The War Party and the Media

The panel on which I sat at the was entitled, "The War Party and the Media – or Do I Repeat Myself?" Along with George Szamuely and Eric Garris, I tried to explore some of the reasons for what might be seen as something of a mystery: Why most of the media seem content to serve as cheerleaders for whatever splendid little war the Pentagon or the State Department cooks up.

In some ways the phenomenon should be viewed as a mystery. One of the enduring myths about reporters is that they are hard-bitten, skeptical types who get their jollies by afflicting the comfortable and sometimes by comforting the afflicted.

Many of those with senior positions in journalism today earned their spurs during the Vietnam war, during which (at least toward the end) skepticism about the government and its war plans and practices was, if not rife, at least fairly commonplace. Many then cut their teeth on Watergate and helped to foster a generally sour attitude about government and American culture that found at least partial expression in Jimmy Carter’s embrace of "malaise" as a way to understand all the multifarious things wrong with America.


Many in the Washington press corps also took a certain amount of delight in twitting Ronald Reagan for his apparent casualness about details, exposing misstatements of fact that often weren’t misstatements at all but simply variant opinions, then fulminating that the American people didn’t share their outrage that an utter dolt was in charge. Iran-Contra offered opportunities for tut-tutting (and once in a while even a bit of journalistic digging) over the abuses uncovered there.

While catching Ronald Reagan in minor mistakes – and even questioning whether he should have sent Americans to Grenada or Nicaragua – was fun, however, it wasn’t quite the same as the irreverent skepticism toward one and all proper journalists are supposed to embrace. Dan Quayle was also fun for journalists, but for the most part the Quaylean malapropisms so cheerfully recycled had more to do with the joy of catching a deer in one’s headlights than in digging into inconsistencies in policy or practice.


After the Gulf War media critics and journalistic organizations agonized over how American correspondents had managed to get snookered into being Pentagon mouthpieces given briefings parceled out under controlled circumstances, kept from looking into certain stories and events on the ground, being fed pap and televised computer-game-like images of missiles heading unerringly toward targets. But during the buildup and the war itself, few complained. Most were at least resigned to their limited role, while some were quite caught up in the ersatz enthusiasm and excitement that covering even a boring war involves.

With a few honorable exceptions, American journalists have been content to be the handmaidens of American foreign policy masters during the 1990s. They have participated in the demonization of the enemy of the hour, whether in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia or Kosovo. They have cheerfully passed on exaggerations about the atrocities committed by the bad guys and sometimes actively tried to create the impression of atrocities where none were to be found (see information on Britain’s ITN staging impressions of concentration camps on for a particularly egregious example).


During the 1970s Irving Kristol (back when he was doing some reasonably valuable thinking and writing) posited that modern American journalists were part of what he called a "new class" of public intellectuals. Having absorbed by osmosis most of the attitudes and prejudices then regnant in American colleges, especially the notion that the country could best be saved (or improved) by a professionally trained managerial class, many journalists came to think of themselves as partners rather than critics of the bureaucrats they covered.

College-educated (rather than promoted from the police beat) and increasingly well-paid, many journalists identified more with the department heads and politicians who were dragging the recalcitrant American people into the Brave New World than with the people themselves. While occasionally alert to a juicy scandal, journalists were often more inclined to butter up bureaucrats than to expose them.

There’s also the theory that "mainstream" journalists are unremittingly liberal Democrats committed to forwarding that often-inchoate agenda. Robert Lichter’s polls, for example, show that more than 90 percent of Washington prestige-media journalists voted for Clinton in 1992. And it is certainly true that most Washington journalists are more likely to be tough on Republicans than on Democrats. Al Gore, for example, is almost certainly significantly goofier than Dan Quayle, yet his displays of ignorance and mendacity get much less play.

Having grown up in the 1960s, however, I labored for some time under the impression that liberals were by and large antiwar, or at least skeptical about military adventures. Why is it that these brave liberals have not only become complacent about the little wars the Clinton administration seems to love so much, but enthusiastic and sometimes consciously dishonest cheerleaders for them? Might not the basic liberal instincts assert themselves from time to time in an expression of skepticism about war or the Pentagon?

Alexander Cockburn and Lenora Fulani offered the conference some valuable insights into how many on the left have abdicated antiwar attitudes and skepticism about the credibility of the establishment and its spinners. While these critiques are helpful, however, they don’t quite offer a full explanation.


When I came to the Register almost 20 years ago, one of the phenomena I noticed and deplored – sometimes just in bull sessions, sometimes more publicly, once in a while even in print – was the tendency of most reporters who covered city government to become mouthpieces for the government rather than tribunes of the people. I suspect that this phenomenon, while far from a full explanation, might tell us a bit about why the media in general tend to be lackeys of the establishment.

