Michael Massing is an editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and the author Now You Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq (New York Review Books, May 2004). -- Two recent articles by him on the U.S. press -- 13,500 words in all -- appeared in the two December issues of the New York Review of Books. -- They describe, rather tamely and superficially, the failure of U.S. media to play the role required of them in a democratic society. -- The newspapers do not bear all the blame, of course: profit-driven corporations and a distracted, indifferent public are also to blame. -- The sad truth is that there is a lack of principles and scruples all around -- not least in the Christianist circles whose bread and butter it is to inveigh against such things. -- Part One of Massing's article traces tells how the right succeeded in cowing and then coopting the American press, and some of the institutional problems they now face. -- Part Two describes, all too tepidly, a few of the ways in which the American press and broadcast media do not cover the system -- rather, they are the system. -- Or at least some of its most essential parts -- the very linchpin of the system, as it were. -- In any case, just how corrupt, decadent, crass, and violent system it is will never be reported in the newspaper....
THE END OF NEWS?
By Michael Massing
New York Review of Books
Vol. 52, No. 19
December 1, 2005
In late September, the Government Accountability Office -- a nonpartisan arm of Congress -- issued a finding that the Bush administration had engaged in "covert propaganda," and thereby broken the law, by paying Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator, to promote its educational policies. The GAO also faulted the administration for hiring a public relations firm to distribute video news segments without disclosing the government's part in producing them. [Note 1: See GAO reports to Senators Frank R. Lautenberg and Edward M. Kennedy, "Department of Education -- Contract to Obtain Services of Armstrong Williams" [B-305368] and "Department of Education -- No Child Left Behind Act Video News Release and Media Analysis" [B-304228], September 30, 2005.] The auditors' report, which followed a year-long investigation, presents chilling evidence of the campaign that officials in Washington have been waging against a free and independent press. Only months before, it was revealed that Kenneth Tomlinson, the President's choice to head the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, had paid a Republican operative to monitor the political leanings of guests on Bill Moyers's show "Now," as part of a broader effort to shift PBS's programming to the right.
The Bush administration has restricted access to public documents as no other before it. According to a recent report on government secrecy by OpenTheGovernment.org, a watchdog organization, the federal government classified a record 15.6 million new documents in fiscal year 2004, an increase of 81 percent over the year before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Spending on the declassification of documents dropped to a new low. What's more, 64 percent of Federal Advisory Committee meetings in 2004 were completely closed to the public. The Pentagon has banned TV cameras from recording the return of caskets from Iraq, and it prohibited the publication of photographs of those caskets, a restriction that was lifted only following a request through the Freedom of Information Act.
The restrictions have grown so tight that the normally quiescent American Society of Newspaper Editors last fall issued a "call to arms" to its members, urging them to "demand answers in print and in court" to stop this "deeply disturbing" trend. The conservative columnist William Safire, usually a supporter of Bush's policies, complained last September that "the fundamental right of Americans, through our free press, to penetrate and criticize the workings of our government is under attack as never before."
But the campaign against the press is only partly a result of a hostile White House. T he administration's efforts have been amplified by a disciplined and well-organized news and opinion campaign directed by conservatives and the Christian right. This well-funded network includes newsletters, think tanks, and talk radio as well as cable television news and the Internet. Often in cooperation with the White House, these outlets have launched a systematic campaign to discredit what they refer to disparagingly as "MSM," for mainstream media. Through the Internet, commentators can channel criticism of the press to the general public faster and more efficiently than before. As became plain in the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry, to cite one of many examples, an unscrupulous critic can spread exaggerated or erroneous claims instantaneously to thousands of people, who may, in turn, repeat them to millions more on talk radio programs, on cable television, or on more official "news" Web sites. This kind of recycled commentary has become all the more effective because it is aimed principally at a sector of the population that seldom if ever sees serious press coverage.
Partly as a result, newspapers find themselves less popular than ever before, at a time when the newspaper industry itself is losing readers while struggling to cuts costs and meet demands for ever larger profits. Today's journalists, meanwhile, when compared to their predecessors, often seem far less willing to resist political pressure from the White House. In the 1970s, for example, the *Washington Post* refused to buckle under intense White House pressure during Watergate, and the *New York Times* did not shrink from publishing the Pentagon Papers. Recently, in contrast, the *Times* had to apologize for uncritically publishing false government claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and *Time* magazine released the notes of its journalist Matthew Cooper to a government prosecutor without his consent. Conservative commentators and the administration have also been able to intimidate publications into shunning investigative reporting, as when, for example, *Newsweek* promised to crack down on its use of anonymous sources after being criticized for its story about the mishandling of the Koran by the U.S. military, and when CBS forced the resignation of four news employees after questions were raised about the "60 Minutes" broadcast on Bush's record in the National Guard. With the President's poll numbers down and infighting among conservatives more visible, the coverage of Washington has sharpened of late, but overall the climate remains hostile to good reporting.
In 1969, when Vice President Spiro Agnew gave a series of speeches attacking the TV networks and top newspapers as liberal and elitist, only one small organization outside the government was pursuing similar aims. Accuracy in Media was run out of a modest office in Washington by a reactionary gadfly named Reed Irvine. He published a newsletter that singled out journalists whose reporting he found objectionable, insinuating that they were soft on communism and on leftist dictators, if not entirely disloyal. Such charges caused conservative newspaper readers to question the fairness of some news accounts, but Irvine's politics were so extreme that most editors dismissed him as a crank.
In 1979, conservatives discovered a new basis for criticizing the press when S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman released a study purporting to show the leftist leanings of national journalists. Of 240 journalists surveyed, eight out of ten said they voted Democratic in presidential elections from 1964 to 1976. Nine out of ten said they supported abortion rights, more than half said they saw nothing wrong with adultery, and few attended church. In 1985, Lichter and his wife Linda, with the financial support of such conservative foundations as Scaife and Olin, formed the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a research institute that, while presenting itself as nonpartisan, sought to document instances of liberal bias on the networks and in newspapers. Its reports helped complement the Reagan administration's efforts to portray the press as out of step with "mainstream America." The impact of these efforts was apparent in journalists' often uncritical coverage of such issues as supply-side economics and the abusive activities of the Salvadoran military, the Nicaraguan contras, and other forces allied with the U.S. in Central America. (There were exceptions, however, such as the *New York Times*'s investigation of the CIA's relations with Panama's Manuel Noriega in the late 1980s.)
An even more consequential, though much less visible, change took place in 1987, with the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine. Introduced in 1949, this rule required TV and radio stations to cover "controversial issues" of interest to their communities, and, when doing so, to provide "a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints." Intended to encourage stations to avoid partisan programming, the Fairness Doctrine had the practical effect of keeping political commentary off the air altogether. In 1986, a federal court ruled that the doctrine did not have the force of law, and the following year the FCC abolished it.
At that point, stations were free to broadcast whatever they wanted. In 1988, several dozen AM stations began carrying a show hosted by a thirty-seven-year-old college dropout named Rush Limbaugh. Advertising himself as "the most dangerous man in America," Limbaugh attracted listeners by combining political jokes, thundering polemics, and outrageous overstatement. He spoke, he said, "with half my brain tied behind my back, just to make it fair, because I have a talent on loan from . . . God. Rush Limbaugh. A man. A legend. A way of life."
The eternal enemy, he claimed, is "liberalism. . . . It destroys prosperity. It assigns sameness to everybody." On his show, he has described feminists as "feminazis" and referred to the prison in Guantánamo as "Club Gitmo," a place where the conditions are so plush as to resemble those of a country club. Limbaugh appealed to conservatives who felt no one else was expressing their resentments with such satisfying vehemence; soon hundreds of stations were carrying the show, which by now, according to *Media Week*, has generated well more than $1 billion in revenue.
Limbaugh's success, in turn, has inspired "a vast new armada" of right-wing talk show hosts, according to Brian C. Anderson in his book *South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias*. [Note 2: Regnery, 2005.] A senior editor at *City Journal*, a magazine published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York think tank, Anderson is so sure of the press's liberal slant that he makes only slapdash efforts to document it. He claims, for instance, that press bias is "at its most egregious in war reporting." A prime example, he claims, is the "defeatist coverage of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars," each of which was portrayed by CNN and the daily press as "another Vietnam." Anderson overlooks the nearly unanimous support of editorial boards for both those conflicts, the credulous acceptance by national news organizations of the Bush administration's claims regarding Iraq's WMDs, and the triumphalist coverage of the U.S. military's push into Baghdad. The reporting of Knight Ridder's Washington Bureau was one of the few exceptions to this trend. [Note 3: See my articles in these pages, "Now They Tell Us," *New York Review*, February 26, 2004; and "Unfit to Print?" *New York Review*, June 24, 2004.] He takes no note of the thoroughly conventional views of most of the guests on CNN's talk shows, the network's heavy reliance on retired military officers for commentary, and Wolf Blitzer's often obsequious and usually predictable questioning of administration officials.
