The News Media’s Moment of Truth

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In just the past nine months, the US news media have been presented with what most journalists believe will be the two most dramatic and important stories of their lifetimes. Vast, perhaps unprecedented, resources have been devoted to the post-2000 presidential election day developments in Florida and to terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and their aftermath.

If there is ever a point at which to measure the caliber of a free press it is at a moment like this, when the fate of democracy or war and peace may well hang in the balance. In moments of crisis, the media system needs to generate factual accuracy on everything relevant. It needs to provide a wide range of debate over policy proposals to address the crisis. And it needs to provide the necessary background and context so that citizens can make sense of the problems and determine the best possible solution. Every medium need not do all this; but in combination, the system as a whole should make this readily available to the preponderance of the population.

By those standards, one does not need the distance of time to record our news media’s grade: F.

This grade may surprise some, as it is easy to be dazzled by the round-the-clock coverage with innumerable cameras and high technology. The extraordinary drama and emotion of a breaking story, too, suggest that the media coverage is somehow equally profound. But a free society requires more. In the case of Florida, the media tended to permit the Republicans to set the tone for the coverage, and the implicit story line was: GeorgeBush won the state, albeit by a whisker, and when will Al Gore do the right thing and throw in the towel? Since that fateful and dubious Supreme Court decision in December, the news media have closed off all debate over the legitimacy of the election. Subsequent research has shown that Gore did, indeed, win Florida, and that Republican tactics, if they did not constitute outright fraud, at the very least prevented that truth from emerging. When the chips were on the line, however, our mainstream news media were preoccupied with reporting the spin of the various camps.

The news coverage since September 11 has been charged with a tidal wave of ideologically laced emotion better suited to a World Wrestling Federation Smackdown than to a nation facing a grave long-term problem, where the types of public policies pursued in the coming months and years could produce results ranging from highly productive to spectacularly disastrous. Absurdly, after arguably the greatest lapse in performance in military and CIA history, despite colossal budgets and minimal public oversight, the impetus is to expand the budgets and relax the little oversight even further.

This should be no surprise. The range of expert analysis portrayed in the dominant media has been limited mostly to the military and intelligence communities and their supporters, with their clear self-interest in the expansion of military and police approaches rarely acknowledged and almost never critically examined. Little has been done to address the astonishing ignorance of Americans regarding the US role in the world, the extensive use of terrorism by the United States, and the history and politics of the Middle East, Palestine and the Islamic world. Small wonder that right-wing ideologues like Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter, praised the news coverage of the days after September 11 profusely, saying that the media en masse deserve a Medal of Freedom.

The reasons for this flawed coverage can be located in two places: the weaknesses in the manner in which professional journalism has been practiced in the United States; and the ultimate control of our major news media by a very small number of very large and powerful profit-seeking corporations.

Professional journalism emerged around 100 years ago, propelled by the need of monopoly newspaper owners to offer a credible non-partisanjournalism so that their business enterprises would not be undermined. Professional journalism is outstanding for its emphasis on factual accuracy and fairness, but deeply flawed by conventions that allow itto avoid the inevitable controversies inherent in journalism.

To avoid the taint of partisanship, professionalism makes official or credentialed sources the basis for news stories. This tends to give the news an establishment bias. When a journalist reports what elites are saying, or debating, she is considered professional. When she steps outside this range of official debate, she is no longer being professional. Likewise, professional journalism tends to avoid contextualization like the plague, and what contextualization it does provide tends to conform to elite, official premises.

So it is that on those stories that receive the most coverage, like the Middle East, Americans tend to be every bit as, if not more, ignorant than on those subjects that receive far less coverage. Media coverage tends to be a barrage of disconnected, decontextualized facts. But the so-called separation of journalists and owners that purports to be the basis of professional journalism was never enacted into law. Power has in fact always remained with the owners, and the history of 20th century journalism is replete with examples of their exercising this power to advance their political interests. Generally direct intervention is unnecessary, as successful editors often internalize the values that appeal to their bosses.

In recent years, the massive corporations that have gobbled up our news media have shown a greater willingness to put direct commercial pressure on journalists to generate more profits (Condit, anyone?), and an increased willingness to intervene to shape the nature of news coverage. On election night 2000, Republican Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channelcalled George Bush the winner of Florida in the middle of the night, despite the lack of statistical support for such a claim. There are reports that moments later, General Electric CEO Jack Welch, an ardent Republican, was in the NBC newsroom (GE owns NBC) demanding that NBC follow suit and declare Bush the new president. Whether these reports are true is the subject of controversy, and NBC has reneged on its earlier promise to Congress to turn over the videotapes on the NBC newsroom on election night. At any rate, once Fox and NBC had declared Bush the winner, the media coverage was framed for the next five weeks. Subsequent developments might have been substantially different had the framing been that the election was a dead heat.

Likewise, the largest media corporations are among the primary beneficiaries of neoliberal globalization, and of the US role as the enforcer of global political etiquette. For these firms to provide an understanding of the world in which the United States military and capitalism are not benevolent forces might be possible, but it is extremely unlikely.

The implications are clear. The severe limitations of our journalism are not due to bad journalists. They are due to deep problems in the manner in which our media system is structured. If we are serious about living in a democratic society and a peaceful world, it is imperative that we launch a no-holds-barred debate on this subject, and on what we can do to change the system for the better.

Robert McChesney is a professor of Communication in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a co-editor of Monthly Review.

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