If Old Journalism Dies…

Where will new media get the news?

By Sydney H. Schanberg 

Village Voice, November 29th, 2005

Chattering oracles are telling us that newspapers will die soon, as the Internet takes over. That may well be — and the Internet does carry wondrous potential for improving life (as well as voluminous drivel that used to be written on the walls of public toilets). But the puzzlement is, where will the new digital providers of information get their fresh news?

It is fresh news — daily, or at least weekly, news — that keeps citizens feeling connected to the decisions and events that alter their lives. And it is newspapers, and handful of probing magazines, that provide the most of the in-depth journalism that uncovers and analyzes those fast-moving decisions and events. Blogsters, please don’t jump out of your pajamas — lots of you are doing valuable and admirable work keeping mainstream journalism on its toes. But serious journalism is labor-intensive and time-consuming and therefore requires large amounts of money and health benefits and pensions. The blogosphere has plenty of time, but as yet none of the other items. 

So if and when newspapers fade into darkness, as the all-seeing oracles foretell, what will happen? Perhaps, in a future time of airborne pigs, altruism will suddenly infuse our culture, and money will descend, like manna, on the Internet to pay for the reporters to do the intensive journalism needed as a check on abusive power. And if altruism or labor-friendly corporate ideologies don’t magically appear? The oracles are mostly silent on that eventuality. Maybe they think samizdat is the answer. Maybe many of them don’t care. 

I don’t have any oracular solutions. My guess is that while serious reporting may not be delivered as often on paper made from trees, it will nonetheless live long and contribute to democracy in other delivery forms. This is so because it will always be propelled by abuses of power — and abuses of power are everlasting. It being the Thanksgiving season, I thought I would offer up, in thanks, some of the superior journalism I came across over the past few weeks. 

Los Angeles Times, November 20: an impressive 6,400-word piece on an Iraqi informant code-named “Curveball.” His unreliable statements to German intelligence officials about Iraq’s germ warfare weapons were not only used but exaggerated by the Bush administration to justify invading Iraq in 2003. Curveball has been examined in earlier news reports, but the striking L.A. Times piece — By Bob Drogin and John Goetz — is more detailed and breaks new ground. The German authorities, who are still holding Curveball, said they told their American counterparts that the man was mentally unstable and his information mostly secondhand, but that the CIA ignored their multiple warnings and dismissed certain proofs that he had lied. The agency didn’t admit error until May 2004, a year after the invasion. Both Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell used Curveball’s phony statements about “mobile biological weapons labs” prominently in major war-drum speeches before the war. The Times article quotes one of the German officials saying of this speeches: “We were shocked. Mein Gott! We had always told them it was not proven…It was not hard intelligence.” I recommend reading the story start to finish.

The New York Times and The Washington Post, November 6: Both the Times‘ Douglas Jehl and the Post‘s Walter Pincus write stories about a different Iraqi informant, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, based on a Defense Intelligence Agency document recently declassified at the request of Michigan Democratic senator Carl Levin. Jehl’s lead paragraph: “A top member of Al Qaeda in American custody was identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims that Iraq train Al Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons.” 

National Journal, November 22: Murray Waas reports that 10 days after the 9-11 attacks, “President Bush was told in a highly classified briefing that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the attacks and that there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda, according to government records and current and former officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter.” Waas reveals that Bush received information on September 21, 2001, at his regular morning national security briefing of 30 to 45 minutes by the CIA, which also provided the president with a printed summary of the briefing points. The specific briefing, Waas writes, “was prepared at the request of the president, who was eager in the days following the terrorist attacks to learn all that he could about any possible connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda.”

Rolling Stone, November 17: James Bamford, a highly regarded author who has spilled open the inner workings of the American intelligence community, writes a compelling saga about John Rendon, whose firm, the Rendon Group, “has made millions off government contracts since 1991, when it was hired by the CIA to help ‘create the conditions for the removal of  Hussein from power.’ Working under this extraordinary transfer of secret authority, Rendon assembled a group of anti-Saddam militants, personally gave them their name — the Iraqi National Congress — and served as their media guru and senior adviser.” Bamford says Rendon helped put Ahmad Chalabi at the helm of the INC. In the run-up to the Iraq war, Chalabi delivered to the Bush administration a series of Iraqi informants who claimed to have intelligence about Hussein’s supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction — the purported threat that was the White House’s major rationale for going to war. Bamford describes how this byzantine operation wove its way to Judith Miller of The New York Times and to an Australian Broadcasting Corporation correspondent. 

The Nation, November 21: William Greider gives us a deep insightful essay about the state of American journalism that goes beyond anything I’ve seen in recent times. It’s titled “All the King’s Media.” I’ll say no more; just read it.

On a concluding — and lighter — note, the White House, gripped in the fog of insanity that accompanies the crumbling of a failed regime, insisted that its spokesman Scott McClellan did not speak the words he spoke at an October 31 press briefing. David Gregory of NBC News had said to McClellan, in laying the basis for a question about the Plamegate scandal, that “we know that” both Karl Rove and the indicted I. Lewis Libby had conversations with reporters about CIA operative Valerie Plame.

McClellan replied: “That’s accurate.” Transcripts from Congressional Quarterly and Federal News Service show it that way. So does the video. The White House is standing by its deranged rewrite, quoting McClellan as having said: “I don’t think that’s accurate.” See Joe Strupp’s November 9 story on the Editor & Publisher website (editorandpublisher.com) Also see the video, which is linked in the story.

It all depends on what you mean by the word truth.

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