Meet the Stenographers
Press shirks duty to scrutinize official claims
A bizarre debate has emerged regarding whether journalists have a duty to investigate and assess the credibility of sources and their claims. Some highly placed journalists seem to say such judgments are not their job. Citing what they say are journalistic principles, they claim that investigating and reporting about the veracity of claims and the credibility of sources is just not what they do.
In fact, it’s not only their job, it’s an essential task of journalism. The Society of Professional Journalists is very clear on the subject: At the top of the group’s Code of Ethics, under the heading “Seek Truth and Report It,” the very first tenet implores journalists to “test the accuracy of information from all sources.” Another tenet stresses the importance of gauging the credibility of sources: “The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.”
But from the Iraq Warto the 2004 presidential race, reporters shirked their journalistic duty to take a critical approach to official and partisan claims—to document them when they are true, and debunk them when they are false. Indeed, many journalists have become little more than stenographers, repeating whatever they are told without question.
“Professionalism” on Iraq
In a column lamenting the media’s largely uncritical acceptance of White House claims regarding the Iraq War and occupation, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius (4/27/04) attributed this failure to “professionalism.” Citing unnamed “journalistic rules,” Ignatius argued that journalists couldn’t scrutinize administration claims unless the questions were first raised by high profile Democrats and other elites:
In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn’t create a debate on our own.
As a New York Times reporter covering the Iraq War, Judith Miller’s reporting on WMD was unrivaled in its influence, if not in its accuracy. Her coverage relentlessly played up the Iraq WMD threat (“All of Iraq is one large storage facility” for WMD, she credulously quoted a pseudonymous source—9/8/02), while muting conflicting evidence. Miller explained how she saw her role in a New York Review of Books interview (2/26/04):
My job was not to collect information and analyze it independently as an intelligence agency; my job was to tell readers of the New York Times, as best as I could figure out, what people inside the governments who had very high security clearances, who were not supposed to talk to me, were saying to one another about what they thought Iraq had and did not have in the area of weapons of mass destruction.
Miller’s work was prominently cited in a Times mea culpa on May 26, 2004, in which the paper’s editors apologized for a lack of skepticism toward sources hyping a non-existent Iraqi WMD arsenal.
Prejudice for the president
While Miller and Ignatius claim that professional constraints kept them from fact-checking their sources’ claims and from confronting them with contradictory information, CBS News anchor Dan Rather offered a competing reason why Iraq War coverage often left the public badly informed. Fielding a question on Iraq coverage at a Harvard forum on the media (7/25/04), Rather explained his journalistic philosophy as it applies to covering the most powerful source on the planet:
Look, when a president of the United States, any president, Republican or Democrat, says these are the facts, there is heavy prejudice, including my own, to give him the benefit of any doubt, and for that I do not apologize.
The Harvard forum revealed even more reasons why news media might not dig deeply into dubious claims promoted by a conservative White House. In a discussion that included several nightly news anchors, there was general agreement that media were under increasing pressure from well-organized right-wing activists. ABC anchor Peter Jennings described the impact of conservative activists:
I think there is this anxiety in the newsroom and I think it comes in part from the corporate suite. I think that the rise, not merely of conservative opinion in the country, but the related noise being made in the media by conservative voices these days, has an effect on the corporate suites…. This wave of resentment rushes at our advertisers, rushes at the corporate suites and gets under the newsroom skin, if not completely into the decision-making process, to a greater degree than it has before.
Rather’s admission that many, himself included, share a presumption in favor of the president’s truthfulness, and Jennings’ acknowledgement of an ever-present conservative pressure on newsrooms, may help to explain why George W. Bush has gotten away with so many deceptive declarations. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne (9/24/04) observed on coverage of the 2004 campaign: “A press corps that relentlessly nitpicked Al Gore in 2000 in search of ‘little lies’ and exaggerations has given Bush wide latitude to make things up.”
Consider Bush’s statement about Saddam Hussein, made at a joint press conference with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (7/14/03): “We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in.” This charge, repeated at a joint press conference with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski (1/27/04), is an astonishingly brazen falsehood, given that U.N. inspectors were busily going about their work in Iraq with a great deal of publicity in the months before the U.S. invasion, yet it was not even reported by most media outlets. The New York Times, for instance, never mentioned it. The Washington Post’s report on the comment (7/15/03) took pains to avoid calling it a lie, instead writing that the president’s assertion “appeared to contradict the events.”
The media’s habit of tiptoeing around the truth and the patent refusal of many reporters to call things by their proper names prompted Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and one of the few trenchant media critics in the mainstream press corps, to write this grim assessment (9/6/02):
The next time the administration insists that chocolate is vanilla, much of the media—fearing accusations of liberal bias, trying to create the appearance of “balance”—won’t report that the stuff is actually brown; at best they’ll report that some Democrats claim that it’s brown.
When “the facts” are lies
The rise of the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth marked another episode in which many reporters seemed to abandon any attempt to ascertain the reality of the story—and some defended this dereliction as a professional virtue.
The Swift Boat Vets’ claims that Democratic candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam record was fabricated and his awards undeserved were given widespread publicity, particularly in August, in the period between the Democratic and Republican conventions. Many attribute Kerry’s slide in the polls at this time to the group’s campaign—and its amplification by the bountiful media attention it received.
At the time, Swift Boat Vet coverage came under fire from critics who said journalists had failed to adequately expose the group’s misleading and contradictory claims (American Prospect, 8/23/04; CJR Campaign Desk, 8/25/04). They pointed out that the coverage often amounted to little more than a presentation of Swift Boat Vet charges set alongside rebuttals from the Kerry camp, a form of “some say/ others differ” reporting that assigned equal weight and credence to each side and left the public at a loss as to who was telling the truth.
