If Walter Lippman, perhaps the most influential
U.S. press critic and foreign-policy columnist of the 20th century, were alive
today, chances are he would shake his head knowingly and mutter something like,
"Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." ("The more
things change, the more they remain the same.")
After all, it was in 1920 that he and a colleague, Charles Merz, wrote in their
analysis of New York Times coverage of the Bolshevik Revolution between
1917 and 1920 that the newspaper's reporting on Russia during that period was
"nothing short of a disaster."
In an article in The New Republic magazine, they wrote that the Times
had reported the imminent or actual end of the Soviet regime "not once
or twice – but 91 times – in the two years from November, 1917 to
"They (Times journalists) were performing the supreme duty in a
democracy of supplying the information on which public opinion feeds, and they
were derelict in that duty," added Lippman and Merz.
How had the Times gotten things so wrong?
Eighty-four years later, the same question is being asked about the performance
of the mass media – especially the Times – on reporting about
Iraq, particularly the prewar and even postwar assumptions that the country
possessed vast stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons and had reconstituted
its nuclear-arms program.
The Times, in particular, has come under fire both because of its agenda-setting
status for the rest of the media and because it was often the first to report
new, groundbreaking stories about Iraq's alleged WMD programs.
Many of those articles were based on assertions by unidentified senior officials
and "defectors" who, it now turns out, were often supplied by exile
groups opposed to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, notably the Iraqi National
Two articles in the last two weeks have been particularly striking. One, titled
"Now They Tell Us," by veteran journalist Michael Massing in The
New York Review of Books, concluded that the Times, especially its
star WMD reporter Judith Miller, relied far too heavily on hawks within the
Bush administration, INC officials – notably the group's president Ahmed
Chalabi – and "defectors" as its sources.
Miller, who bragged about her decade-long ties to Chalabi in one internal Times
memo leaked to the Washington Post, traveled thousands of kilometers
to interview alleged "defectors," who now appear to have fabricated
much of what they told her.
While Miller went to great lengths to document the alleged WMD threat, according
to Massing, who also teaches at Columbia University's School of Journalism,
she and other Times reporters failed to consult or credit independent
WMD experts who were skeptical of the administration's claims or even the government's
intelligence experts, whose views were being suppressed by political appointees
at the top.
A second story, by William Jackson, Jr., a former senior arms control adviser
in the Carter administration, which appeared in 'Editor & Publisher', the
normally sedate trade paper of the newspaper industry, echoed Massing's thesis,
but also expressed outrage over the Times' failure to take any responsibility
for passing along information.
Citing a recent Times editorial criticizing the administration for exaggerating
or distorting evidence about WMDs before the war, Jackson wrote, "Strangely
missing from the paper of record was any indictment of the national press, starting
with the Times, for its obvious role in gravely misleading the institutions
of government and the public when hyping the WMD threat."
Indeed, he and Massing both noted the Times had not published a single
editors' note or correction to any of its prewar coverage, including stories
that were based on assertions, often supplied by unidentified U.S. officials
or INC officials, that now appear to have been either grossly exaggerated or
"Just who used whom, and how"? asked Jackson. "It is closer
to the truth to point out that, together, the neo-cons in the Pentagon and the
vice president's office, and the INC, suckered (other) parts of the government
and pliable major news outlets – including the Times."
How, then, were they suckered?
Eighty-four years ago, Lippman and Merz reached similar conclusions to those
of Massing and Jackson, but their analysis remains pertinent today.
Most important, they wrote, was the subjective state of mind of the people
at the Times.
"In the large, the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was,
but what men wished to see ... the chief censor and chief propagandist were
hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors."
"They wanted to win the war; they wanted to ward off Bolshevism. These
subjective obstacles to the free pursuit of facts account for the tame submission
of enterprising men to the objective censorship and propaganda under which they
did their work," wrote Lippman and Merz.
That subjectivity led directly to the second problem, the one seized on by
Jackson and Massing in their analyses: "boundless credulity and an untiring
readiness to be gulled" by sources who shared journalists' hope and fear.
"For subjective reasons," Lippman and Merz wrote, "(Times
reporters) accepted and believed most of what they were told by the State Department,
the so-called Russian Embassy in Washington, the Russian Information Bureau
in New York, the Russian Committee in Paris and the agents and adherents of
the old regime all over Europe."
"For the same reason they accepted reports of governmentally controlled
news services abroad, and of correspondents who were unduly intimate with the
various secret services and with members of the old Russian nobility."
This reliance on interested sources was not the result of a conspiracy, they
stressed; it derived from something else. The journalists' motives "may
have been excellent. They wanted to win the war; they wanted to save the world.
They were nervously excited by exciting events."
The two authors' assessment had a major impact on US journalism, as the big
media at the time rushed to set up graduate schools of journalism and communications
to teach aspiring reporters and editors methods to carry out their craft "scientifically,"
and to ensure that their work was "objective" so that a "free
people" would be supplied news that would make their government function
better, no matter the excitement of events or times.
But tens of thousands of graduates later, the same problems keep recurring.
Studies on US news coverage in the Third World by a number of communications
scholars in the 1980s and early 1990s consistently found an ideological predisposition
(like Lippman's and Merz's "hope and fear") to follow the cues of
official Washington and other self-interested sources (especially pro-western
exiles) "rather than exercising independent journalistic judgments,"
as two experts on US coverage of Iran put it in a 1987 book.
"The fact remains that a great people in a supreme crisis could not secure
the minimum of necessary information on a supremely important event," Lippman
complained back in 1920.