But *South Park Conservatives* does give a concise account of the right's successful assault on the mainstream press. "Drive across the country these days," Anderson writes in a chapter on talk radio, "and you'll never be out of range of conservative voices on the AM dial or satellite radio." The list of the top twenty talk radio shows nationwide is thick with conservatives. The most popular is Limbaugh, whose daily three-hour show attracts an estimated weekly audience of around 14 million. Next comes Sean Hannity, whose show, carried on nearly four hundred stations, attracts 12 million weekly, and who is also the co-host of Fox News's nightly TV program "Hannity & Colmes." "Dr. Laura" Schlesinger, who inveighs against feminists and homosexuals, has eight million listeners, as does Michael Savage, who ridicules the handicapped and considers Arabs "non-humans." Laura Ingraham, the author of *Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the U.N. Are Subverting America*, has five million. Other popular right-wing hosts include Bill O'Reilly, William Bennett, G. Gordon Liddy, and Michael Medved. (The liberal Air America is now carried on sixty-eight radio stations nationwide, but its daily audience is puny compared to that enjoyed by the right.)
As Anderson makes clear, these shows not only provide their own slant on the news, but also work ceaselessly to discredit what they call "liberal" news organizations. Day after day, talk radio echoes and magnifies the criticisms of the press made by the White House, charging the *New York Times* and the *Washington Post*, CBS and CNN with being for big government and against big business, for abortion rights and against gun rights, for Democrats and against Republicans.
In mid-October, I tuned in to Limbaugh's show, aired in New York on WABC, and heard him spend much of his three hours defending the White House against press criticism that the President's aides had scripted a videoconference between Bush and a group of soldiers in Iraq. Attempting to turn the tables and make the press the issue, Limbaugh cited several cases in which he claimed news organizations have helped to stage events, such as when a reporter from the *Chattanooga Times Free Press* helped shape the question a GI asked Donald Rumsfeld in Iraq about the lack of adequate armor for U.S. military vehicles. This was a typical ploy by Limbaugh, who seeks at every opportunity to hail the progress being made in Iraq and to blame negative news on Bush-hating reporters.
Limbaugh's three hours on WABC were followed by three by Sean Hannity, who denounced the media for its distorted coverage of Iraq and its "nonstop attack on the President" from the very start of the war. Then came two hours by Mark Levin, a lawyer turned talk show host who specializes in right-wing name-calling (he called Joseph Wilson and his wife "finks," Judy Miller "a rat," Ted Kennedy "a lifelong drunk," the *New York Times* the "New York Slimes," and Senator Charles Schumer "Chucky Schmucky"). Then came two hours by Laura Ingraham, who, also taking up the Bush staging charges, denounced the "elitist" press for scripting "everything" and being "out of touch with the American people." Such tirades are issued daily on hundreds of stations around the country.
An even bigger boon to the right, in Brian Anderson's view, has been the rise of cable news, especially Fox News. Founded in 1996, Fox first surpassed CNN in the ratings in early 2002 and now consistently outdraws it. It is available to more than 85 million subscribers, and, on average, it attracts more than eight million people daily -- more than double the number who watch CNN. As with talk radio, Fox relentlessly hammers away at the press, casting it as fundamentally opposed to the values of ordinary Americans -- particularly in such matters as abortion, faith, and fighting terrorism. Last spring, *New York Times* executive editor Bill Keller estimated that last year Fox's Bill O'Reilly had attacked his paper no fewer than sixty times.
Last May, during the controversy over *Newsweek*'s report that a copy of the Koran had been flushed down a toilet at Guantánamo, "Hannity & Colmes" presented a report from Ramadi, Iraq, where Oliver North, now a Fox correspondent, was talking with Specialist Jonah Bishop of the U.S. Army's Second Infantry Division. North said that he'd just returned to al-Anbar Province after many previous visits:
Oliver North: It's things like this false story that came out about what happened at Guantánamo that creates divisions between the Americans out here and our Iraqi allies. It would strike me that what we're going to see, as a consequence of that, is an increase in the No. 1 unit of attack that they use against us, which is what?
Specialist Bishop: "IEDs."
North: "That's improvised explosive devices?"
Bishop: "That's correct."
In other words, North was asserting that the brief item in *Newsweek* would cause more roadside bomb attacks on U.S. forces, and, by implication, more deaths of U.S. servicemen. For weeks, Fox regularly repeated its charge against *Newsweek*'s Koran report, neglecting to make any mention of the well-substantiated reports about the mishandling of the Koran at Guantánamo that were appearing in the *New York Times* and other papers. Fox was thus able to keep the issue alive in a way that the Bush administration by itself could not have done.
The "Fox effect," as it's called, is apparent at MSNBC, where Joe Scarborough nightly sounds like Bill O'Reilly, and at CNN. In recent years, as its ratings have declined, CNN has devoted more and more of its broadcast day to entertainment, commentary, and soft news. Here one can find a lineup of cautious and vacuous daytime anchors, the predictable attacks on outsourcing and Mexican immigration by Lou Dobbs, and the superficial celebrity interviews of Paula Zahn and Larry King. CNN's coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, including sharp reports on FEMA's shameful neglect of New Orleans's poor residents, shows that the network can still provide exceptional coverage in times of crisis, and in the weeks since CNN seems to be returning to a more serious approach to the news.
The Fox effect has been apparent, too, at the Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose sixty-plus stations give it access to a quarter of the US TV audience. Since late 2002, Brian Anderson observes, Sinclair has fed its affiliates a seventeen-minute news report that uses Fox's slogan about being "fair and balanced." The report includes an opinion feature called "Truth, Lies, and Red Tape" that claims to present stories that the established networks "don't want viewers to hear," as a Sinclair executive put it. (One segment derided the United Nations for "spending more time and money defining the War on Terror instead of fighting it.")
In April 2004, Sinclair directed its eight ABC affiliates not to run a "Nightline" segment in which Ted Koppel read the names of the more than one thousand U.S. servicemen who had by then died in Iraq. In the ensuing controversy many conservative commentators defended Sinclair's decision, and the discussion on talk radio, cable news, and the Internet helped foster the idea that the mere discussion of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq is somehow unpatriotic. The Sinclair debate complemented the various steps the administration has taken to suppress coverage of U.S. casualties. Only in the last few months, as insurgent violence has intensified and the number of American and Iraqi deaths has mounted, has the coverage of the war grown more skeptical on some TV news broadcasts. (On the same day that Scooter Libby's indictment was announced, CNN chose to rebroadcast an hour-long report, "Dead Wrong," on the Bush administration's false claims about WMD.)
But it is a third, technological innovation that, along with the rise of talk radio and cable news, has made the conservative attack on the press particularly damaging: blogs. These Internet Web logs, which allow users to beam their innermost thoughts throughout the world, take no longer than a few minutes to set up. They first began to appear in the late 1990s, and there are currently more than 20 million of them. As one critic has observed, many are by adolescent girls writing their diaries on-line. Those with any substantial readership and political influence probably number in the hundreds, and most of these are conservative. As Brian Anderson writes with considerable understatement, "the blogosphere currently leans right."
At The Truth Laid Bear, a Web site that ranks political blogs according to their number of links with other sites, eight of the top ten blogs are conservative. The conservative sites include InstaPundit (University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds), Power Line (three lawyers), michellemalkin.com (a syndicated columnist whose recent book defends the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II), Free Republic (conservative activists), Captain's Quarters (run by a call-center manager), the Volokh Conspiracy (mostly law professors), and Little Green Footballs (commentary on foreign policy with a strong pro-Israel slant). Complementing them are a host of "milblogs," written by active-duty military personnel promoting vigorous pursuit of the GWOT (Global War on Terror). (By far the most-visited political blog is the left-of-center Daily Kos; its popularity is owing in part to its community-style approach, which allows registered readers to post their own comments as well as comment on the posts of others.)
