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Conceiving News


The subservient performance of the U.S. news media before and during the Iraq invasion was so appalling that even defenders of contemporary journalism have been leveling critiques, albeit mild ones.

For example, the summer 2003 issue of Nieman Reports — the magazine produced by the prestigious Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University (http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/contents.html) — includes 30 pages of analysis of war coverage from a variety of perspectives, domestic and international. Many of the writers offer blunt assessments of journalists’ failures to inform fully the public about the reasons the Bush administration went to war and how the war was fought. In particular, the embedded-reporter system, a key component of the Pentagon’s plan to subordinate the news media to its propaganda goals, comes under much-deserved scrutiny.

But as is often the case with such criticism, keeping an eye on the assumptions underlying the analysis tells us much more about why institutions such as journalism fail.

Such is the case with the lead essay by Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment ombudsman and former editorial page editor at USA Today.

(The Freedom Forum, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people,” operates on an endowment that originally came from the Gannett Co., the media chain that owns USA Today.) McMasters is widely respected as a defender of press freedom who isn’t afraid to critique press failures. But what kind of critique does he offer?

In his piece, which is typical of the analyses being offered in the mainstream, McMasters accurately describes the U.S. government’s successful management of the news media and suggests that “the press and its advocates must confront the hard reality that the press cannot serve as an instrument of freedom when they become a tool of government.”

No one — not even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — would argue with that platitude; everyone claims to support a free press. The question, of course, is how can journalists avoid being tools of government officials? In his analysis, McMasters demonstrates how his conception of journalism undermines his stated goal.

After explaining the effectiveness of the Pentagon’s media operation — not just through embedding reporters, but the whole system of information control — McMasters argues that reporters have little room to protest these tactics:

“Federal officials, after all, have what journalists need: the news. A journalist’s usefulness to her news organization flames out if she burns a source by complaining about the ground rules, let alone resists abiding by them: Sources dry up, phone calls go unreturned, questions go unrecognized, and requests for interviews rot in the in-box.”

Federal officials “have” the news? Certainly McMasters doesn’t mean that they have a monopoly on ALL the news; obviously, journalists produce many stories that don’t originate with government officials. But McMasters’s phrasing acknowledges (with how much self-awareness, I don’t know) that the people who run things in Washington have extraordinary power to define the news about key political issues — as long as journalists let them.

McMasters is right in observing that this imposes considerable constraints on reporters. But he ignores the fact that it is a choice. Journalists do not have to subordinate themselves to the powerful in such direct fashion. They choose to do it, for a variety of reasons. Playing the game by the rules of the powerful is:

–the safest way to get stories; editors rarely object, and such methods reduce the likelihood a reporter will be taken to task by sources.

–the easiest way to get stories; reporters often can get by with nothing more than attending a briefing and making a few phone calls.

–a reliable route to career advancement; staying within these boundaries is unlikely to get one labeled a trouble-maker with the managers who make decisions about promotions.

The folks running media outlets — who tend to be even more establishment-oriented than front-line journalists — don’t complain much about the way in which officials control the news because it reduces labor costs. If news managers encouraged reporters routinely to go beyond the canned press releases, briefings, and insider interviews, those reporters would not be able to pump out as many stories as quickly. (I know this not only from research and analysis, but personal experience; for a number of years I was one of those reporters doing the pumping, making my editors happy by providing a reliable flow of stories.)

McMasters encourages journalists to be more critical and challenge officials. But he offers no serious way to advance that goal because he:

(1) accepts the existing routines that journalists use to define news (the dominance of official sources);

(2) has no critique of the news media’s ownership structures (corporate capitalist) and revenue streams (primarily advertising); and (3) avoids critiquing, or possibly accepts, the ideology of American exceptionalism that is virtually unchallenged in the news.

In short, if McMasters and others in the industry really care about creating the conditions that would allow journalists to fulfill their role in a democracy, they might study the propaganda model developed by Edward Herman, which explores these factors in greater detail (see his The Myth of the Liberal Media and Manufacturing Consent, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, or go to http://www.medialens.org/articles_2001/dc_propaganda_model.html).

Of course, not all journalists choose to accept the system that gives these “official sources” the power to define and control the flow of news. One of the best examples is Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for The Independent in London. With hundreds of U.S. journalists in the region, why have so many people in the United States (thanks to the internet) become loyal readers of Fisk’s dispatches?

It’s not just that he has experience and knows the region’s history, culture, and politics to a depth that few U.S. reporters can match. Just as important is that Fisk consciously avoids relying on official sources. His reports from Afghanistan and Iraq during the past two years that have become so popular in the United States are based on firsthand observations and interviews with people mostly outside the official halls of power.

Fisk’s reporting illustrates a simple rule about dealing with powerful people: The most important choice a journalist makes is not how to play the insider game but whether or not to play that game in the first place.

In the United States, the structure of the news media means that few journalists will choose Fisk’s route. That means it is not enough to complain about the performance of journalists; we have to work to change journalism. In addition to the important work of creating and sustaining media that go around the mainstream (such as community radio and independent magazines and web sites), progressive readers can have influence by joining the media reform movement. For more information, see http://www.mediareform.net/.

Robert Jensen is a founding member of the Nowar Collective (www.nowarcollective.com), a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2001). He can be reached at [email protected]

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