Online Journal Contributing Writer
November 7, 2002The national broadcast and print news media's inability to critically assess George W. Bush's foreign and domestic policies and to serve as a watchdog for the public's interest is nothing less than a threat to the country's democratic processes.
Not only has the national news media been unable to piece together a cogent and balanced review of Bush's policies, it has helped the administration to shape and spin national debate and muddy the waters to cover its actual intentions.
The Radio-Television News Director's Association (RTNDA) says broadcast journalists should serve as "public trustees who seek truth and report it fairly with integrity and independence." If news directors really think their journalists live up to these standards, they are either delusional or hucksters.
RTNDA is the world's largest organization devoted exclusively to electronic journalism. It boasts more than 3,000 members, mostly news directors. The associationﾒs ethics code is full of lofty language that sets standards for broadcast journalists. It says they should "pursue truth aggressively and present the news accurately, in context, and as completely as possible." It says they should place a "primary value on significance and relevance."
They should "vigorously resist undue influence from any outside forces, including advertisers, sources, story subjects, powerful individuals, and special interest groups." They should resist those, it says, who "seek to buy or politically influence news content" and "refuse to allow the interests of ownership or management to influence news judgment or content . . ." It is not as though the RTNDA code is a relic of an earlier era in broadcast journalism, an anachronism. The association adopted this latest version of its ethics code in September 2000. Apparently our nation's news directors are asleep at the switch.
There is plenty of evidence to show that broadcast journalists are willing co-conspirators in spinning the news. Describing how Sunday talk shows pander to the administration and "fabricate" the news, John Tierney of the New York Times blithely described the weekly ritual recently as "a cross between Sunday morning church and American football.
"The talk shows may bore many Americans," he said, "but they are crucial vehicles for the White House in setting the news agenda for the week. For the networks, the programs not only keep the news machine going on a slow day but also generate handsome profits because of their low costsand the fact that the big-name guests do not have to be paid."
Coming from the pages of the New York Times, these observations are a bit disingenuous. Throughout the fall the Times published a rash of leaks from unnamed sources that were clearly part of an orchestrated administration effort to portray Saddam Hussein as a direct and immediate threat to the United States and to link him to al Qaeda. Much of the information provided by these unnamed sources turned out to be misleading or inaccurate. But the articles enabled the administration to direct the nation's news agenda toward war and away from the economy and to spin the facts to its liking.
News media ethics codes set stringent standards for how print and broadcast journalists use unnamed sources in their reporting. The reason for these standards is that news outlets understand that sources have their own agendas, and they tend to compromise the unfettered ability of reporters to cover issues. Reporters can become indebted to their sources, even tied up by them, and their sources are directly involved in the issues they cover. The greatest public example of this phenomenon may be the Watergate scandal. It is not an accident that a couple of Washington Post city reporters uncovered the story and not the Washington Press Corps. Washington's political elite had not yet compromised Woodward and Bernstein; there were no bread-and-butter sources to spin them away from the facts.
The New York Times ethics code says the general rule about the use of unnamed sources is to tell readers as much as possible about their "placement and known motivation . . . We should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source's reasons" for wanting to remain anonymous.
The Washington Post code says, "We make every reasonable effort to be free of obligation to news sources and special interests. The motives of those who press their views upon us must routinely be examined, and it must be recognized that those motives can be noble or ignoble, obvious or ulterior.
"Before any information is accepted without full attribution, reporters must make every reasonable effort to get it on the record. If that is not possible, reporters should consider seeking the information elsewhere. If that in turn is not possible, reporters should request an on-the-record reason for concealing the source's identity and should include the reason in the story," it says.
It would not appear that Times and Post reporters followed these codes during the rash of anonymous administration and Pentagon leaks this fall. Times and Post reporters surely did not follow these codes when they repeatedly published leaks from unnamed prosecution sources close to Kenneth Starr's investigation of former President William Clinton. History has shown that the Whitewater investigations were a sham all along and the leaks were simply disinformation. We were not warned then or now that these leaks might be part of calculated strategies to shape and spin the news, and, in the case of Starr, to impeach a popularly elected president, though the Times and Post must have known this was so. They simply allowed themselves to be used.
The indiscriminate use of unnamed sources is far more dangerous now than it was in the past because most news outlets no longer independently verify information provided to competing news outlets by unnamed sources before running a story. The reason for this is the rush of news outlets, especially broadcasters, to get the story out as quickly as possible. There is no time for independent verification, and this allows spinners to run amuck.