In addition to being linked to one another, these blogs are regularly featured on more established right-of-center Web sites such as the Drudge Report (three billion visits a year), WorldNetDaily (which appeals to the Christian right), and Dow Jones's OpinionJournal, which features James Taranto's widely read "Best of the Web Today." These sites, in turn, are regularly trolled by commentators like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who then publicize many of their messages over TV, radio, and their own Web sites. NationalReviewOnline seeks out new conservative blogs and launches them with great fanfare. And the Bush administration actively supports these efforts. Last December, for instance, Lynne Cheney observed on the MSNBC program "Hardball" that she regularly reads Instapundit and Power Line -- a powerful recruiting tool for those sites.
For these bloggers, the principal target is the mainstream media, or MSM. Every day, they scrutinize the top dailies, the three broadcast networks as well as CNN, and the newsweeklies for evidence of "liberal bias." Over the last year, they have demonstrated their influence. When "60 Minutes" ran its segment on the memos about George Bush's National Guard service, Power Line led the way in raising doubts about the authenticity of the documents and the reliability of their source. After CBS apologized, the remaining serious questions about Bush's National Guard service were abruptly dropped by CBS and the press in general. [Note 4: For an analysis raising questions about CBS's internal investigation, see James Goodale's article "The Flawed Report on Dan Rather," *New York Review*, April 7, 2005, and the correspondence that followed in the *New York Review*, May 12, 2005.]
Last fall, when *Wall Street Journal* correspondent Farnaz Fassihi sent her friends a group e-mail that bluntly described the deteriorating security situation in Baghdad, right-wing bloggers accused her of bias and demanded her recall. The *Journal* quickly announced that Fassihi would take a previously scheduled vacation and so remain out of Iraq until after the U.S. presidential election. (She has since resumed reporting from Iraq.) Earlier this year, when CNN president Eason Jordan claimed at the Davos summit that the U.S. military was deliberately targeting journalists critical of the war in Iraq, bloggers exploded in outrage. Within days, a computer software analyst in Medford, New Jersey, had set up a new Web site, Easongate.com, to stoke anger against Jordan on the Internet. From there, the controversy jumped to TV, and soon after Jordan resigned.
Liberal bloggers have had some successes of their own. Partly as a result of their commentaries, for instance, the press has paid more attention to the so-called Downing Street memo of July 2002, in which Tony Blair and his advisers discussed the Bush administration's plans for war in Iraq. In addition to Daily Kos, prominent left-leaning blogs include Talking Points Memo, Eschaton, and, for commentary on Iraq, Informed Comment. While these sites are critical of the national press, their main fire is directed at the Bush administration. What's more, these sites are not supported by an interconnected system of talk radio programs and cable television commentary, and their influence therefore tends to be much more limited.
The thick web of connections among right-wing commentators is typified by Hugh Hewitt. A law professor who once served as the director of the Nixon Library, Hewitt hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show from a studio in an Orange County, California, mall. In between chats with studio guests, he posts commentary on his blog, hughhewitt.com, which receives about 40,000 visits a day. He contributes a weekly column to the Daily Standard, the online edition of the conservative *Weekly Standard*. Hewitt is also an evangelical Christian who sees blogs as an effective way to spread the word of Christ. According to *World*, an evangelical monthly magazine, Hewitt "may well be the world's leading blog-evangelist." An entire Web site has been set up to record the blogs he has helped inspire; it currently lists more than 250. On his own blog, Hewitt regularly flags what he considers to be instances of anti-Christian bias in the press. In mid-June, for instance, when the *New York Times* ran an article about the growing number of evangelical chaplains in the armed forces and the tensions they were causing, Hewitt observed that this was the latest installment in the *Times*'s "Drive Evangelicals from the Military" series. [Note 5: For more on Hewitt and his influence, see Nicholas Lemann, "Right Hook," *New Yorker*, August 29, 2005.]
Christian bloggers are part of a growing group of Christian news providers. As Mariah Blake reported in the May/ June *Columbia Journalism Review*, the Christian Broadcasting Network, home to Pat Robertson's "700 Club," today employs more than a thousand people working at stations in three U.S. cities and several foreign countries. Evangelicals control six national TV networks and some two thousand religious radio stations. "Thanks to Christian radio's rapid growth," Blake observes, "religious stations now outnumber every other format except country music and news-talk" -- the latter category, as we have seen, also overwhelmingly dominated by the right.
For three years before the Terri Schiavo case got national attention, it was constantly discussed on Christian stations, which sought to frame the issue as one of activist judges who were not upholding the sanctity of life. Soon after Bush was elected in 2000, directors of the National Religious Broadcasters were invited to meet the President and John Ashcroft, and the group has held monthly conference calls with the White House ever since. All in all, Blake observes, evangelical broadcasters have "remained hidden in plain sight -- a powerful but largely unnoticed force shaping American politics and culture."
The rapid growth of conservative outlets for commentary has contributed to a siege mentality among journalists. Steve Lovelady, who edits CJR Daily, a blog sponsored by the *Columbia Journalism Review*, told me that based on the frequent e-mails he receives from editors and reporters around the country, he thinks that newsrooms are in a state of "growing panic." Journalists "feel like they've never been under greater attack," Lovelady says. "Press criticism seems harsher and more accusatory than it used to be."
In addition to feeling under attack from without, Lovelady adds, journalists feel threatened from within. In previous decades, the major newspapers were mostly owned by family-run companies, which usually insulated newsrooms from the vicissitudes of the stock market. Today, most newspapers are owned by large publicly held corporations, for which profit margins are increasingly more important than investment in better reporting. This has sapped news organizations of their ability to defend themselves at precisely the moment they need it most.
The much-discussed fortunes of the *Los Angeles Times* are a case in point. For more than four generations, the paper was published by members of the Chandler family, who were controlling shareholders of the Times Mirror Company, which, in addition to the *Times*, owned *Newsday*, the *Baltimore Sun*, and the *Hartford Courant*. In 2000, however, Times Mirror was bought by the Chicago-based Tribune Company, a huge corporation that had become accustomed to 30 percent annual profit margins. (In addition to the *Chicago Tribune* and the *Los Angeles Times*, the Tribune Company owns nine other papers, twenty-six television stations, a 22 percent share in the WB television network, and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.)
The purchase came shortly after the revelation that top executives at the *Los Angeles Times* had approved a deal with the Staples Center to share the advertising proceeds from a special section about the sports and entertainment arena, an arrangement widely criticized as breaching the traditional wall between news and business. At first, Tribune executives seemed committed to restoring the *Times*'s strong reputation, as reflected in their decision to hire John Carroll, the widely respected editor of the *Baltimore Sun*, as the paper's new editor. And Carroll came through: in 2004, the paper won five Pulitzer Prizes, the second most ever for a paper (after the seven won by the *New York Times* in 2002). Financially, though, the paper was still feeling the effects of the 2000 recession, with advertising revenue sharply declining and circulation dropping well below its traditional level of more than one million.
The paper continued to be very profitable, but its margins had dipped below the 20 to 25 percent it had achieved in its most prosperous years. At the same time, the paper had come under heavy attack from southern California bloggers such as Hugh Hewitt, who portrayed it as liberal, lofty, and out of touch. According to Ken Auletta, in the *New Yorker*, more than a thousand *Los Angeles Times* readers canceled their subscriptions after the paper ran a story critical of Arnold Schwarzenegger just before the 2003 recall election that brought him to office. [Note 6: See "Fault Line," *New Yorker*, October 10, 2005.]
Between 2000 and 2004, the Tribune Company extracted some $130 million from the paper's annual billion-dollar budget. Then, weeks after the 2004 Pulitzer Prizes were announced, Tribune executives informed Carroll that further cuts were needed, and over the summer more than sixty staff members took voluntary buyouts or were laid off. The Washington bureau lost 10 percent of its staff, and those who remained were assigned to a new office along with the much-reduced Washington bureaus of the *Chicago Tribune*, *Baltimore Sun*, *Newsday*, and other Tribune papers. The cutbacks have made it harder for reporters at these papers to meet their daily deadlines, much less undertake in-depth reporting. In July of this year, in the face of demands for more cuts, Carroll resigned from the *Times*.
