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Chicago TribuneBennett, Lawrence, and Livingston are indisputably right about the news media's dereliction in covering the administration's campaign to take the nation to war against Iraq.
— Don Wycliff
A sobering look at the intimate relationship between political power and the news media, When the Press Fails argues the dependence of reporters on official sources disastrously thwarts coverage of dissenting voices from outside the Beltway.
The result is both an indictment of official spin and an urgent call to action that questions why the mainstream press failed to challenge the Bush administration’s arguments for an invasion of Iraq or to illuminate administration policies underlying the Abu Ghraib controversy. Drawing on revealing interviews with Washington insiders and analysis of content from major news outlets, the authors illustrate the media’s unilateral surrender to White House spin whenever oppositional voices elsewhere in government fall silent. Contrasting these grave failures with the refreshingly critical reporting on Hurricane Katrina—a rare event that caught officials off guard, enabling journalists to enter a no-spin zone—When the Press Fails concludes by proposing new practices to reduce reporters’ dependence on power.
“The hand-in-glove relationship of the U.S. media with the White House is mercilessly exposed in this determined and disheartening study that repeatedly reveals how the press has toed the official line at those moments when its independence was most needed.”—George Pendle, Financial Times
“Bennett, Lawrence, and Livingston are indisputably right about the news media’s dereliction in covering the administration’s campaign to take the nation to war against Iraq.”—Don Wycliff, Chicago Tribune
“[This] analysis of the weaknesses of Washington journalism deserves close attention.”—Russell Baker, New York Review of Books
— Don Wycliff
— James Boylan
— George Pendle
— Russell Baker
— Jim Boyd
— Jonathan McDonald Ladd, Georgetown University
— Tamir Sheafer
We now know that officials in the Bush administration built a case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq that was open to serious challenge. We also know that evidence disputing ongoing official claims about the war was often available to the mainstream press in a timely fashion. Yet the recurrent pattern, even years into the conflict, was for the official government line to trump evidence to the contrary in the news produced by mainstream news outlets reaching the preponderance of the people. Several years into the conflict, public opinion finally began to reflect the reality of a disintegrating Iraq heading toward civil war, with American troops caught in the middle. But that reckoning came several years too late to head off a disaster that historians may well deem far worse than Vietnam.
There is little doubt that reporting which challenges the public pronouncements of those in power is difficult when anything deviating from authorized versions of reality is met with intimidating charges of bias. Out of fairness, the press generally reports those charges, which in turn reverberate through the echo chambers of talk radio and pundit TV, with the ironic result that the media contribute to their own credibility problem. Yet it is precisely the lack of clear standards of press accountability (particularly guidelines for holding officials accountable) that opens the mainstream news to charges of bias from all sides. In short, the absence of much agreement on what the press should be doing makes it all the more difficult for news organizations to navigate an independent course through pressurized political situations.
The key question is, can the American press as it is currently constituted offer critical, independent reporting when democracy needs it most? In particular, this book examines whether the press capable of offering viewpoints independent of government spin at two key moments when democracy would most benefit: (1) when government's own public-inquiry mechanisms fail to question potentially flawed or contentious policy initiatives, and (2) when credible sources outside government who might illuminate those policies are available to mainstream news organizations. It may seem obvious that the press should contest dubious policies under these circumstances, but our research indicates otherwise. The great irony of the U.S. press system is that it generally performs well-presenting competing views and vigorous debate-when government is already weighing competing initiatives in its various legal, legislative, or executive settings. Unfortunately, quite a different press often shows up when policy decisions of dubious wisdom go unchallenged within government arenas.
The Iraq Story as Told by the Unwritten Rules of Washington Journalism
Our story begins with the post-9/11 publicity given to the Bush administration's claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (the now infamous WMDs), and had connections to the terrorists who attacked the United States. Leading news organizations so emphasized those claims over available information to the contrary that two prestigious newspapers later issued apologies to their readers for having gotten so caught up in the inner workings of power in an administration determined to go to war that they lost focus on other voices and other views. Here are excerpts from a now legendary New York Times report from the editors to their readers:
We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged-or failed to emerge.
