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Trashing the media

Times Staff Writer

You dislike us. You really dislike us. Or maybe the harsher truth is, we’ve begun to dislike ourselves.

Let’s admit it: We in the mainstream media deserve some of this rancor and resentment after the year we’ve had. Jayson Blair’s serial falsehoods, the New York Times management crackup, the Washington Post’s gung-ho reporting (and later re-reporting) of the Pfc. Jessica Lynch rescue, media mogul Conrad Black’s financial faux pas, CBS’ leveraging of a Michael Jackson interview and entertainment special -- the list of snafus in 2003 goes on and on.

No wonder so many people have been taking us to task: pundits, bloggers, journalism school professors and politicians right up to and including the president of the United States, who told Brit Hume of Fox News that he rarely reads newspapers because “a lot of times there’s opinions mixed in with news.” Instead, Bush revealed, he relies on “people on my staff who tell me what’s happening in the world.” Not only are mainstream media untrustworthy, Bush implied, but also largely irrelevant.

The leader of the free world isn’t alone in his meager estimation of the fourth estate. It’s no secret that the public’s faith in the mass media has been slipping for years, that journalists today are regarded by many Americans as predatory, biased, out of touch with readers, motivated by personal agendas, complacent and complicit with the corporate and governmental powers that be.

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In a poll of 1,201 adults conducted last summer by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 56% of those surveyed said news organizations “often report inaccurately,” 62% thought the media “try to cover up mistakes” and 53% believed the media “are politically biased.” Seventy percent also said the media were “influenced by the powerful,” and 56% said journalists don’t care about the people they report on. Most of these negative numbers have held steady for some time, although public perceptions of the media improved briefly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

What’s striking today is how many media insiders and observers agree that the profession is falling down on the job. Bookstands teem with teeth-gnashing titles testifying to the media’s alleged moral vacuousness, lack of fairness and independence, or sheer incompetence: “Journalistic Fraud: How the New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer Be Trusted”; “Off With Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks & Obstructionists in American Politics, Media & Business”; “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception -- How the Media Failed to Cover the War On Iraq”; “Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us”; “Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News.”

(Rule of thumb: Any book about the media with a subtitle of five or more words probably won’t be flattering.)

Many of these new books, along with stacks of newspaper columns and magazine articles, are being written not by Beltway spin-meisters and hard-core ideologues but by veteran journalists, career newsmen and -women who’ve come to some grim conclusions about their industry, its owners and its practitioners. Are they raising red flags or merely grinding axes? Do the mainstream media’s problems go beyond politics, beyond the transgressions of individual reporters, beyond the increasing pressures of the bottom line?

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The crucible of war

In the months of the buildup, invasion and aftermath of the Iraq war, the criticism has grown louder. Wars are a kind of crucible, and although many courageous journalists have risked their lives to produce first-rate work from the battlefront, the Iraq conflict also provoked intense scrutiny of how the mass media does its job. The spectacle of Geraldo Rivera drawing a map in the sand of his location (and that of the U.S. troops he was covering), Peter Arnett giving an interview to Iraqi state television (and his subsequent firing by NBC) and, above all, the controversial practice of “embedding” reporters with military units all raised questions about the media’s reliability, judgment and independence.

Possibly adding to the media’s difficulties was the public’s conflicted view of the proper role of the press, particularly in times of crisis. According to the same Pew poll, 70% of those surveyed said it was a good thing for the media to have “a pro-American” viewpoint. Yet 64% said they favored “neutral” rather than “pro-American” coverage of the war on terrorism. Even so, 46% of respondents thought some news organizations were “becoming too critical of America,” while 25% said they were becoming “too pro-American.”

Some of the fiercest criticism of the coverage of the war has come from inside the business. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter John Burns of the New York Times blasted unnamed fellow correspondents in Baghdad for bribing officials of Saddam Hussein’s ministry of information with sweetcakes and $600 mobile phones before the Iraq invasion. His remarks reverberated in newsrooms across the country. “There is corruption in our business,” Burns was quoted as saying in the new book “Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq.” “We need to get back to basics.”

