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

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