The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject matter, but many shared a common feature. They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on "regime change" in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks.... Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq....
Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.... Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.
Despite this introspection, much the same pattern of deferring to officials and underreporting available challenges to their claims would soon repeat itself-beginning the very month in which this critical self-assessment appeared-in reporting on the treatment of prisoners in U.S. military detention centers in Iraq and elsewhere. The importance of the Abu Ghraib story for understanding the close dependence of the press on government spin is developed more fully in chapter 3. For now, the point is that this pattern of calibrating political reality in the news to the inner circles of Washington power will go on, despite occasional moments of self-examination by the press, unless leading news organizations and the journalism profession somehow resolve (and develop a standard) to temper their preoccupation with the powerful officials whose communication experts often manage them so well.
Part of the reason the Iraq story was written much as the Bush administration told it is that nearly every installment was well staged and fed expertly to reporters. It also helped that during the events leading up to the war and much of its aftermath, the stories spun by the Bush team were pretty much the only sustained official versions in town-thanks in part to the particularly hard-hitting style of news management practiced by the administration (discussed in chapter 5). As indicated below, plenty of other sources and bodies of evidence outside official Washington power circles could have been elevated to challenge the administration's stories, but those challenges either did not emerge aggressively or were reported only in passing-again, because of the administration's tactics and the unwritten rules followed by the mainstream press for selecting, emphasizing, and sustaining stories. And so, from the WMD story that sold the war to the "mission accomplished" Hollywood ending (which, of course, did not mark the "end" of the war), the unwritten rule of favoring prepackaged, officially sanctioned news events reveals why the ideal of a watchdog press is in trouble.
Consider for a moment that day in May of 2003, when President Bush, wearing a Top Gun flight suit, gave his "Mission Accomplished" speech on an aircraft carrier staged as a big-screen movie set. Nearly every major U. S. news organization reported the story just as it had been scripted. The result was the sort of public relations coup that occurs only when the news can be managed on such a scale. (We believe that the idea originated with a public relations consultant, and was then staged with the considerable resources of the White House communication office and the U.S. military.)
Beyond the irony of a president with a dubious military service record playing Top Gun, the message channeled through the news turned out to be disastrously wrong. But such details were no match for the Hollywood moments that the administration regularly rolled out with the help of Hollywood set directors and Washington PR firms. The news had become something of a reality TV program, replete with dramatic stories from top organizations such as the Washington Post, which published the following:
When the Viking carrying Bush made its tailhook landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off California yesterday, the scene brought presidential imagery to a whole new level. Bush emerged from the cockpit in a full olive flight suit and combat boots, his helmet tucked jauntily under his left arm. As he exchanged salutes with the sailors, his ejection harness, hugging him tightly between the legs, gave him the bowlegged swagger of a top gun.
The fact that all of this was known to have been staged just for this effect did not detract from the amount and prominence of news coverage the media lavished on the event. To the contrary, the orchestration of the event fit perfectly with the unwritten rules of mainstream journalism in the United States, and thus helped make the coverage what it was: dramatic, unchallenged, triumphant, and resonant throughout the media. Beyond this staging, the implicit journalistic preoccupation with political power in Washington shaped the plotline of Mr. Bush's Top Gun episode. As a result, most of the coverage of the "mission accomplished" moment was not about whether the war was really over (it wasn't), or even if there was reason to think that things in Iraq were going particularly well (they weren't). The story was about power in Washington, and in particular, Mr. Bush's mastery of the imagery of success-which, at that moment, seemed to make him the odds-on favorite in the 2004 election.
The fascinating aspect of such recurrent reporting patterns is that the news itself is the completing link in the image creation process. Reporting stories according to a calculus of government power and dramatic production values often makes the news reality emanating from Washington an insular, circular, and self-fulfilling operation. News and politics loop quickly back on each other because of the press's preoccupation with how well powerful officials manage their desired images in the news. Thus, in early Iraq coverage, potentially important contextual details such as the dubious reasons and evidence given in support of the war became incidental to the fascination with whether the Bush administration had the image-shaping capacity and the political clout to pull it off.
