Bush and the Press in the Age of Chaos

The media must get tougher — even on itself

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Village Voice, September 28th, 2004

After a fortnight of frenzy, the commotion over CBS’s “exclusive” but inauthentic memos about President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard has thankfully died down a bit.

Does CBS’s stumble matter very much on the larger canvas of our presidential election campaign? Not really, though it did give those in the Bush camp fresh gloating ammunition in their war with the national press. Perhaps the gaffe’s major accomplishment was in providing yet another confirmation that both our journalism community and our government are in the grip of chaos — no rules, no holds barred. 

Dan Rather knew better than to rush pell-mell to air these supposedly new documents when in truth — if they were true — all they added to the story of George Bush’s hideaway days in the National Guard were a few decorative touches to a narrative that was already clear and beyond denial. Bush, after all, did get into the National Guard through family pull, thus avoiding the Vietnam War, and he did flout the rules and goof off while there. But Rather and CBS were in the throes of scoop — lust, a disease that has afflicted pretty much every breathing journalist at one time or another. They, like legions before them, succumbed to the fever. And now they have acknowledged their screwup and have apologized publicly. 

However, many in the press community, perhaps feeling superior that they weren’t in the docket themselves this time, are still dissecting the Rather affair. They do so at their peril. For the next act of journalism malpractice is always just around the corner.

For confirmation, just glance at a short list of contemporary scandals. In 1981, it was the Washington Post story about an eight-year old heroin addict. It won a Pulitzer Prize and made the paper proud, until it turned out that the boy was a composite fabricated by the reporter. The prize had to be returned. Then came Hitler’s diaries, which Newsweek and others published in 1983 and which, of course, were forgeries. In 1998, there was a virtual epidemic. Two columnists were forced to resign from The Boston Globe for making stuff up. The New Republic also produced and disgorged a concocter. Topping off the year, CNN and Time magazine, in a Time Warner venture into synergy, ran a story, later retracted, that said the U.S. military had used lethal sarin nerve gas on a secret 1970 mission in Laos. 

More recently, The New York Times published two prominent mea culpas — one about failures in its coverage of the case of Wen Ho Lee, the falsely accused scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and another about the serial plagiarism and fabrications of Jayson Blair. After the latter black eye, the paper’s two top editors resigned. And early this year, Jack Kelley, USA Today‘s star foreign correspondent, resigned when it was revealed he had made up key parts of a number of stories.

Until someone invents android reporters, incidents of human error, weakness, and sometimes venality will continue to happen. The question is not whether we are too reckless or aggressive, but whether we are willing to examine ourselves in an ongoing, systemic way, as professionals should. 

Ideological critics of a freewheeling press would have us believe that journalists are too adversarial in their reporting and therefore injurious to the smooth governing of a complex society in a turbulent world. The true problem is that reporters are not aggressive enough — or professional enough. Being aggressive means charging hard at a story that the government or a private power center doesn’t want revealed. Being professional means not presenting the story to the public until facts are nailed down. Professionalism also requires admitting to fallibility. Perhaps the greatest sin of Big Media today is in offering up virtually all its stories in a tone of omniscience — while rarely including a paragraph stating prominently the elements of the story that are still unknown or in dispute.

Which brings us to the unwholesome attributes the journalism world has come to share too often with our governing elites. The American presidency has become an imperial presidency, never more so than with the current officeholder. George W. Bush, like much of the press, speaks in an omniscient tone. He says God is on his side. We say the Constitution is on ours. 

I believe the real scandal is that the big news companies have evolved in such a way that at times their behavior closely resembles that of the government bodies and private power centers they are supposed to be examining. One of those power centers is Big Media itself. 

Consider this: Both Big Media and the governing centers have developed shrunken attention spans. (Whatever happened, for instance, to the banner-headline issue known as Abu Ghraib?) Also, both have become more committed to short-term profits and results, frequently at the expense of quality or long-term public benefit. Both have bought into the notion that because the world communicates much faster now, there is less time to make sure of facts, less time to be gatekeepers against louche information. A common refrain of news editors these days is that to keep pace with their competitors, they have no choice but to publish information on the first available news vehicle, including the Internet. Their defense is that they can correct the stuff just as quickly. But some of what’s being shoveled to the public is just rumor or speculation. How do you get that back in the bag once it’s out there in the ether? And where in all this speed-of-light action is there any provision for time to think?

We in the news business are part of a real struggle now about what kind of future this nation is to have, about whether we are to descend into toxic partisan warfare and suppression of dissent. We can’t shy away from the fight out of fear of being called names, such as unpatriotic. This is no game of beanbag at recess. We have to be adversaries of imperial presidencies — responsible adversaries, loyal adversaries. One of the reasons this nation is in such a fix now is that the mainstream press, Big Media, failed to be sufficiently aggressive or determined at the start in examining this president’s rationale and premises for going to war. We have been much too compliant in serving as stenographers to the powerful.

One last thought. My guess is that if the journalism community is to go through a reformation, the energy will have to come from reporters and editors in the newsrooms — not from the corporate proprietors above. However well-intentioned their souls, these proprietors are under pressure to produce a profit. And the overemphasis on profits is one of the forces that has brought us to our present condition. 

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