If Walter Lippman, perhaps the most influential U.S. press critic and foreign-policy columnist of the 20th century, were alive today, chances are he would shake his head knowingly and mutter something like, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” (“The more things change, the more they remain the same.”)
After all, it was in 1920 that he and a colleague, Charles Merz, wrote in their analysis of New York Times coverage of the Bolshevik Revolution between 1917 and 1920 that the newspaper’s reporting on Russia during that period was “nothing short of a disaster.”
In an article in The New Republic magazine, they wrote that the Times had reported the imminent or actual end of the Soviet regime “not once or twice but 91 times in the two years from November, 1917 to November 1919.”
“They (Times journalists) were performing the supreme duty in a democracy of supplying the information on which public opinion feeds, and they were derelict in that duty,” added Lippman and Merz.
How had the Times gotten things so wrong?
Eighty-four years later, the same question is being asked about the performance of the mass media especially the Times on reporting about Iraq, particularly the prewar and even postwar assumptions that the country possessed vast stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons and had reconstituted its nuclear-arms program.
The Times, in particular, has come under fire both because of its agenda-setting status for the rest of the media and because it was often the first to report new, groundbreaking stories about Iraq’s alleged WMD programs.
Many of those articles were based on assertions by unidentified senior officials and “defectors” who, it now turns out, were often supplied by exile groups opposed to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, notably the Iraqi National Congress (INC).
Two articles in the last two weeks have been particularly striking. One, titled “Now They Tell Us,” by veteran journalist Michael Massing in The New York Review of Books, concluded that the Times, especially its star WMD reporter Judith Miller, relied far too heavily on hawks within the Bush administration, INC officials notably the group’s president Ahmed Chalabi and “defectors” as its sources.
Miller, who bragged about her decade-long ties to Chalabi in one internal Times memo leaked to the Washington Post, traveled thousands of kilometers to interview alleged “defectors,” who now appear to have fabricated much of what they told her.
While Miller went to great lengths to document the alleged WMD threat, according to Massing, who also teaches at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, she and other Times reporters failed to consult or credit independent WMD experts who were skeptical of the administration’s claims or even the government’s intelligence experts, whose views were being suppressed by political appointees at the top.
A second story, by William Jackson, Jr., a former senior arms control adviser in the Carter administration, which appeared in ‘Editor & Publisher’, the normally sedate trade paper of the newspaper industry, echoed Massing’s thesis, but also expressed outrage over the Times‘ failure to take any responsibility for passing along information.
Citing a recent Times editorial criticizing the administration for exaggerating or distorting evidence about WMDs before the war, Jackson wrote, “Strangely missing from the paper of record was any indictment of the national press, starting with the Times, for its obvious role in gravely misleading the institutions of government and the public when hyping the WMD threat.”
Indeed, he and Massing both noted the Times had not published a single editors’ note or correction to any of its prewar coverage, including stories that were based on assertions, often supplied by unidentified U.S. officials or INC officials, that now appear to have been either grossly exaggerated or fabricated.
“Just who used whom, and how”? asked Jackson. “It is closer to the truth to point out that, together, the neo-cons in the Pentagon and the vice president’s office, and the INC, suckered (other) parts of the government and pliable major news outlets including the Times.”
How, then, were they suckered?
Eighty-four years ago, Lippman and Merz reached similar conclusions to those of Massing and Jackson, but their analysis remains pertinent today.
Most important, they wrote, was the subjective state of mind of the people at the Times.
“In the large, the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see … the chief censor and chief propagandist were hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors.”
“They wanted to win the war; they wanted to ward off Bolshevism. These subjective obstacles to the free pursuit of facts account for the tame submission of enterprising men to the objective censorship and propaganda under which they did their work,” wrote Lippman and Merz.
That subjectivity led directly to the second problem, the one seized on by Jackson and Massing in their analyses: “boundless credulity and an untiring readiness to be gulled” by sources who shared journalists’ hope and fear.
“For subjective reasons,” Lippman and Merz wrote, “(Times reporters) accepted and believed most of what they were told by the State Department, the so-called Russian Embassy in Washington, the Russian Information Bureau in New York, the Russian Committee in Paris and the agents and adherents of the old regime all over Europe.”
“For the same reason they accepted reports of governmentally controlled news services abroad, and of correspondents who were unduly intimate with the various secret services and with members of the old Russian nobility.”
This reliance on interested sources was not the result of a conspiracy, they stressed; it derived from something else. The journalists’ motives “may have been excellent. They wanted to win the war; they wanted to save the world. They were nervously excited by exciting events.”
The two authors’ assessment had a major impact on US journalism, as the big media at the time rushed to set up graduate schools of journalism and communications to teach aspiring reporters and editors methods to carry out their craft “scientifically,” and to ensure that their work was “objective” so that a “free people” would be supplied news that would make their government function better, no matter the excitement of events or times.
But tens of thousands of graduates later, the same problems keep recurring.
Studies on US news coverage in the Third World by a number of communications scholars in the 1980s and early 1990s consistently found an ideological predisposition (like Lippman’s and Merz’s “hope and fear”) to follow the cues of official Washington and other self-interested sources (especially pro-western exiles) “rather than exercising independent journalistic judgments,” as two experts on US coverage of Iran put it in a 1987 book.
“The fact remains that a great people in a supreme crisis could not secure the minimum of necessary information on a supremely important event,” Lippman complained back in 1920.