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CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour lamented what she saw as the media’s reluctance to ask tough questions and press the Bush administration on the existence of weapons of mass destruction. “I think the press was muzzled, and I think the press self-muzzled,” Amanpour told CNBC talk show host Tina Brown. “I’m sorry to say that, but certainly television -- and perhaps to a certain extent my station -- was intimidated by the administration and its foot soldiers at Fox News. And it did, in fact, put a climate of fear and self-censorship, in my view, in terms of the kind of broadcast work we did.”

Amanpour’s remarks drew a swift rebuke. A Fox representative tartly replied that it was “better to be viewed as a foot soldier for Bush than spokeswoman for Al Qaeda.” Jim Walton, president of CNN Newsgroup, praised Amanpour as “one of the world’s foremost journalists” but repudiated her comments, saying they did “not reflect the reality of our coverage.” Another high-profile correspondent, Ashleigh Banfield of NBC, was publicly reprimanded by her bosses when she criticized U.S. television networks for soft-pedaling the war’s horrors, in an April 25 speech at Kansas State University.

Such blunt self-criticism may be emblematic of a more widespread anxiety within the profession. “It’s like a couple people are struck with this Tourette’s syndrome of truth and then they go back into their regular roles,” says Kristina Borjesson, a former Emmy Award-winning reporter-producer for CBS and editor of a recently published collection of essays, “Into the Buzzsaw -- Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press.” “The psychological term is ‘displacement reaction’: Somebody who actually does say it [the truth] gets attacked and is marginalized.”

Beyond bias

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Much recent criticism of the media falls along conventional political fault lines -- that the press is either too “liberal” or too “conservative.” In the years since Sept. 11 the criticism also has been politically polarized: We’re not patriotic enough. We’re not skeptical enough. We’re anti-American traitors. We’re flunkys for the White House and the Pentagon.

Historically, the media’s response has been that when everybody’s criticizing them, they must be doing something right. But not everyone buys that rationale.

Journalist and media critic Danny Schechter says conservative accusations of a liberal-media “boogeyman” have deflected attention from more fundamental questions about how corporate consolidation has affected the way the media do, or fail to do, their job. “I think the media has gone from being a complaint, something that people grumble about, to being an issue,” says Schechter, a former producer for CNN and ABC News who now runs the media issues network Mediachannel.org.

Neither does Schechter believe that some conservative Washington cabal is responsible for what he regards as the media’s inadequate scrutiny of the Bush administration’s rationale for the Iraq war -- despite his belief that the current White House has exhibited “a very top-down, hierarchical, controlled approach to information.” As he writes in his recently published book, “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception”: “Crude censorship is not the main problem today. The media is.”

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The terrorist attacks and their aftermath laid bare the media’s failure to inform the American public, Schechter says. In the months leading to Sept. 11, while former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman were warning through a commission that America was vulnerable to a massive terrorist attack, TV stations and newspapers were atwitter about shark attacks, Robert Blake and the like. “What we had was a growing lack of awareness about the rest of the world,” Schechter says. “When you have a situation where people don’t have context and don’t have background, it makes it much easier to manipulate their emotions.”

In other words, both the conservatives who rail about Peter Jennings and the New York Times and the liberal progressives who rail about George W. Bush and John Ashcroft may be missing a larger point. It is the mass media themselves that have become what Schechter calls a WMD, a “weapon of mass deception,” a problem of bipartisan urgency.

“The Left is sort of responding to a world that isn’t even here anymore,” Schechter says. “They tend to look at power as being government power, whereas the real power shift has been from the public to the private, which operates more subtly, with much less accountability, more in the shadows. The government is not the driver. Market values are the driver.”