(There are some 28 separate cities in the Orange County Register’s circulation area as well as a particularly inept county government. There is and has long been a "wall of separation" between the editorial page, where I have always worked, and the newsroom. So while I have gotten to know some reporters and hold a few as valued friends – and have learned to admire and sometimes emulate genuinely good reporters who dig and ask informed questions – I view newsrooms as something of an outsider.)

Early on, after I had gotten out of the Ivory Tower often enough to have attended a dozen or so city council meetings when issues of concern to us were being discussed, I wrote a column suggesting how these events might be covered if certain journalistic conventions didn’t prevail. The fact that Councilman Jones never knew what he was talking about or that Mayor Smith seemed to get more inebriated as the meeting wore on might have found their way into print instead of the standard descriptions of Roberts Rules proposals, discussion, deliberation and decision that lent these adventures in looting and thuggery much more dignity than they deserved.

Needless to say, my mordant observations had no effect on journalistic practices.


As I got to know more reporters and observe how they operated, however, I think I have come to understand – not necessarily to condone but at least to understand – how and why so many are "captured" by the bureaucracies and agencies they cover. If you as a reporter are assigned to a particular city, or to the courts, you get most of your information from officials on a day-to-day basis. Elected officials and people with issues before the city council come and go. The functionaries stay, and for the most part they are pleasant and professional people, trained to understand that journalists have deadlines and often appreciate predigested information. You get to know them, perhaps even to like them. So long as they don’t make a practice of feeding you bad information, you probably even come to trust them.

Thus if a scandal hits, the first instinct is not to treat those with whom you have worked every day as suspects but as trusted informants. You might get an off-the-record briefing from the city clerk or a friend in the file room as to what really happened, and that knowledge is likely to affect your coverage.

Thus at my newspaper – and so far as I can see, at most newspapers around the country – if some disgruntled citizen comes before the city council to complain that the planning commission did him wrong or the bureaucrats were heavy-handed because he didn’t understand the nuances of the permitting process, the tendency is to treat him as a crank rather than as a symptom that something is rotten in City Hall. Those who come to complain are often less articulate and less informed than the bureaucrats they are criticizing. You already have a relationship with the bureaucrat and you don’t know this guy. If he has been seriously mistreated he may be too angry to do much more than sputter. You dismiss him.


I contend that much the same happens, on a larger and more complex scale, in Washington. There are exceptions, just as there are competent, aggressive and skeptical local reporters, but most journalists are only too happy to be part of the Courtier Press. Add the fascination with power and those who hold it, along with the regnant superstition in Washington that information is power and that one of the things that makes you important is knowing something others don’t know, and you have a press corps that generally serves the government rather than the people.

My first experience in Washington was as an intern at Human Events back in 1967. We went to several White House press briefings. I remember one especially, at which some new program was announced – I forget which. Privately and among themselves, most of the journalists were suitably cynical, making wisecracks about how likely it was that this particular program would save the country, let alone solve the problem. But when they went to write the story they wrote it "straight," getting the flacks’ quotes right and treating the project they had privately ridiculed with utmost seriousness.


Some might contend that this is a relatively recent phenomenon, that at some point in our history there was a Golden Age when journalists were proper hard-bitten skeptics who took delight in serving their readers rather than the puffed-up statesmen they covered. But H.L. Mencken complained memorably about the phenomenon back in the 1920s. A competent reporter with some skills at digging out facts would come to Washington, he wrote, and after a few clumsy overtures by the White House he was undone. He had become a tinpot statesman rather than a journalist, and his bullshit detector ceased to function.

There have been exceptions and there still are. Michael Isikoff, now with Newsweek, seems more like a real reporter than a courtier (his piece on the Colombian war in the current issue – is quite good). But for the most part the courtier press is better rewarded than the skeptical press and practitioners respond accordingly. Things may be worse now, given the growth of government, the existence of more power with which to be fascinated, and the general impression that Washington is the center of the universe. But I seriously doubt if there ever was a Golden Age.


The growth of the Internet has given some of the old-fashioned skeptics and diggers more opportunity to do skeptical journalism and receive some appreciation (if not recompense) for what they do. And it has afforded opportunities for non-conformists who would never fit into the often all-too-bureaucratic corporate culture of most major media outlets opportunities and platforms to peddle irreverence. Along with talk radio it has broken the virtual monopoly the establishment press has long held on the dissemination and spinning of information.

But while it is fun to complain about the biases and inadequacies of the media, getting terribly upset about them seems a fool’s errand. A realist should understand that they are what they are – usually quite competent at getting the basic facts and numbers correct but often obtuse about the import of what they report – and accept it. It is still possible, if your mental filters and detectors are in proper working order, to get a rough idea of what really happened from the major media. To expect most of them to be other than cheerleaders and courtiers, however, is to expect what is unlikely in our lifetimes.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).