The Selling of the Iraq War
Consider, along these lines, another important aspect of the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. Much as the Hollywood staging of the carrier landing made for a great news event, the campaign to sell the war was designed to help the press make the administration's story far sharper and more dramatic than the evidence on which it was based. More than a year after a seemingly manufactured case for war had been presented to the public, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) attempted to redefine the political debate by making a speech with this bold claim: "The administration capitalized on the fear created by 9/11 and put a spin on the intelligence and a spin on the truth to justify a war that could well be one of the worst blunders in more than two centuries of American foreign policy." He charged that the war was marketed like a "political product" to help elect Republicans, and that "if Congress and the American People knew the whole truth, America would never have gone to war." Kennedy was quickly dismissed by the Republican rapid-response network as a traitorous liberal throwback. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) said that "[Kennedy's] hateful attack against the commander in chief would be disgusting if it were not so sad," adding that Kennedy had "insulted the president's patriotism." The story was immediately reduced to the Washington news formula of "he said/he said," and the larger issue about selling the war based on false advertising was lost in a story about partisan sniping. Even without the vociferous Republican counterattack, Kennedy was not likely to be a decisive player in mobilizing congressional opposition to the war, and thus did not constitute a news source with enough power to sustain another side to the story.
Equally important, Senator Kennedy's assertion that the Bush administration had marketed the war as a partisan political product came as no news to journalists and other political insiders. A good piece of investigative reporting (characteristically not followed up by the Post or other news organizations) had already been produced six months before, establishing independent evidence for Kennedy's charges. Two journalists for the Washington Post described a systematic media campaign that had begun in August 2002 with the formation of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), aimed at rolling out a communication strategy for the coming war. WHIG's "strategic communications" task force planned publicity and news events for a campaign that would start in September, after most Americans (and Congress) had returned from their summer vacations. The Post story quoted White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, from an interview that had appeared in the New York Times nearly a year earlier, on why the campaign had been launched in September: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." This strong signal that the war was being promoted via a concerted communication campaign was in the news fully one and a half years before Kennedy's assertion.
The important question is, why didn't this journalistic "common knowledge" about the selling of the war become big news at the time it was first reported, when there was still time to debate the U.S. invasion of Iraq in public? To the contrary, when it was launched in September 2002, the administration's sales campaign was quickly translated into the news code of the mainstream press and told as a story about how power works in Washington. The fact that the administration was selling the war as a political campaign was noted for the record and then, like much of the its image management operation, passed on to the American public according to plan: prominently featured throughout the news, and unimpeded by serious journalistic investigation of either the sales operation or its veracity. As independent journalist Michael Massing later observed, "Most investigative energy was directed at stories that supported, rather than challenged, the administration's case." The result is that the public was saturated with the sales pitch, which was delivered loud and clear throughout the news media.
The nation's talk shows on the weekend after Labor Day 2002 were filled with Bush administration officials staying on message and reading from a script that pumped fear through the media echo chamber. On NBC's Meet the Press, Vice President Cheney raised the specter that Saddam's arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons presented an immediate danger to the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged on CNN's Late Edition that solid evidence was scarce, but that waiting only increased the risk. Her punch line: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned on CBS's Face the Nation: "Imagine a September 11 with weapons of mass destruction. It's not 3,000, it's tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children."
Excerpted from When the Press Fails by W. Lance Bennett Regina G. Lawrence Steven Livingston Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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The Press and Power
PRESS POLITICS IN AMERICA
The Case of the Iraq War
THE SEMI-INDEPENDENT PRESS
A Theory of News and Democracy
NONE DARE CALL IT TORTURE
Abu Ghraib and the Inner Workings of Press Dependence
THE NEWS REALITY FILTER
Why It Matters When the Press Fails
MANAGING THE NEWS
Spin, Status, and Intimidation in the Washington Political Culture
TOWARD AN INDEPENDENT PRESS
A Standard for Public Accountability
Evidence Suggesting a Connection
between Abu Ghraib and U.S. Torture Policy
Methods for Analyzing the News Framing of Abu Ghraib
Further Findings from the Content Analysis