Covering one of the most important stories of our time — the run-up to war in Iraq — our nation’s top reporters and editors blew it. Badly. Their credulous, stenographic recitation of the administration’s deeply flawed arguments for war made them de facto accomplices to a war undertaken on false pretenses.
So what can we in the industry do to encourage, by contrast, the kind of courageous journalism practiced during that period by Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau? That was the topic of a spirited panel discussion that immediately followed last week’s presentation of the first annual I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence to that bureau’s chief, John Walcott. You can read Walcott’s acceptance speech here. The complete transcript is available here, and the video will be availably on this site shortly.
The seven members of the panel — among them Walcott, New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer and New York Review of Books media critic Michael Massing — agreed that fear was the biggest factor in the press’s decision not to challenge President Bush and his aides as they made what turned out to be a plainly specious case for war.
The country was solidly behind Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the administration branded those who raised too many questions as unpatriotic, some of those who did buck the administration line found themselves subject to harassment, and too many mainstream reporters and editors were worried about losing readers if they swam against the political tide.
Panelists said pressures were great in some newsrooms — particularly where the corporate leadership was concerned with appearing out of step with the country. Though there wasn’t any consensus about why some organizations were more susceptible than others — and why the most important outlets were among the most susceptible — there was a clear sense that the fearfulness of a newsroom is a management failure. The panel didn’t come up with a solution, but it did hold up Walcott and Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) as a model.
Walcott was a rare editor who neither felt nor passed along such fears. Furthermore, he encouraged his reporters to keep going even when it was clear no one was following. “I think the first boss responsibility is to try to defeat the cynicism that has invaded the profession,” he said. That means countering the voice that says “nobody listens, and the message machine is too powerful, and — you know — why should I continue to work 16 or 18 hours a day to do stuff when it doesn’t matter, when it doesn’t get traction, and without that, we’re going nowhere.”
The panel also acknowledged that self-censorship and a lack of courage have been common throughout the history of American journalism. “When you most want a courageous press, you don’t get it,” growled panelist Gilbert Cranberg, a former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register. “When feelings run high… you have the press in full herd mode as it was in the run up to the Iraq war and you don’t get the kind of skepticism that is absolutely essential.”
And despite the explosion of blogs and alternate news sources, the panel also noted how the most elite traditional news outlets continue to set the nation’s political agenda. Indeed, Massing pointed out that “with all the cutbacks that have gone on at many papers, particularly these … once very good regional papers, like the Boston Globe and Newsday and the Baltimore Sun and so on, these sort of elite organizations have in some ways become more important, and the New York Times and Washington Post in particular.”
That means they are under more obligation than ever, as well. So, focusing somewhat on those elite outlets, the panel discussed possible ways in which the press could do a better job of living up to the spirit of I.F. Stone and playing a watchdog role.
Among the constructive suggestions advocated by the panel:
- Be particularly vigilant and work hard to route around what’s become a highly professional misinformation machine. Said Mayer: “I think that what we have seen is the professionalization of the spin machine to a point where it’s outmastering the press in a way.” It used to be — and may or may not be again — that White House reporters, for instance, had frequent access to the administration’s decisionmakers. No more. “There’s such a professional handling operation now,” said Mayer. “It’s really hard to get past it and I think you have to be very sophisticated, very determined, and pretty savvy to get around it. And a lot of the people who are new to reporting — and maybe in the blogosphere, and in the television networks and cable — are just not up to it.”
- Acknowledge scoops by rival news organizations, then follow them up, like a relay team. “One of the things that I did in the book that I think maybe would be useful if people did more often just generally in daily reporting, was to give credit and follow up on other people’s reporting,” Mayer said, referring to “The Dark Side,” her recent chronicle of the Bush administration’s war on terror. “There is some kind of bias that editors have that if somebody else has broken a story, and you even acknowledge that they’ve broke the story… that you can’t do your own version of it. And in fact, what it prohibits then, is following up and adding on…. It would have been better if the New York Times and Washington Post [had] said, ‘What are these curveball stories?’ and ran with it and took it further.” Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the panel’s moderator, pointed out: “[T]hat’s very much the model that scientists use in trying to investigate a problem, who do not work in large institutions but really sort of work as singular researchers in collaboration with each other.”
