Friday, December 03, 2004

Misinformation, Please
Two articles I read yesterday further support my fear that the long-blurred line between news and "infotainment" is now gone, and that this will lead to severe consequences when the proverbial ca-ca hits the proverbial fan.

First is this Frank Rich piece from the Times, which both slams the pandering of the major networks' news divisions to the perceived New Realities of American politics and culture (which, of course, the nets have some power to make into a self-fulfilling prophesy) and points out the very real risks associated with the journalistic ethos of "no bad news":

There's a war on. TV remains by far the most prevalent source of news for Americans. We need honest information to help us navigate, not bunkum skewed to flatter one segment of the country, whatever that segment might be. Yet here's how Jeff Zucker, the NBC president, summed up the attributes of Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw's successor, to Peter Johnson of USA Today: "No one understands this Nascar nation more than Brian." Mr. Zucker was in sync with his boss, Bob Wright, the NBC Universal chairman, who described America as a "red state world" on the eve of Mr. Brokaw's retirement. Though it may come as news to those running NBC, we actually live in a red-and-blue-state country, in a world that increasingly hates all our states without regard to our provincial obsession with their hues. Nonetheless, Mr. Williams, who officially took over as anchor on Dec. 2, is seeking a very specific mandate. "The New York-Washington axis can be a journalist's worst enemy," he told Mr. Johnson, promising to spend his nights in the field in "Dayton and Toledo and Cincinnati and Denver and the middle of Kansas." (So much for San Francisco - or Baghdad.)
Kevin Sites, the freelance TV cameraman who caught a marine shooting an apparently unarmed Iraqi prisoner in a mosque, is one such blogger. Mr. Sites is an embedded journalist currently in the employ of NBC News. To NBC's credit, it ran Mr. Sites's mid-November report, on a newscast in which Mr. Williams was then subbing for Mr. Brokaw, and handled it in exemplary fashion. Mr. Sites avoided any snap judgment pending the Marines' own investigation of the shooting, cautioning that a war zone is "rife with uncertainty and confusion." But loud voices in red America, especially on blogs, wanted him silenced anyway. On right-wing sites like Mr. Sites was branded an "anti-war activist" (which he is not), a traitor and an "enemy combatant." Mr. Sites's own blog, touted by Mr. Williams on the air, was full of messages from the relatives of marines profusely thanking the cameraman for bringing them news of their sons in Iraq. That communal message board has since been shut down because of the death threats by other Americans against Mr. Sites.
...the networks were often cautious about challenging government propaganda even before the election. (Follow-ups to the original Abu Ghraib story quickly fell off TV's radar screen.) As far back as last spring Ted Koppel's roll-call of the American dead on "Nightline," in which the only images were beatific headshots, was condemned as a shocking breach of decorum by the mostly red-state ABC affiliates that refused to broadcast it. If full-scale Nascarization is what's coming next, there will soon be no pictures but those promising a mission accomplished, no news but good news. And that's good news only if you believe America has something to gain by fighting a war in the dark.

As if to provide a more concrete and sustained example of what Rich is talking about, here is Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books, discussing major-media coverage of Iraq in the months before the election. Two major, interrelated problems dominate here: the universal reluctance of media outlets to be seen as "politicizing" their coverage, and the government's insistence upon--and stunning success with--managing access to key elements of "the story."
"At the moment, there's real sensitivity about the perceived political nature of every story coming out of Iraq," a Baghdad correspondent for a large US paper told me in mid-October. "Every story from Iraq is by definition an assessment as to whether things are going well or badly." In reality, he said, the situation in Iraq was a "catastrophe," a view "almost unanimously" shared by his colleagues. But, he added, "editors are hypersensitive about not wanting to appear to be coming down on one side or the other."

Allawi's visit to the United States was part of an intensive campaign by the Bush administration to manage the flow of news out of Iraq. As a matter of policy, any journalist wanting to visit the Green Zone, that vast swath of Baghdad that is home to US officialdom, had to be escorted at all times; one could not simply wander around and chat with people in bars and caf├ęs. The vast world of civilian contractors—of Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown & Root, of Bechtel, and of all the other private companies responsible for rebuilding Iraq—was completely off-limits; employees of these companies were informed that they would be fired if they were caught talking to the press. During the days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, its administrator, L. Paul Bremer, and the top military commander, Ricardo Sanchez, gave very few interviews to US correspondents in Baghdad. They did, however, speak often via satellite with small newspapers and local TV stations, which were seen as more open and sympathetic.

Massing's piece is important in that it presents the real question of just how much (or how little) voters understood about the situation in Iraq before Nov. 2. I doubt that most knew, for instance, that insurgent attacks had risen from an average of 50 a day to 70 after the "transition of power" back in June--or that they have more recently increased to about 100 per day, all over the country. And his accounts of the day-to-day interactions between American soldiers--young men and women with virtually no Arab-language skills and wholly insufficient cultural understanding, in a hostile environment and fearing for their lives--and Iraqi civilians are both heartbreaking and illuminative of why we have so little chance to successfully conclude this war.

But what I find worrisome about both these pieces has little to do with the specifics facts they cite. I fear that the trend away from substantive analysis, and toward politically "sensitive" coverage (by which I mean sensitive to fear of government reprisal for unflattering reportage), bodes ill for what will happen when things go south: a Tet-like series of attacks in Iraq, the sharp economic downturn I think is coming (see posts below), or, God forbid, another terrorist attack on the United States. The government--the same folks who have spent us into a deep hole, charged blindly into Iraq, and thoroughly politicized homeland defense--might not be called to account for its failures. Instead, there will be scapegoating, in the grand tradition of all autocratic regimes. As a people, we might be watching the erosion of our own capacity for critical thought.

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