The developments at the Tribune Company mirror those in the newspaper industry as a whole. For most big-city papers, circulation is declining, advertising is shrinking, and reporters and editors are being let go. The full extent of the crisis became apparent in May, when the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported circulation figures for 814 daily papers for the six months ending last March. Compared to the same period the year before, total daily circulation fell by 1.9 percent and Sunday circulation by 2.5 percent. Sunday circulation fell by 2 percent at the *Boston Globe*, 3.3 percent at the *Philadelphia Inquirer*, 4.7 percent at the *Chicago Tribune*, and 8.5 percent at the *Baltimore Sun*. At the *Los Angeles Times*, circulation fell 6.4 percent daily and 7.9 percent on Sundays. Even the *Washington Post*, the dominant paper in a region of strong economic growth, has suffered a 5.2 percent daily circulation decline over a two-year period.
There are a few exceptions. The *New York Times* and *USA Today*, both national newspapers, have had modest circulation gains. Even so, the New York Times Company announced in October that it was going to eliminate five hundred jobs, including forty-five in the *Times* newsroom and thirty-five in the newsroom of the *Boston Globe*. (The *Globe* recently announced that it was dismantling its national desk.) The *Wall Street Journal* has been holding its own in circulation, but its ad revenues have sharply declined.
It is a striking paradox, however, that newspapers, for all their problems, remain huge moneymakers. In 2004, the industry's average profit margin was 20.5 percent. Some papers routinely earn in excess of 30 percent. By comparison, the average profit margin for the Fortune 500 in 2004 was about 6 percent. If the *Los Angeles Times* were allowed to operate at a 10 to 15 percent margin, John Carroll told me earlier this year, "it would be a juggernaut."
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when most papers went public, they had little trouble maintaining such levels. Many enjoyed a monopoly in their markets, and realtors, car dealers, and local stores had no choice except to advertise in them. The introduction of new printing technology helped to reduce labor costs and to shift power away from unions and toward management. But papers have since faced successive waves of new competition -- first from TV, then from cable, and now from the Internet. Yet Wall Street continues to demand the same high profits. "Of all the concerns facing newspapers," Carroll told me, "I'm most worried about cost cutting. Many CEOs are in a hard place, having to deliver short-term financial results or, most likely, get fired. Newspapers are very profitable, but their growth is slow, which means incessant cost cutting to meet Wall Street's expectations. The cost cutting leads to weaker journalism -- fewer reporters, fewer photographers, fewer editors, fewer pages in the paper."
Gene Roberts, a former editor of the *Philadelphia Inquirer* who left that paper over ongoing demands for cuts in his news operation, says that cutting news budgets to hit profit targets is a form of "systematic suicide." How can newspapers continue to insist on annual profit margins of 25 to 30 percent "and remain appealing to readers?" he asked. He argues that newspapers should respond to the increasing competition by investing more, not less, in newsrooms: "I think most papers could easily get their circulations up -- maybe not gigantically, but they could certainly stop the erosion and head in the other direction if they served their readers better."
But many experts on the newspaper business are not convinced. John Morton, a well-known newspaper analyst, points out that some very well-run companies, such as the *Washington Post*, have hired more reporters, foreign correspondents, and editors, yet continue to lose circulation. The reason, he says, is clear: the disappearance of young readers. "It is the fundamental problem facing the industry," Morton says. "It's probably not going away. And no one has figured a way out."
The full extent of this problem is described in *Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News*, by David T.Z. Mindich. [Note 7: Oxford University Press, 2004.] A former assignment editor for CNN who now teaches journalism at St. Michael's College in Vermont, Mindich writes that while more than 70 percent of older Americans read a newspaper every day, fewer than 20 percent of young Americans do. As a result, he writes, "America is facing the greatest exodus of informed citizenship in its history." Of twenty-three students asked to name as many members of the Supreme Court as they could, eighteen could not name even one. It is frequently argued that young people are always less interested than their parents in following the news; as they get older, they'll undoubtedly become more engaged. Mindich thinks not. In the 1950s and 1960s, he observes, "young people were nearly as informed about news and politics as their elders were." If young people aren't reading newspapers now, he argues, there's a good chance they won't as adults.
All eyes are now on the Internet. Even as paid circulation has dwindled at many papers, the number of visits to their Web sites has soared. Both nytimes.com and washingtonpost.com rank among the top twenty on-line global news sites; in September, the *Times* site received visits from more than 21 million different users. Because these sites are mostly free, however, many readers have switched to them from print editions, which can cost several hundred dollars for an annual subscription. But there is no clear indication that young people are more likely to read news on the Internet than in print. According to Mindich, only 11 percent of young adults in a recent survey cited the Internet as a major source of news. Moreover, with the exception of the *Wall Street Journal*, which runs a profitable subscription-only Web site, newspapers have until now failed to establish an on-line presence for which readers are willing to pay. In September, the *New York Times* Web site launched "TimesSelect," a new premium service that charges $49.95 a year for access to the paper's archives and select Op-Ed-page commentary (except for subscribers, for whom access is free). But it remains unclear whether such a service will generate significant revenue.
For the Web to become profitable, it will need to be supported by advertising. To date, the returns here have been modest, but they are growing. This year, for instance, latimes.com expects to take in $50 million, with ad revenues doubling in each of the next few years. In the long term, most observers agree, the future of newspapers lies with the Web, where transmitting the news requires no expensive newsprint, delivery trucks, or union drivers. The question is, can the Internet generate revenue -- and readers -- fast enough to make up for the shortfalls from print?
If the newspaper industry continues to shrink in response to the unrealistic expectations of Wall Street, the loss would be incalculable. The major metropolitan dailies, for all their faults, are the main collectors and distributors of news in America. The TV networks, to the extent they still offer serious hard news coverage, get many of their story ideas from papers such as the *New York Times*, the *Washington Post*, the *Wall Street Journal*, the *Los Angeles Times*, *USA Today*, the *Boston Globe*, and the *Christian Science Monitor*. Even the bloggers who so hate the "mainstream media" get much of their raw material from it. If the leading newspapers lose their capacity to report and conduct inquiries, the American public will become even more susceptible to the manipulations and deceptions of those in power.
The central question, in light of these difficulties, is how the press will respond. The environment in which the press works is often inhospitable, but it's precisely in times of crisis and upheaval that some of the best journalism gets done. Unfortunately, a look at the press's recent performance -- including that of our leading newspapers -- is not encouraging. As I will try to show in a subsequent article, news organizations, rather than push back against the forces confronting them, have too often retreated andacquiesced.
This is the first of two articles.
THE PRESS: THE ENEMY WITHIN
By Michael Massing
New York Review of Books
Vol. 52, No. 20
December 15, 2005
Pages 36, 38, 40. 42, & 44
The past few months have witnessed a striking change in the fortunes of two well-known journalists: Anderson Cooper and Judith Miller. CNN's Cooper, the one-time host of the entertainment show "The Mole," who was known mostly for his pin-up good looks, hip outfits, and showy sentimentality, suddenly emerged during Hurricane Katrina as a tribune for the dispossessed and a scourge of do-nothing officials. He sought out poor blacks who were stranded in New Orleans, expressed anger over bodies rotting in the street, and rudely interrupted Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu when she began thanking federal officials for their efforts. When people "listen to politicians thanking one another and complimenting each other," he told her, "you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated." After receiving much praise, Cooper in early November was named to replace Aaron Brown as the host of CNN's "NewsNight."
By then, Judith Miller was trying to salvage her reputation. After eighty-five days in jail for refusing to testify to the grand jury in the Valerie Plame leak case, she was greeted not with widespread appreciation for her sacrifice in protecting her source but with angry questions about her relations with Lewis Libby and her dealings with her editors, one of whom, Bill Keller, said he regretted he "had not sat her down for a thorough debriefing" after she was subpoenaed as a witness. The controversy revived the simmering resentment among her fellow reporters, and many *Times* readers, over her reporting on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. In the *Times*'s account, published on October 16, Miller acknowledged for the first time that "WMD -- I got it totally wrong." Bill Keller said that after becoming the paper's executive editor in 2003, he had told Miller that she could no longer cover Iraq and weapons issues, but that "she kept drifting on her own back into the national security realm." For her part, Miller insisted that she had "cooperated with editorial decisions" and expressed regret that she was not allowed to do follow-up reporting on why the intelligence on WMD had been so wrong; on November 8, she agreed to leave the *Times* after twenty-eight years at the paper. [Note 1: Her comments on her case are available at JudithMiller.org.]
