls and I'm pretty up on women's issues, as a general rule. I'm not afraid to admit it, either. The only problem with being a feminist is that you can't admit it all the time. Like when you're hanging around strippers, trying your damndest to be nonchalant on account that you have no money to squander on their services. That's probably one of the worst times to present the old feminist argument--even though it's probably one of times when you really should. That's my problem with the old feminist argument. It always seems like the times when you really should present the old feminist argument are always the worst times to do it. Anyway, I had a lot of respect for this Korean girl. I didn't want to see her compromise herself by accepting my American dollars for the entertainment purposes of my friend. But I knew all too well the old stripper feminist-counter argument. Strippers have a feminist-counter argument which they will use whenever you try to present them with the old feminist one. I won't elaborate on the old feminist-counter argument. I'll just say I knew better than to try to present the old feminist argument, in this particular circumstance. I didn't trust this Korean stripper enough that she wouldn't bring up the old feminist-counter argument right in my face. So I just kept the old feminist argument to my damn self, even though it would have been good for everyone to hear it.