A few weeks ago, former Vice President Al Gore called a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposal to eliminate all remaining restrictions on the ownership of news outlets "a dire threat to the survival of democracy in the United State of America." Ownership restrictions have been weakened in recent years, enabling a few powerful companies to buy up many competing news outlets. Gore warned that the media conglomerates resulting from this loosening of restrictions have already changed the way the news media and government relate and jeopardized the news media's ability to remain an independent watchdog. According to Gore, who is a former newspaper reporter, news has become a commodity, a cheap and readily available good, and, if the remaining restrictions are eliminated, the situation will become even worse.
"The arrival of commodity news pushed both newspapers and broadcast news outlets out of their niche so that they had to start selling something elsea hybrid product of news plus," Gore said. This hybrid news product includes more opinion-based programming and celebrity journalism, a trend that blurs the line between objective reporting and a reporter's personal opinions.
As Gore explains it, the media conglomerates are increasingly dependent on government policies and the bottom line. This has "created a timid media that refuses to question governmental decisions," he said.
A timid news media is in fact a compromised news media and a dangerous development in a democracy. A compromised news media cannot serve its constitutional function to enlighten the public, so citizens can intelligently exercise their responsibilities in a democratic society. Instead, as we have learned, it provides the public with misinformation and spin and calls it news.
Even some mainstream journalists are sounding the alarm. Henry Holcomb of the Philadelphia Inquirer and John Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times and a columnist for The Nation, and others, told a group gathered at a Newspaper Guild meeting in Washington, DC, recently that the nation's major newspapers, newspaper groups, and television networks are captives of big corporations and advertisers. The Newspaper Guild is the labor union in which many journalists are members.
As reported by the American Free Press, the journalists made their comments in a panel discussion. Newspapers are "less trustedour industry is in crisis," said Nichols, who has worked for newspapers in New York, Washington, and Miami.
Holcomb, who is president of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia and a journalist for 40 years, said that newspapers had a "clearer mission" back when he began reporting. That mission was to "report the truth and raise hell." But corporate pressures have blurred this vision, he said.
Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a news media watchdog group, told the American Free Press that 60 percent of journalists surveyed recently by FAIR admitted that advertisers "try to change stories."
"Some advertisers kill some stories and promote others," she said, asserting that there is an "overwhelming influence of corporations and advertisers" on broadcast and print news reporting.
"The trends are all badworse and worse," Nichols said. Newspapers and broadcast journalists are under "enormous pressures to replace civic values with commercial values."
He labeled local television news a "cesspool." Local broadcasters are under pressure from big corporations to "entertain" rather than to inform, and people are "more ignorant" after viewing television news because of the misinformation they broadcast, he said.
The scope of the national media's failure to honestly and thoroughly inform the American people on issues of the day was dramatically illustrated recently by a new polling organization that conducts national opinion surveys that capture the affects of misinformation. The organization is called Retro Poll, and its pilot poll, completed recently, looked at the war on terrorism.
According to the organizationﾒs October 17, 2002, press release, the Retro Poll "attempts to show that public opinion is molded by media misinformation and disinformation (propaganda). It addresses the question: does the public opinion reported in the usual major media polls reflect the true values and beliefs of those Americans polled . . . ?"
The terrorism poll involved people from 39 states and "showed a link between misinformation on Iraq and support for a U.S. war against that country." The poll's results suggest that by "continually highlighting Washington's viewpoint unchallenged, the news bureaus in the U.S. can change the facts in the minds of many Americans. The opinions formed from those unsubstantiated facts are then used by polling organizations to report back the values, ideas, and thinking of the public."
The poll suggests, "The values of Americans remain strongly democratic and fair. This was demonstrated by poll results on elements in the war on terrorism. 80.4% of the respondents rejected the use of outlawed techniques such as torture against detainees. 82.7% supported the idea that the U.S. should have to prove its accusations against nations before attacking them. 71% rejected indeterminate detention of arrestees (citizens and non-citizens) without charges, proofs, or trials. 89.2% supported the position that the U.S. should support international attempts to prosecute war crimes."
"Although the margin of error on individual poll questions ranged from plus or minus 6 to 8%, the relationship between advocacy of war on Iraq and misinformation of basic facts is statistically unlikely to have occurred by chance. This association reveals that what is actually being reported by most major polls is the ability of the Government and the Media to change the public perception by headlining exaggerated or erroneous government-provided information (propaganda). Retro Poll calls on the Corporate Media to carry out their democratic responsibility to bring forth and highlight the truth when government pronouncements are found to lack a firm factual basis." Readers can learn more about Retro Poll by visiting its site at http://www.retropoll.org.
Next: Iraq, a conspiracy of silence and compromise
Jon Prestage was a newspaper and television reporter in the Northeast for approximately 18 years. After four years as a broadcast journalist, he left the profession. He is a lifelong student and critic of the news media. Contact him at email@example.com