- Don’t just write for people inside the Beltway. “One distinction between the way we looked at this march to war and the way the Washington Post and New York Times did was driven by the fact that we don’t own newspapers in Washington or New York,” said Walcott. “We’re not writing for those people. We were writing, and it was very much on my mind the whole time, for the mothers and the fathers and the sisters and brothers and the sons and the daughters of the people who were going to be sent to fight this war because we own the paper in Columbus, Georgia where Fort Benning is; [in] Lexington, Kentucky, near Fort Campbell; in Fort Worth, Texas, near Fort Hood; [in] Wichita and Kansas City near Fort Riley. That’s who we were writing for and that’s who we were thinking about. Is the administration making a case that justifies sending those young men and women into what the administration was arguing were going to be clouds of sarin gas and heaven knows what else. Whereas in Washington, it was all about what was going on inside the beltway. I think it’s a different perspective.” Added Rosensteil: “Yeah, that’s a very interesting point at a time when coverage of national affairs is being essentially abdicated to a handful of national outlets for whom the audience is not a community but more of an abstraction.”
- Beat reporters should be doing accountability stories. “Every reporter in every bureau should be an investigative reporter,” said Walcott. “In our bureau, for example, we have a national staff, and they are the ones who are assigned to State, Defense, Justice, the environment, economics. But, we have a big staff of regional reporters, who report, each one, for each of the 30 papers we own. Now, you know, the guys who are reporting for papers in Idaho, or Alaska, or Washington State ought to be the ones investigating the agriculture department, the forest service, et cetera. And they are. Everybody ought to be doing investigative work. We have seen, over the past 7+ years, regulatory changes that are mind-boggling. And now, the evidence is starting to come out that this was largely political. Everybody should be a regulatory watchdog in that sense.“
- Cover the federal agencies. Panelist Florence Graves, who heads the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, shared information about how few full-time reporters are assigned to key federal agencies. “Apart from the major departments, such as Defense and State, Treasury, et cetera… comparatively few reporters are now being assigned to cover, in many cases, any of these agencies,” she said. As a result, “they can get away with — I don’t want to say murder — but, these agencies can get away with a lot. There’s no one watching them.”
- Avoid he-said she-said reporting in favor of trying to ascertain the truth. In his acceptance speech, Walcott spoke of the need for journalists to stop triangulating. “Does the truth lie halfway between say, slavery and abolition, or between segregation and civil rights, or between communism and democracy?” he asked. Panelist Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, despaired about the “tweedledee, tweedledum, ’on the one hand, on the other hand’ relativistic type story, which is basically pabulum. The average reader’s eyes glaze over on the second graph. That’s what passes for most reporting. It’s volleyball, basically, and that is very irritating. And, oh yeah, the truth, where was that? And so it’s a really serious problem and I think it’s gotten much worse.”
- Embrace the frankness, the authority and the transparency of journalistic blogs. “I’m so often amazed at how reporting on the blog does not make its way into the newspaper,” said Massing. “And there’s even material about how the story itself was gotten, and what got into it and what had to be left out because they either couldn’t nail it down, or the access was limited and so on…. There’s like a separation of blogosphere and newspaper reporting that I’d like to see broken down. And more of that sort of contextual — both analysis and the story behind the story — brought into the newspapers. I think not only would it be enlightening, but it would actually bring in more readers because it’s another way of reporting the news, it’s very, very engaging and engrossing.”
Dan Froomkin is the deputy editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project. He also writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. This article originally appeared on www.niemanwatchdog.org.