Mainstream Media Complicit in March to War

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For
those of us who get our news on-line, we were somewhat surprised
by an
article that was written by Howard Kurtz
of The Washington
Post August 12, 2004:

Stories
Pushed Aside in March to War
Post
says it underplayed skeptical reports on WMDs

The
reader is strongly encouraged to put the Kurtz article under a microscope
of objective analysis. It is a goldmine of contradictions and propaganda.

Since
it is obvious that one doesn't bite the hand that feeds it, why
would Kurtz suddenly be so critical of his own management? The obvious
answer is that his management is actually promoting this article
not because it is pursuing the truth, but because it has an agenda.
It is trying to rescue its credibility by appearing to show that
it allows criticism when it makes a mistake. Credibility is important
for a news source that derives revenues from subscribers and advertisers.
In the long run, this article is all about The Washington Post's
viability and ability to generate profits in the future.

The
basic technique employed in the Kurtz article is to plead guilty
to a minor offense and thereby proclaim innocence of the major crime.
The minor offense is that The Washington Post allowed an
overwhelming information load to outweigh the need to investigate
the opposing viewpoint. "It underplayed skeptical reports on
WMDs." It got caught up in group-think. That seems innocent
enough. After all, anybody can make a mistake.

However,
The Washington Post plays a major role in shaping national
opinion on issues such as a commitment to go to war. Is The Post
guilty of the major crime of participating in a massive propaganda
scheme to agitate for war?

Kurtz's
article acknowledges that "some critics say the media, including
The Washington Post, failed the country by not reporting
more skeptically on President Bush's contentions during the war
run up." But Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr. excuses the
paper with the following statement:

We
were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration
was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who
said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning
the administration's rationale. Not enough of those stories
were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part.

This
is an excuse befitting The National Enquirer, but is this
acceptable from The Washington Post? This is the newspaper
that brought down the Nixon administration by exposing Watergate.
It sees itself as a watchdog of government and attempts to portray
that image to the public. Watergate reporter Bob Woodward still
plays a key role on the paper and, as the Kurtz article pointed
out, was in a position to influence the positioning of articles
questioning the wisdom of going to war.

No
doubt The Washington Post would claim fiercely that it defends
the interests of "the common man" against the predations
of the powerful, including the powerful in government. And yet the
Kurtz article quotes Post reporter Karen DeYoung as follows:

If
the president stands up and says something, we report what the
president said. [if contrary arguments] are put in the eighth
paragraph, where they're not on the front page, a lot of people
don't read that far.

Students
of propaganda techniques will recognize what DeYoung is doing: deflecting
the responsibility for misinterpretation to the reader. Her rationalization
seems to be, "After all, I put the contrary arguments in the
article, but it is your fault that you didn't read the whole article."
But Kurtz has already acknowledged that The Washington Post
edited articles to place what it believed to be most important information
on the front page. The Washington Post was intentionally
communicating its judgment — read what we put on the front page.
It is important. This is the president speaking and he certainly
must know more than others in the government.

This
is not just a matter of government's watchdog being asleep. The
watchdog was very much awake and licking the hand of the administration
feeding it stories. In short, The Washington Post had become
nothing more than the administration's propaganda conveyer belt.

One
would think that a true apology was merited, yet the Kurtz article
makes it plain that no apologies will be forthcoming. Liz Spaed,
the assistant managing editor for national news, states:

I
believe we pushed as hard or harder than anyone to question
the administration’s assertions on all kinds of subjects related
to the war. . . . Do I wish we would have had more and pushed
harder and deeper into questions of whether they possessed weapons
of mass destruction? Absolutely. Do I feel we owe our readers
an apology? I don’t think so.

Then
there is Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr.'s parting shot, the
thought that The Washington Post really wants its readers
to be left with:

People
who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been
critical of the media’s coverage in the period before the war
have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded
against the war. They have the mistaken impression that somehow
if the media’s coverage had been different, there wouldn’t have
been a war.

Try
to picture a situation in which the mainstream media opposed the
war and the administration still proceeded on the warpath. Picture
a Congress able to stand up to the media and the screams of its
constituents. Downie's assertion is the third part of the blessed
trinity of myths, the first two being that there is a Santa Claus
and an Easter Bunny.

The
Washington Post is not the only sheepish newspaper to do a mea
culpa. The New York Times has likewise been forced to
admit that it allowed the drums of war to overwhelm rationality.
But these papers are hardly standard bearers for neo-conservatism.
How did they allow themselves to be "hoodwinked" into
parroting the current administration's party line? How is it that
supposedly left-wing media as well as media from the Right were
so in-harness with the Bush team? Two possibilities come to mind:

  • Wars are
    sensational. They sell newspapers.
  • There
    is a symbiotic relationship between most of the mainstream media
    and the state that transcends traditional ideological loyalty.

Mainstream
reporters and editors are very comfortable with administration sources
of information, but construct immense barriers to opposing ideas.
In effect, they are elitist as well as statist. Who you are is far
more important than the veracity of what you say. While they may
rationalize this bias based upon publishing time pressures, as the
Kurtz article has done, the bottom line is that the sale of newspapers
and the building of journalism careers assumes first priority. Truth
is an also ran.

That,
however, still fails to explain The Washington Post's full
agenda in releasing the Kurtz article. To fully understand, we must
await the coming months’ run up to the national elections. However,
a reasonable prediction can be made today. Having done its mea
culpa, and its readership having forgotten The Washington
Post's responsibility in our march to war with Iraq, it will
gradually find more and more to criticize the Bush administration.
Finally, it will come out with an unqualified endorsement for John
Kerry, conveniently forgetting that Kerry supported the Iraq war
resolution. In doing so, it will sell a lot of newspapers and appear
to be taking the moral high ground. The Right will rail against
The Post along with the rest of the "liberal media"
and very little will appear to have changed on the American political
scene. The average citizen, perhaps, will be even more cynical midway
through the next administration, whoever wins in 2004.

One
should not be depressed by the duplicity of the mainstream media
since the voluntary sector can offer a correction. If one finds
a vacuum in media coverage, it is possible to fill that void with
the opposing point of view. That is easier to do in the Internet
Age than ever before. However, the Kurtz article suggests another
weapon against biased news coverage. Never before has it been so
easy to analyze reporting over a period of time. That is why both
The Washington Post and The New York Times have been
forced to publish their phony mea culpas. Every publication
in America ought to be exposed to that same scrutiny. This is a
contest in which David has the clear advantage over Goliath.

August
16, 2004

Phil
Duffy [send him mail]
is a software consultant in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

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