The McGill Report
Oct. 24, 2003

The Good News about the Bad News from Iraq

Rochester, MN -- When I wrote last week that the reality in Iraq is far better than the mainstream media makes it out to be, citing sources including a Rochester man who talks to family members who live in Iraq, I really touched a chord.

" Right on!" one typical reader wrote me. "I hope your column is widely distributed because the information you presented is getting no play in the mainstream U.S. media." Many of you went further, expressing deep skepticism and even disgust at how skewed a picture of the world the American press is offering the public today.

In southeastern Minnesota, as in the rest of the United States, distrust of the mainstream media has clearly grown to major proportions.

How did things come to such a pass?

To answer that question, let me pull back the curtain on the workings of professional journalism for a minute. While legions of citizens express mounting disdain for overly commercialized, over-sensationalized, and overwhelmingly negative news, many professional journalists are also warning of a growing crisis in their profession.

Abdication of Responsibility

" There is corruption in our business," the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, John Burns, told the authors of a new book called "Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, an Oral History." Burns, who was posted in Baghdad before and during the war, said U.S. correspondents paid Iraqi government officials -- Saddam's henchmen -- "hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes" to gain special favors and access to interviews.

In return, Burns said, those reporters turned a blind eye to Saddam's worst atrocities in pre-war Iraq. Burns found few reporters, for instance, who knew anything about the Abu Ghraib prison, the vast Baghdad torture center that held thousands of Saddam's political prisoners. Nor did more than a few reporters make any attempt to visit the prison. "In the run-up to this war, to my mind, there was a gross abdication of responsibility," Burns said.

CNN's chief news executive, Eason Jordan, wrote an infamous article last April stating that CNN had known for many years about Saddam's extreme atrocities, including a Iraqi woman who had spoken to CNN and then been murdered by Saddam's thugs, and her dismembered limbs left on the doorstep of her father's home.
CNN, in order it said to protect its Iraqi employees, never reported that atrocity or many other ones that it knew of, Jordan said. In return for the network's silence, it had been allowed to remain in the country.

Outmoded Objectivity

If we can't trust the news media to bring us the bad news when it happens, how can we trust it to bring us the good news when it happens? That's the question that many of you, like John Burns, are asking now, and rightly so.

For three principal reasons, the internal debate within the news profession on these matters is muted and contained. It is not widely known about outside the news media, and there are few examples of news organizations that have joined with customers to find new ground of common trust.

The first reason is the fierce competition all news media face today. With so many news sources plus the Internet, new independent news outlets called "blogs" (short for web logs), cable television, and dozens of other sources, every media company is fighting harder for smaller pieces of the pie.

In such an environment a great premium is placed on any journalistic device, such as sensationalism and entertainment, that grabs and keeps an audience.

A second reason is that journalistic objectivity, the ethical gold standard in journalism for more than a century, is increasingly considered outmoded.

Fox and Henhouse

" We are coming to the end of the era of objectivity," wrote Robert L. Bartley, the former editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, last July. Opinion, not reportage, is what sells now, Bartley says. Sharply-focused perspective and invective is what grabs lucrative niche markets of conservatives or liberals, or peaceniks or gun-nuts or soccer moms.

The third reason is that when it comes to news media malfeasance, the fox is guarding the henhouse. America's founders gave the press constitutional protection from government interference, to preserve its function as a check against government corruption. But what if, as John Burns says, "there is corruption in our business." Who will watch the watchdog?

Absent significant efforts at news industry self-reform, increasing numbers of grass roots and special interest groups are springing up. MediaReform.Net, FAIR, Media Channel, the Center for Public Integrity, and other groups all publish exposes of media bias, self-censorship, industry conglomeration, and the drift toward partisanship. They use the Internet to build lobbying support, and their memberships are growing rapidly.

Which is really good news.

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report