These contrasting tales suggest something about the changing state of American journalism. For many reporters, the bold coverage of the effects of the hurricane, and of the administration's glaring failure to respond effectively, has helped to begin making up for their timid reporting on the existence of WMD. Among some journalists I've spoken with, shame has given way to pride, and there is much talk about the need to get back to the basic responsibility of reporters, to expose wrongdoing and the failures of the political system. In recent weeks, journalists have been asking more pointed questions at press conferences, attempting to investigate cronyism and corruption in the White House and Congress, and doing more to document the plight of people without jobs or a place to live.
Will such changes prove lasting? In a previous article, I described many of the external pressures besetting journalists today, including a hostile White House, aggressive conservative critics, and greedy corporate owners. [Note 2: See "The End of News?," *New York Review, December 1, 2005.] Here, I will concentrate on the press's internal problems -- not on its many ethical and professional lapses, which have been extensively discussed elsewhere, but rather on the structural problems that keep the press from fulfilling its responsibilities to serve as a witness to injustice and a watchdog over the powerful. To some extent, these problems consist of professional practices and proclivities that inhibit reporting -- a reliance on "access," an excessive striving for "balance," an uncritical fascination with celebrities. Equally important is the increasing isolation of much of the profession from disadvantaged Americans and the difficulties they face. Finally, and most significantly, there's the political climate in which journalists work. Today's political pressures too often breed in journalists a tendency toward self-censorship, toward shying away from the pursuit of truths that might prove unpopular, whether with official authorities or the public.
In late October 2004, Ken Silverstein, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the *Los Angeles Times*, went to St. Louis to write about Democratic efforts to mobilize African-American voters. In 2000, the Justice Department later found, many of the city's black voters had been improperly turned away from the polls by Republican Party officials. Democrats were charging the Republicans with preparing to do the same in 2004, and Silverstein found evidence for their claim. Republican officials accused the Democrats of similar irregularities, but their case seemed flimsy by comparison, a point that even a local Republican official acknowledged to him.
While doing his research, however, Silverstein learned that the *Los Angeles Times* had sent reporters to several other states to report on charges of voter fraud, and, further, that his findings were going to be incorporated into a larger national story about how both parties in those states were accusing each other of fraud and intimidation. The resulting story, bearing the bland headline "Partisan Suspicions Run High in Swing States," described "the extraordinarily rancorous and mistrustful atmosphere that pervades battleground states in the final days of the presidential campaign. In Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and other key states, Democrats and Republicans seem convinced their opponents are bent on stealing the election."
The section on Missouri gave equal time to the claims of Democrats and Republicans.
Troubled by this outcome, Silverstein sent an editor a memo outlining his concerns. The paper's "insistence on 'balance' is totally misleading and leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge," he wrote. In Missouri, there was "a real effort on the part of the GOP . . . to suppress pro-Dem constituencies." The GOP complaints, by contrast, "concern isolated cases that are not going to impact the outcome of the election." He went on: "I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should . . . attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. 'Balanced' is not fair, it's just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers."
This is not to deny that the best newspapers run many first-rate stories, Silverstein said, or that reporters working on long-term projects are often given leeway to "pile up evidence and demonstrate a case." During the last year, he has written articles on the ties between the CIA and the Sudanese intelligence service; on American oil companies' political and economic alliances with corrupt third-world regimes; and on conflicts of interest involving Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha. When it comes to political coverage, though, Silverstein told me, newspapers are too often "afraid of being seen as having an opinion." They fear "provoking a reaction in which they'll be accused of bias, however unfounded the charge." The insistence on a "spurious balance," he says, is a widespread problem in how TV and print organizations cover news. "It's very stifling."
As Silverstein suggests, this fear of bias, and of appearing unbalanced, acts as a powerful sedative on American journalists -- one whose effect has been magnified by the incessant attacks of conservative bloggers and radio talk-show hosts. [Note 3: See the discussion of conservative new commentators in "The End of News?"] One reason journalists performed so poorly in the months before the Iraq war was that there were few Democrats willing to criticize the Bush administration on the record; without such cover, journalists feared they would be branded as hostile to the President and labeled as "liberal" by conservative commentators.
The Plame leak case has provided further insight into the relation between the journalistic and political establishments. It's now clear that Lewis Libby was an important figure in the White House and a key architect of the administration's push for war in Iraq. Many journalists seem to have spoken with him regularly, and to have been fully aware of his power, yet virtually none bothered to inform the public about him, much less scrutinize his actions on behalf of the vice-president. A search of major newspapers in the fifteen months before the war turned up exactly one substantial article about Libby -- a breezy piece by Elisabeth Bumiller in the the *New York Times* about his novel *The Apprentice*.
In reporting on the government, the *Los Angeles Times*, like other papers, faces another serious constraint. As a result of budget cuts imposed by its corporate owner, The Tribune Company, the *Times* recently reduced its Washington staff from sixty-one to fifty-five (of whom thirty-nine are reporters). Doyle McManus, the bureau chief, says the paper is stretched very thin. Since September 11, 2001, he has had to assign so many reporters (eight at the moment) to covering news about national security that many domestic issues have been neglected. The *Times* has only four daily reporters to cover everything from health care to labor to the regulatory agencies, and it has no regular reporter in Washington dealing with the problems of the environment. "It's nuts for a California paper to have its environmental job open this long," McManus says. The *Chicago Tribune*, he said, has a full-time agriculture writer whose beat includes agribusiness and its activities in Washington. Despite the huge national political influence of agricultural interests, the *Los Angeles Times*, like most other big U.S. papers, lacks the resources to report on them regularly.
The same is true of most of official Washington. At no time since before the New Deal, perhaps, has corporate America had so much power and so much influence in Washington. Between 1998 and 2004, the amount of money spent on lobbying the federal government doubled to nearly $3 billion a year, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group. The US Chamber of Commerce alone spent $53 million in 2004. During the last six years, General Motors has spent $48 million and Ford $41 million. Before joining the Bush White House, chief of staff Andrew Card worked as a lobbyist for the big auto companies. To what extent have such payments and activities contributed to the virtual freeze on the fuel-efficiency standards that have long been in effect in the U.S. and which have helped to produce the current oil crisis? More generally, how have corporations used their extraordinary wealth to win tax breaks, gain no-bid contracts, and bend administrative rules to their liking? On November 10, the *Wall Street Journal* ran a probing front-page piece about how the textile industry, through intensive lobbying, won quotas on Chinese imports -- an example of the type of analysis that far too rarely appears in our leading publications. "Wall Street's influence in Washington has been one of the most undercovered areas in journalism for decades," according to Charles Lewis, the former director of the Center for Public Integrity.
Of course, corporations are extensively covered in the business sections of most newspapers. These began growing in size in the 1970s and 1980s, and today the *New York Times* has about sixty reporters assigned to business. The *Times*, along with the *Wall Street Journal*, runs many stories raising questions about corporate behavior. For the most part, though, the business sections are addressed to members of the business world and are mainly concerned to provide them with information they can use to invest their money, manage their companies, and understand Wall Street trends. Reflecting this narrow focus, the business press in the 1980s largely missed the savings and loan scandal. In the 1990s, it published enthusiastic reports on the high-tech boom, then watched in bafflement as it collapsed. Of the hundreds of American business reporters, only one -- *Fortune*'s Bethany McLean -- had the independence and courage to raise questions about the high valuation of Enron's stock. The criminal activities in recent years of not only Exxon but also WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, and other corporate malefactors have largely been exposed not by the business press but by public prosecutors; and the fate of the companies involved, and of those who were damaged by their lies, has been only fitfully followed up.
While business sections grow larger, the labor beat remains very solitary. In contrast to the many reporters covering business, the *Times* has only one, Steven Greenhouse, writing full-time about labor and workplace issues. (Several other *Times* reporters cover labor-related issues as part of their beats.) Greenhouse seems to be everywhere at once, reporting on union politics, low-wage workers, and corporate labor practices. More than any other big-city reporter, he has called attention to Wal-Mart's Dickensian working conditions. Yet he could surely use some help. When, for instance, General Motors recently announced that it was scaling back health benefits for its workforce, the story appeared on the *Times*'s front page for a day, then settled back into the business section, where it was treated as another business story. As a result, the paper has largely overlooked the painful social effects that the retrenchments at GM, the auto-parts company Delphi, and other manufacturing concerns have had on the Midwest. More generally, the staffs of our top news organizations, who tend to be well-paid members of the upper middle class living mostly on the East and West Coasts, have limited contact with blue-collar America and so provide only sporadic coverage of its concerns.