Schechter and others say the potential for conflict between journalistic independence and bottom-line imperatives could be seen in the recent push by media conglomerates to expand the number of local TV and radio stations that one company can own in a single market. In June, the Federal Trade Commission passed rules that would allow a single TV network to own enough stations to reach 45% of the nation’s viewers. Capitol Hill lawmakers, under pressure from the public and the National Assn. of Broadcasters, sought to keep the former cap of 35%. (The proposed changes are on hold pending the outcome of a case before the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.)

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Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register and teacher at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, listed the FCC rules change saga as one of her top two nominees for “missed” stories of 2003. “Happily, the public got word of this issue despite the media, and Congress responded,” Overholser wrote in a recent column for Poynteronline, a Web publication of the Poynter Institute, the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based nonprofit center for the study of journalism. It was “impossible not to see a connection between corporate support for the changes, and newsroom failure to cover them,” she added.

In fact, a number of news organizations covered this story extensively, but as Schechter points out, “most of the coverage was in the business pages. It wasn’t considered like a public interest issue.”

Finding the fires

During the late 1960s and early ‘70s the United States was arguably more politically polarized than it is now, over the Vietnam War, civil rights and the era’s sexual, generational and cultural upheavals. Rather than retreating from the fray, the media waded in and broke such crucial stories as the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal. As Philip Weiss, a columnist for the weekly New York Observer, notes in an essay in “Into the Buzzsaw,” the Washington Post ran with the Watergate story despite vehement criticism from the political establishment and “a sharp drop in its stock price when it took on [President Richard] Nixon.”

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“Would any publication display such sang-froid today?” Weiss writes. “I think it’s extremely doubtful.” It is instead on the Internet and in the “fringe press,” he asserts, that wide-open debate today takes place.

For some observers, there remains a crucial chicken-and-egg question about whether the mainstream media are taking their cues from an apathetic political culture that has grown less inquisitive and conscientious, if no less adversarial, than it was 30 years ago.

Mark Danner, a writer and professor at UC Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism, believes “the press has much to answer for” for “its surprising reluctance to question some of the major decisions” that were made in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, particularly the rationale for war with Iraq. However, he says, “I’m reluctant to lay all of this at the foot of the press. It’s very hard when Congress lies down, as it did, for the press to stand there alone and raise questions.”

What’s to be done? Unfortunately, Schechter says, there’s no easy solution. But he believes that giving up on the mass media and disengaging from them is no answer. “I think we need to build more awareness of the media role and how it’s changed and what its impact is,” he says. “We need to be more interventionist on these issues.” Through his work with Mediachannel.org, he says, he’s trying to “build a bridge between the independent media world and the mainstream media world.”

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Borjesson thinks it’s important to make more foreign reporting and a wider range of world views available to Americans. “Our press is very provincial,” she says. “There is not sufficient reporting on what we do in other countries, what we do and how it can affect us.”

However, she cautions, the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a politically well-connected few has become a global problem, as witness the enormous power wielded by Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and media magnate.

“You have to consider real news that serves the democracy kind of like a public utility,” Borjesson says. “And you would not want the bottom line to get in the way of your receiving electricity or clean water. Well, in a sense, real information on what the arena of power is doing either nationally or internationally, on behalf of all of us, on behalf of the people, that’s almost like a utility.”

Danner says the media’s problems have to do with “institutional forces that are much too large for any individual reporters or group of reporters to deal with.” Besides, “the press is uniquely terrible at self-scrutiny,” he says. “So you get a kind of sheepish or wry dismissal of the general dissatisfaction. And the dissatisfaction is real.”

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Sometime in the future, the media may look back on 2003 as the year when a number of warning bells were sounded. But as an industry it seems we’re still trying to agree on how to locate the fires, let alone how to put them out.

“The alarms went off loud and clear, but we should be looking not necessarily to the houses where the alarms went off,” Danner says. “It would be salutary if the alarms sent us in a different direction, which is toward these broader trends in polarization, in corporatization, in tabloidization -- to use a lot of ugly words -- that really do have the underlying effect on what we see and what we read.”

Reed Johnson can be reached at reed.johnson@latimes.com.


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