March 30, 2000
War Party and the Media
panel on which I sat at the Antiwar.com was entitled, "The
War Party and the Media or Do I Repeat Myself?" Along with
George Szamuely and Eric Garris, I tried to explore some of the
reasons for what might be seen as something of a mystery: Why most
of the media seem content to serve as cheerleaders for whatever
splendid little war the Pentagon or the State Department cooks up.
some ways the phenomenon should be viewed as a mystery. One of the
enduring myths about reporters is that they are hard-bitten, skeptical
types who get their jollies by afflicting the comfortable and sometimes
by comforting the afflicted.
of those with senior positions in journalism today earned their
spurs during the Vietnam war, during which (at least toward the
end) skepticism about the government and its war plans and practices
was, if not rife, at least fairly commonplace. Many then cut their
teeth on Watergate and helped to foster a generally sour attitude
about government and American culture that found at least partial
expression in Jimmy Carterís embrace of "malaise" as a
way to understand all the multifarious things wrong with America.
in the Washington press corps also took a certain amount of delight
in twitting Ronald Reagan for his apparent casualness about details,
exposing misstatements of fact that often werenít misstatements
at all but simply variant opinions, then fulminating that the American
people didnít share their outrage that an utter dolt was in charge.
Iran-Contra offered opportunities for tut-tutting (and once in a
while even a bit of journalistic digging) over the abuses uncovered
catching Ronald Reagan in minor mistakes and even questioning whether
he should have sent Americans to Grenada or Nicaragua was fun, however,
it wasnít quite the same as the irreverent skepticism toward one
and all proper journalists are supposed to embrace. Dan Quayle was
also fun for journalists, but for the most part the Quaylean malapropisms
so cheerfully recycled had more to do with the joy of catching a
deer in oneís headlights than in digging into inconsistencies in
policy or practice.
the Gulf War media critics and journalistic organizations agonized
over how American correspondents had managed to get snookered into
being Pentagon mouthpieces given briefings parceled out under controlled
circumstances, kept from looking into certain stories and events
on the ground, being fed pap and televised computer-game-like images
of missiles heading unerringly toward targets. But during the buildup
and the war itself, few complained. Most were at least resigned
to their limited role, while some were quite caught up in the ersatz
enthusiasm and excitement that covering even a boring war involves.
a few honorable exceptions, American journalists have been content
to be the handmaidens of American foreign policy masters during
the 1990s. They have participated in the demonization of the enemy
of the hour, whether in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia or Kosovo. They have
cheerfully passed on exaggerations about the atrocities committed
by the bad guys and sometimes actively tried to create the impression
of atrocities where none were to be found (see information on Britainís
ITN staging impressions of concentration camps on www.emperors-clothes.com
for a particularly egregious example).
THIS A LIBERAL BIAS?
the 1970s Irving Kristol (back when he was doing some reasonably
valuable thinking and writing) posited that modern American journalists
were part of what he called a "new class" of public intellectuals.
Having absorbed by osmosis most of the attitudes and prejudices
then regnant in American colleges, especially the notion that the
country could best be saved (or improved) by a professionally trained
managerial class, many journalists came to think of themselves as
partners rather than critics of the bureaucrats they covered.
(rather than promoted from the police beat) and increasingly well-paid,
many journalists identified more with the department heads and politicians
who were dragging the recalcitrant American people into the Brave
New World than with the people themselves. While occasionally alert
to a juicy scandal, journalists were often more inclined to butter
up bureaucrats than to expose them.
also the theory that "mainstream" journalists are unremittingly
liberal Democrats committed to forwarding that often-inchoate agenda.
Robert Lichterís polls, for example, show that more than 90 percent
of Washington prestige-media journalists voted for Clinton in 1992.
And it is certainly true that most Washington journalists are more
likely to be tough on Republicans than on Democrats. Al Gore, for
example, is almost certainly significantly goofier than Dan Quayle,
yet his displays of ignorance and mendacity get much less play.
grown up in the 1960s, however, I labored for some time under the
impression that liberals were by and large antiwar, or at least
skeptical about military adventures. Why is it that these brave
liberals have not only become complacent about the little wars the
Clinton administration seems to love so much, but enthusiastic and
sometimes consciously dishonest cheerleaders for them? Might not
the basic liberal instincts assert themselves from time to time
in an expression of skepticism about war or the Pentagon?
Cockburn and Lenora Fulani offered the conference some valuable
insights into how many on the left have abdicated antiwar attitudes
and skepticism about the credibility of the establishment and its
spinners. While these critiques are helpful, however, they donít
quite offer a full explanation.
TO THE CITY COUNCIL
I came to the Register almost 20 years ago, one of the phenomena
I noticed and deplored sometimes just in bull sessions, sometimes
more publicly, once in a while even in print was the tendency
of most reporters who covered city government to become mouthpieces
for the government rather than tribunes of the people. I suspect
that this phenomenon, while far from a full explanation, might tell
us a bit about why the media in general tend to be lackeys of the
are some 28 separate cities in the Orange County Registerís
circulation area as well as a particularly inept county government.
There is and has long been a "wall of separation" between
the editorial page, where I have always worked, and the newsroom.
So while I have gotten to know some reporters and hold a few as
valued friends and have learned to admire and sometimes emulate
genuinely good reporters who dig and ask informed questions
I view newsrooms as something of an outsider.)
on, after I had gotten out of the Ivory Tower often enough to have
attended a dozen or so city council meetings when issues of concern
to us were being discussed, I wrote a column suggesting how these
events might be covered if certain journalistic conventions didnít
prevail. The fact that Councilman Jones never knew what he was talking
about or that Mayor Smith seemed to get more inebriated as the meeting
wore on might have found their way into print instead of the standard
descriptions of Roberts Rules proposals, discussion, deliberation
and decision that lent these adventures in looting and thuggery
much more dignity than they deserved.
to say, my mordant observations had no effect on journalistic practices.