When Editor & Publisher reporter Joe Strupp (8/24/04) interviewed Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie about Swift Boat coverage, he asked about a front-page Post article (8/22/04) that, in Strupp’s words, “appeared to give equal credibility to both Kerry’s version of the events in Vietnam (which is supported by his crewmates and largely backed up by a paper trail) and the Swift Boat Veterans.”
Defending his paper, Downie told Strupp that some Post reporting had undermined the Swift Boat Vets, but added: “We are not judging the credibility of Kerry or the [Swift Boat] Veterans; we just print the facts.”
As Strupp and others have pointed out, the Kerry vs. Swift Boat Veterans judgment was not exactly a hard one: On Kerry’s side you had the official military record and virtually everyone who served on Kerry’s boat; on the other, a well-funded group of anti-Kerry activists with considerable links to the Bush camp, whose leaders have a penchant for falsehood and self-contradiction (CJR Campaign Desk, 8/25/04).
That’s not the way NPR’s Washington editor saw it, though. Responding to similar criticisms about Swift Boat coverage, NPR’s Ron Elving told NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin (NPR.org, 8/25/04): “There is no way that journalism can satisfy those who think that Kerry is a liar or that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are liars.”
In fact, journalism would eventually reveal many Swift Boat claims to be, yes, lies, with belated exposés published by the New York Times (8/20/04), Chicago Tribune (8/22/04) and Nightline (9/14/04). (The most comprehensive exposé of Swift Boat Vet mendacity, though, has been done by Bob Somerby of the website Daily Howler; see, e.g., 8/23/04, 9/14-17/04.)
In late August a forceful Los Angeles Times editorial (8/24/04) declared the Swift Boat Vet charges “false.” However, then the editors went on to say that news reporters at the Times were constrained from doing the same: “But the canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false…. Not limited by the conventions of our colleagues in the newsroom, we can say it outright: These charges against John Kerry are false.”
The editors don’t explain what journalistic canons restrict journalists from calling a falsehood a falsehood—from calling things what they are.
Pushing the limits
However mysterious, the belief in this convention is widespread, particularly among mainstream journalists, and it has touched other campaign coverage.
In October a listener wrote to NPR, complaining about NPR host Juan Williams’ interview with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (10/5/04). Criticizing Williams for failing to hold the governor accountable for what she saw as deceptive statements, the listener wrote: “What I heard was Jeb Bush getting a free run to state his politics with no questioning of his obvious wrong and misleading statements. This is not the first time I have heard Williams ‘interview’ this way.”
A week later, she received a personal note from Williams defending his softball style:
Thanks for the note. The interview with Governor Bush, as with other public officials, is intended to allow them to state their views and positions. That allows you, and others, to make an informed decision about their policies and actions.
If Williams had an interest in any possible “wrong and misleading statements” by his interview subject, he didn’t express them to the listener. Nor did he explain how listeners are supposed to make an “informed decision” when the people whose job it is to inform them refuse to do so.
On those occasions where journalists do set out to hold news subjects accountable for dubious claims, the results can be bizarre. A New York Times article (10/8/04) addressing George W. Bush’s habit of taking liberties with the truth started out well enough. Headlined “In His New Attacks, Bush Pushes Limit on the Facts,” the article documented a pattern of Bush distortions—including claims that as president, Kerry planned to “wait for a grade from other nations” before acting in self-defense, to raise taxes on the middle class and to install a vast national healthcare system.
However, at the crux of the piece, in place of what should have been a simple declarative sentence assessing Bush’s credibility, the reader was confronted by this tortured, anonymously sourced sentence: “Several analysts say Mr. Bush pushed the limits of subjective interpretation and offered exaggerated or what some Democrats said were distorted accounts of Mr. Kerry’s positions on health care, tax cuts, the Iraq war and foreign policy.”
Letting the country down
The media’s refusal to call a distortion a distortion or to question a source’s credibility has received little criticism from most journalists, and a spirited defense from some. However, criticism has sprung up in some prominent non-journalist circles.
Reacting to the media’s “he said/she said” reporting in the Swift Boat Veterans episode, Comedy Central’s Daily Show (8/23/04) ran a parody of the coverage with anchor Jon Stewart grilling “reporter” Rob Corddry:
Stewart: Here’s what puzzles me most, Rob. John Kerry’s record in Vietnam is pretty much right there in the official records of the U.S. military, and hasn’t been disputed for 35 years.
Corddry: That’s right, Jon, and that’s certainly the spin you’ll be hearing coming from the Kerry campaign over the next few days.
Stewart: That’s not a spin thing, that’s a fact. That’s established.
Corddry: Exactly, Jon, and that established, incontrovertible fact is one side of the story.
Stewart: But isn’t that the end of the story? I mean, you’ve seen the records, haven’t you? What’s your opinion?
Corddry: I’m sorry, “my opinion”? I don’t have opinions. I’m a reporter, Jon, and my job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called “objectivity”—might want to look it up some day.
Stewart: Doesn’t objectivity mean objectively weighing the evidence, and calling out what’s credible and what isn’t?
Corddry: Whoa-ho! Sounds like someone wants the media to act as a filter! Listen, buddy: Not my job to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening to me.
Rock musician Bruce Springsteen delivered a more sober but no less pointed critique. In a Rolling Stone interview (9/22/04) largely about his political views, Springsteen offered this assessment of media coverage of the campaign:
The press has let the country down. It’s taken a very amoral stand, in that essential issues are often portrayed as simply one side says this and the other side says that. I think that Fox News and the Republican right have intimidated the press into an incredible self-consciousness about appearing objective and backed them into a corner of sorts where they have ceded some of their responsibility and righteous power.