This summer, Nancy Cleeland, after more than six years as the lone labor reporter at the *Los Angeles Times*, left her beat. She made the move "out of frustration," she told me. Her editors "really didn't want to have labor stories. They were always looking at labor from a management and business perspective -- 'how do we deal with these guys?'" In 2003, Cleeland was one of several reporters on a three-part series about Wal-Mart's labor practices that won the *Times* a Pulitzer Prize. That, she had hoped, would convince her editors of the value of covering labor, but in the end it didn't, she says. "They don't consider themselves hostile to working-class concerns, but they're all making too much money to relate to the problems that working-class people are facing," observed Cleeland, who is now writing about high school dropouts. Despite her strong urging, the paper has yet to name anyone to replace her. (Russ Stanton, the *Los Angeles Times*'s business editor, says that the paper did value Cleeland's reporting, as shown by her many front-page stories. However, with his section recently losing six of its forty-eight reporters and facing more cuts, he said, her position is unlikely to be filled anytime soon.)
On August 30 -- the same day the waters of Lake Pontchartrain inundated New Orleans -- the Census Bureau released its annual report on the nation's economic well-being. It showed that the poverty rate had increased to 12.7 percent in 2004 from 12.5 percent in the previous year. In New York City, where so many national news organizations have their headquarters, the rate rose from 19 percent in 2003 to 20.3 percent in 2004, meaning that one in every five New Yorkers is poor. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I -- and many editors of the *New York Times* -- live, the number of homeless people has visibly grown. Yet somehow they rarely appear in the pages of the press.
In 1998, Jason DeParle, after covering the debate in Washington over the 1996 Welfare Reform Act as well as its initial implementation, convinced his editors at the *New York Times* to let him live part-time in Milwaukee so that he could see Wisconsin's experimental approach up close. They agreed, and over the next year DeParle's reporting helped keep the welfare issue in the public eye. In 2000, he took a leave to write a book about the subject, [Note 4: *American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare* (Viking, 2004); see the review by Christopher Jencks in this issue of the *New York Review*.] and the *Times* did not name anyone to replace him on the national poverty beat. And it still hasn't. Earlier this year, the *Times* ran a monumental series on class, and, in its day-to-day coverage of immigration, Medicaid, and foster care, it does examine the problems of the poor, but certainly the stark deprivation afflicting the nation's urban cores deserves more systematic attention.
In March, *Time* magazine featured on its cover a story headlined "How to End Poverty," which was about poverty in the developing world. Concerning poverty in this country, the magazine ran very, very little in the first eight months of the year, before Hurricane Katrina. Here are some of the covers *Time* chose to run in that period: "Meet the Twixters: They Just Won't Grow Up"; "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America"; "The Right (and Wrong) Way to Treat Pain"; "Hail, Mary" (the Virgin Mary); "Ms. Right" (Anne Coulter); "The Last Star Wars"; "A Female Midlife Crisis?"; "Inside Bill's New X-Box" (Bill Gates's latest video game machine); "Lose That Spare Tire!" (weight-loss tips); "Being 13"; "The 25 Most Influential Hispanics in America"; "Hip Hop's Class Act"; and "How to Stop a Heart Attack."
The magazine's editors put special energy into their April 18 cover, "The *Time* 100." Now in its second year, this annual feature salutes the hundred "most influential" people in the world, including most recently NBA forward Lebron James, country singer Melissa Etheridge, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, Ann Coulter (again!), journalist Malcolm Gladwell, and evangelical best-selling author Rick Warren. *Time* enlisted additional celebrities to write profiles of some of the chosen one hundred -- Tom Brokaw on Jon Stewart, Bono on Jeffrey Sachs, Donald Trump on Martha Stewart, and Henry Kissinger on Condoleezza Rice (she's handling the challenges facing her "with panache and conviction" and is enjoying "a nearly unprecedented level of authority"). To celebrate, *Time* invited the influentials and their chroniclers to a black-tie gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time-Warner Building.
A staff member of *Time*'s business department told me that the "100" issue is highly valued because of the amount of advertising it generates. In 2004, for instance, when Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was named a "Builder and Titan," her company bought a two-page spread in the issue. Because *Time*'s parent company, Time Warner, must post strong quarterly earnings to please Wall Street, the pressure to turn out such moneymakers remains intense. By contrast, there's little advertising to be had from writing about inner-city mothers, so the magazine seems unlikely to alter its coverage in any significant way.
*Time*'s "100" gala is only one of the many glitzy events on the journalists' social calendar. The most popular is the White House Correspondents' Dinner. This year, hundreds of the nation's top journalists showed up at the Washington Hilton to mix with White House officials, military brass, Cabinet chiefs, diplomats, and actors. Laura Bush's naughty "Desperate Housewives" routine, in which she teased her husband for his early-to-bed habits and his attempt to milk a male horse, was shown over and over on the TV news; what wasn't shown was journalists jumping to their feet and applauding wildly. Afterward, many of the journalists and their guests went to the hot post-dinner party, hosted by Bloomberg News. On his blog, the *Nation*'s David Corn described arriving with *Newsweek*'s Mike Isikoff, *New York Times* columnist Maureen Dowd, and *Times* editor Jill Abramson. Seeing the long line, Corn feared he wouldn't get in, but suddenly Arianna Huffington showed up and "whisked me into her entourage." Huffington, he noted, asked everyone she encountered -- Wesley Clark, John Podesta -- if they'd like to participate in her new celebrity-rich mega-blog.
It was left to Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" to imagine what the journalists and politicos at the dinner were saying to one another: "Deep down, we're both entrenched oligarchies with a stake in maintaining the status quo -- enjoy your scrod."
A ruthlessly self-revealing look at journalists' obsession with celebrity was provided earlier this year by Bernard Weinraub. Writing in the *New York Times* about his experience covering Hollywood for the paper between 1991 and 2005, he told of becoming friendly with Jeffrey Katzenberg (when he was head of Walt Disney Studios), of being dazzled by the ranch-style house of producer Dawn Steel, of resenting the huge financial gulf between him and the people he was covering. He recalled: "Waiting for a valet at the Bel-Air Hotel to bring my company-leased Ford, I once stood beside a journalist turned producer who said, 'I used to drive a car like that.' Though I'm ashamed to say it, I was soon hunting for parking spots near Orso or the Peninsula Hotel to avoid the discomfort of having a valet drive up my leased two-year-old Buick in front of some luncheon companion with a Mercedes."
During the 1990s, the *Times* reporters, Weinraub among them, breathlessly recorded every move of the agent Michael Ovitz. Today, it does the same for Harvey Weinstein. The paper's coverage of movies, TV, pop music, and video games concentrates heavily on ratings, box-office receipts, moguls, boardroom struggles, media strategists, power agents, who's up and who's down. The paper pays comparatively little attention to the social or political effects of pop culture, including how middle Americans regard the often sensational and violent entertainment that nightly invades their homes. As in the case of factory shutdowns, journalists at the elite papers are not in touch with such people and so rarely write about them. [Note 5: For more on this subject, see my article "Off Course," *Columbia Journalism Review*, July/August 2005.]
All of the problems affecting newspapers appear in even more acute form when it comes to TV. The loss of all three of the famous anchors of the broadcast networks has led to much anxiety about the future, and CBS's decision to name Sean McManus, the president of its sports division, as its new news chief has done little to allay it. Yet even under Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather, the network news divisions had become stale and predictable. After September 11, there was much talk about how the networks had to recover their traditional mission and educate Americans about the rest of the world, yet one need only watch the evening news for a night or two to see how absurd were such expectations. On November 4, for instance, CBS's Bob Schieffer spent a few fleeting moments commenting on some footage of the recent rioting by young Muslims in France before introducing a much longer segment on stolen cell phones and the anxiety they cause their owners. ABC's "World News Tonight"'s most frequent feature, "Medicine on the Cutting Edge," seems directed mainly at offering tips to its aging viewers about how they might hold out for a few more years -- and at providing the drug companies a regular ad platform. In 2004, the three networks together devoted 1,174 minutes -- nearly twenty full hours -- to missing women, all of them white.
Decrying the decline of network news has long been a popular pastime. The movie "Good Night, and Good Luck" features a famous jeremiad that Edward R. Murrow delivered at a meeting of the Radio and TV News Directors Association in 1958, in which he assailed the broadcast industry for being "fat, comfortable, and complacent." In 1988, the journalist Peter Boyer published a book titled *Who Killed CBS?* (The answer: CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter.) Tom Fenton's more recent *Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All*, is especially revealing, drawing as it does on extensive firsthand experience. In 1970, when Fenton went to work for CBS, in Rome, the bureau there had three correspondents -- part of a global network that included fourteen major foreign bureaus, ten mini-bureaus, and stringers in forty-four countries. Today, CBS has eight foreign correspondents and three bureaus. Four of the correspondents are based in London, where they are kept busy doing voice-overs for video feeds from the Associated Press and Reuters -- the form that most international news on the networks now takes.
During his years at CBS, Fenton writes, he took pride in finding important stories: "That was my job, my fun, my life -- until the megacorporations that have taken over the major American television news companies squeezed the life out of foreign news reporting."
Of the many people in the business he spoke with while researching his book, he writes, "almost everyone" agreed that the networks "are doing an inadequate job reporting world news." Among the exceptions were Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather, none of whom, he writes, "seemed to share my intensity of concern at the lack of foreign news and context on their shows." Fenton writes angrily about the immense sums the anchors were pulling down while their bureaus were being shuttered. Noting Tom Brokaw's plans to retire as anchor and do more investigative reporting, he asks, "What was stopping him from sending his correspondents out to do that for the last fifteen years or so?" (The answer is hinted at in Fenton's brief acknowledgment that foreign stories cost twice as much to produce as domestic ones.)
In Fenton's view, the press has grown so lax that "anyone with the merest enterprise can have a field day cherry-picking gigantic unreported stories." He quotes Seymour Hersh as saying he couldn't believe all the overlooked stories he was able to report on simply because the *New Yorker* allowed him to write what he wanted. Fenton lists some major stories that remain neglected, including the influence of Saudi money on U.S. policies toward the Middle East, the links between the big oil companies and the White House, and the largely ignored dark side of Kurdish activities in Iraq.
"Nowhere has the news media's ignorant performance been more egregious than in its handling of the Kurds," he writes, "a catalogue of sorry incompetence and dangerous misinformation that continues to this day." He mentions the murderous feuds between the two Kurdish strongmen Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, and the "tribulations and suffering" of minorities like the Turcomans and Assyrian Christians living under the "strong arm of Kurdish rule." The Kurds have always been cast as good guys, and no American news organization, he writes, "wants to burden us with such complex and challenging details. You never know what might happen -- viewers might switch to another channel."
Iraq remains by far the most important story for the U.S. press, showing its strengths as well as its many weaknesses -- especially the way in which political realities shape, define, and ultimately limit what Americans see and read. The nation's principal news organizations deserve praise for remaining committed to covering the war in the face of lethal risks, huge costs, and public apathy. Normally the *Washington Post* has four correspondents in the country, backed by more than two dozen Iraqis, as well as three armored cars costing $100,000. The *New York Times* bureau costs $1.5 million a year to maintain. And many excellent reports have resulted. In June, for instance, the *Wall Street Journal* ran a revealing front-page story by Farnaz Fassihi about how the violence between Muslim groups in Iraq had destroyed a longtime friendship between two Baghdad neighbors, one Sunni and the other Shiite. In October, in the *Washington Post*, Steven Fainaru described how Kurdish political parties were repatriating thousands of Kurds in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, setting off fighting between Kurdish settlers and local Arabs. And in the *New York Times*, Sabrina Tavernise described how the growing chaos in Iraq was eroding the living standards of middle-class Iraqis, turning their frustration "into hopelessness."
Just a few months before, at the start of the year, however, the tone of the coverage was very different. President Bush, fresh from his reelection, was enjoying broad public support, and he was making the most of Iraq's January 30 election, which was widely proclaimed a success. The anti-Syria demonstrations in Lebanon and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority only added to the impression of the growing success of Bush's foreign policy. Journalists rushed to praise his leadership and sagacity. "What Bush Got Right," *Newsweek* declared on its March 14 cover. Recent developments in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East had "vindicated" the President, the magazine declared. "Across New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago -- and probably Europe and Asia as well -- people are nervously asking themselves a question: 'Could he possibly have been right?' The short answer is yes." Another article, headlined "Condi's Clout Offensive," hailed the new secretary of state, noting how she "has rushed onto the world stage with force and style, and with the fair wind of the Arab Democratic Spring at her back." Rounding out the package was "To the Front," a look at U.S. soldiers who, having lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, "are doing the unthinkable: Going back into battle."
On CNN, Wolf Blitzer was daily celebrating Iraq's strides toward democracy. On April 6, for instance, after the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was selected as Iraq's new president, Blitzer asked Robin Wright of the *Washington Post* and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution about him and his two deputies. Blitzer, addressing Wright, said, "They're all pretty moderate and they're pretty pro-American, is that fair?"
"Absolutely," said Wright. "These are people who have been educated in the West, have had contacts with Western countries, particularly in the United States. . . ."
Blitzer: "Your sense is this is about as good, Ken Pollack, as the U.S., as the Bush administration, as the American public could have hoped for, at least as a start for this new Iraqi democracy."
Pollack: "Absolutely. I think the Bush administration has to be pleased with the personnel."
Such leading questions provide a good example of Blitzer's interviewing style, which seems designed to make sure his guests say nothing remotely spontaneous; the exchange also makes clear the deference that CNN, and the press as a whole, showed President Bush just after his reelection, during the first months of the year. Throughout this period, violence continued to plague Iraq, but stories about it were mostly consigned to the inside pages. U.S. soldiers continued to die, but this news was mostly relegated to the "crawl" along the bottom of the cable news shows.
Then, in April, insurgent attacks began to increase, and Bush's popularity began to slide. As oil prices rose and the Plame leak investigation got more attention, political space for tougher reporting began to open up. The stories about assassinations and ambushes that had earlier been buried began appearing on the front page, and Wolf Blitzer, newly emboldened, began questioning his guests about U.S. exit strategies.
By late October, when the two-thousandth U.S. serviceman died, the news was splashed across the nation's front pages. "2,000 Dead: As Iraq Tours Stretch On, a Grim Mark," declared the *New York Times*. As the *Times*'s Katharine Seelye pointed out a few days later, this milestone received far more press attention than had the earlier one of one thousand, in April 2004.
Still, there remained firm limits on what could be reported out of Iraq. Especially taboo were frank accounts of the actions of U.S. troops in the field -- particularly when those actions resulted in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.
On the same day the *Times* ran its front-page story about the two thousand war dead, for instance, it ran another piece on page A12 about the rising toll of Iraqi civilians. Since the U.S. military does not issue figures on this subject, Sabrina Tavernise relied on Iraq Body Count, a nonprofit Web site that keeps a record of casualty figures from news accounts. The site, she wrote, placed the number of dead civilians since the start of the U.S. invasion at between 26,690 and 30,051. (Even the higher number was probably too low, the article noted, since many deaths do not find their way into news reports.) The *Times* deserves credit simply for running this story -- for acknowledging that, as high a price as American soldiers have paid in the war, the one paid by Iraqi civilians has been much higher. Remarkably, though, in discussing the cause of those deaths, the article mentioned only insurgents. Not once did it raise the possibility that some of those deaths might have come at the hands of the "Coalition."
This is typical. A survey of the *Times*'s coverage of Iraq in the month of October shows that, while regularly reporting civilian deaths caused by the insurgents, it rarely mentioned those inflicted by Americans; when it did, it was usually deep inside the paper, and heavily qualified. Thus, on October 18 the *Times* ran a brief article at the bottom of page A11 headlined "Scores Are Killed by American Airstrikes in Sunni Insurgent Stronghold West of Baghdad." Citing military sources, the article noted in its lead that the air strikes had been launched "against insurgents" in the embattled city of Ramadi, "killing as many as 70 people." A U.S. Army colonel was cited as saying that a group of insurgents in four cars had been spotted "trying to roll artillery shells into a large crater in eastern Ramadi that had been caused when a roadside bomb exploded the day before, killing five U.S. and two Iraqi soldiers." At that point, according to the *Times*, "an F-15 fighter plane dropped a guided bomb on the area, killing all 20 men on the ground." The *Times* went on to report the colonel's claim that "no civilians had been killed in the strikes." In one sentence, the article noted that Reuters, "citing hospital officials in Ramadi," had reported "that civilians had been killed." It did not elaborate. Instead, it went on to mention other incidents in Ramadi in which U.S. helicopters and fighter planes had killed "insurgents."
The AP told a very different story. The "group of insurgents" that the military claimed had been hit by the F-15 was actually "a group of around two dozen Iraqis gathered around the wreckage of the U.S. military vehicle" that had been attacked the previous day, the AP reported. "The military said in a statement that the crowd was setting another roadside bomb in the location of the blast that killed the Americans. F-15 warplanes hit them with a precision-guided bomb, killing 20 people, described by the statement as 'terrorists.' But several witnesses and one local leader said the people were civilians who had gathered to gawk at the wreckage of the U.S. vehicle or pick pieces off of it -- as often occurs after an American vehicle is hit. The airstrike hit the crowd, killing 25 people, said Chiad Saad, a tribal leader, and several witnesses who refused to give their names. . . ."
Readers of the *Times* learned none of these details. This is not an isolated case. Regularly reading the paper's Iraq coverage during the last few months, I have found very little mention of civilians dying at the hands of U.S. forces. No doubt the violence on Iraq's streets keeps reporters from going to these sites to interview witnesses, but *Times* stories seldom notify readers that its reporters were unable to question witnesses to civilian casualties because of the danger they would face in going to the site of the attack. Yet the paper regularly publishes official military claims about dead insurgents without any independent confirmation. After both General Tommy Franks and Donald Rumsfeld declared in 2003 that "we don't do body counts," the U.S. military has quietly begun doing just that. And the *Times* generally relays those counts without questioning them.
In any discussion of civilian casualties, it is important to distinguish between the insurgents, who deliberately target civilians, and the U.S. military, which does not -- which, in fact, goes out of its way to avoid them. [Note 6: See, for example, Human Rights Watch, "A Face and a Name: Civilian Victims of Insurgent Groups in Iraq," October 3, 2005.] Nonetheless, all indications point to a very high toll at the hands of the U.S. As seems to have been the case in Ramadi, many of the deaths have resulted from aerial bombardment. Since the start of the invasion, the United States has dropped 50,000 bombs on Iraq. [Note 7: See the NPR show "This American Life," "What's in a Number?" October 28, 2005.] About 30,000 were dropped during the five weeks of the war proper. Though most of the 50,000 bombs have been aimed at military targets, they have undoubtedly caused much "collateral damage," and claimed an untold number of civilian lives.
But according to Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch, the toll from ground actions is probably much higher. Garlasco speaks with special authority; before he joined Human Rights Watch, in mid-April 2003, he worked for the Pentagon, helping to select targets for the air war in Iraq. During the ground war, he says, the military's use of cluster bombs was especially lethal. In just a few days of fighting in the city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, Human Rights Watch found that cluster bombs killed or injured more than five hundred civilians.
Since the end of the ground war, Garlasco says, many civilians have been killed in crossfire between U.S. and insurgent forces. Others have been shot by U.S. military convoys; soldiers in Humvees, seeking to avoid being hit by suicide bombers, not infrequently fire on cars that get too close, and many turn out to have civilians inside. According to Garlasco, private security contractors kill many civilians; they tend to be "loosey-goosey" in their approach, he says, "opening fire if people don't get out of the way quickly enough."
Probably the biggest source of civilian casualties, though, is Coalition checkpoints. These can go up anywhere at any time, and though they are supposed to be well marked, they are in practice often hard to detect, especially at night, and U.S. soldiers -- understandably wary of suicide bombers -- often shoot first and ask questions later. Many innocent Iraqis have died in the process. [Note 8: Human Rights Watch has issued many reports about the civilian victims of U.S. military actions, including "Civilian Deaths/Checkpoints," October 2003, in which it observed that "the individual cases of civilian deaths documented in this report reveal a pattern by U.S. forces of over-aggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas, and a quick reliance on lethal force."]
Such killings came into public view in March, when the car carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, rushing to the Baghdad airport after her release from captivity, was fired on by U.S. troops; she was badly wounded and the Italian intelligence officer accompanying her was killed. Three days after the incident, the *New York Times* ran a revealing front-page story headlined "U.S. Checkpoints Raise Ire in Iraq." Next to the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, John Burns wrote, "no other aspect of the American military presence in Iraq has caused such widespread dismay and anger among Iraqis, judging by their frequent outbursts on the subject. Daily reports compiled by Western security companies chronicle many incidents in which Iraqis with no apparent connection to the insurgency are killed or wounded by American troops who have opened fire on suspicion that the Iraqis were engaged in a terrorist attack."
U.S. and Iraqi officials said they had no figures on such casualties, Burns reported, "but any Westerner working in Iraq comes across numerous accounts of apparently innocent deaths and injuries among drivers and passengers who drew American fire, often in circumstances that have left the Iraqis puzzled, wondering what, if anything, they did wrong."
Many, he said, "tell of being fired on with little or no warning."
Burns's account showed that it was possible to write such stories despite the pervasive violence, and despite the lack of official figures. While few such stories have appeared in this country, they are common abroad. "If you go to the Middle East, that's all you hear about -- the U.S. killing civilians," Marc Garlasco observes. "It's on the news all the time."
In this country, one can catch glimpses of this reality in documentaries like the recently released "Occupation: Dreamland," in which directors Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, drawing on the six weeks they spent with an Army unit stationed outside Fallujah, show how the best-intentioned soldiers, faced with a hostile population speaking a strange language and worshiping an alien God, can routinely resort to actions designed to intimidate and humiliate. One can also find glimpses in the *New York Times Magazine*, which has been much bolder than the daily *New York Times*. In May, Peter Maass, writing in the *Times Magazine*, described how Iraqi commando units, trained by U.S. counterinsurgency experts, are fighting a "dirty war" in which beatings, torture, and even executions are routine. And in October, Dexter Filkins, also in the *Times Magazine*, described the sobering case of Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman, a West Point graduate who, under constant attacks in a volatile Sunni area, approved rough tactics against the local population, including forcing local Iraqi men to jump into a canal as punishment. One died as a result.
Only by reading and watching such accounts is it possible to fathom the depths of Iraqi hatred for the United States. It's not the simple fact of occupation that's at work, but the way that occupation is being carried out, and the daily indignities, humiliations, and deaths that accompany it. If reports of such actions appeared more frequently in the press, they could help raise questions about the strategy the U.S. is pursuing in Iraq and encourage discussion of whether there's a better way to deploy U.S. troops.
Why are such reports so rare? The simple lack of language skills is one reason. Captain Zachary Miller, who commanded a company of U.S. troops in eastern Baghdad in 2004 and who is now studying at the Kennedy School of Government, told me that of the fifty or so Western journalists who went out on patrol with his troops, hardly any spoke Arabic, and few bothered to bring interpreters. As a result, they were totally dependent on Miller and his fellow soldiers. "Normally, the reporters didn't ask questions of the Iraqis," he said. "They asked me."
In addition, many U.S. journalists feel queasy about quoting eyewitnesses who offer information that runs counter to statements put out by the U.S. military. Journalists don't like writing stories in which an Iraqi civilian's word is pitted against that of a U.S. officer, regardless of how much evidence there is to back up the civilian's claims. The many tough pieces in the press about abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and secret detention facilities usually have official U.S. sources and so are less open to challenge.
Even more important, though, I believe, are political realities. The abuses that U.S. troops routinely commit in the field, and their responsibility for the deaths of many thousands of innocent Iraqis, are viewed by the American press as too sensitive for most Americans to see or read about. When NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a U.S. soldier fatally shooting a wounded Iraqi man in Fallujah, he was harassed, denounced as an antiwar activist, and sent death threats. Such incidents feed the deep-seated fear that many U.S. journalists have of being accused of being anti-American, of not supporting the troops in the field. These subjects remain off-limits.
Of course, if the situation in Iraq were further to unravel, or if President Bush were to become more unpopular, the boundaries of the acceptable might expand further, and subjects such as these might begin appearing on our front pages. It's regrettable, though, that editors and reporters have to wait for such developments. Of all the internal problems confronting the press, the reluctance to venture into politically sensitive matters, to report disturbing truths that might unsettle and provoke, remains by far the most troubling.
On November 8, I turned on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" to see how the host was doing in his new job. It was Election Day, and I was hoping to find some analysis of the results. Instead, I found Cooper leading a discussion on a new sex survey conducted by *Men's Fitness* and *Shape* magazines. I learned that 82 percent of men think they're good or excellent in bed, and that New Yorkers report they have more sex than the residents of any other state. At that moment, New Orleans and Katrina seemed to be in a galaxy far, far away.
-November 16, 2005
-This is the second of two articles.
--Michael Massing, a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, writes frequently on the press and foreign affairs. He is the author of Now They Tell Us, based on his previous articles on the press and the Iraq war in the New York Review.