The failure of US journalism

By Robert Jensen

Published in Al Jazeera · March, 2004

Before, during and after the war, mainstream commercial journalists have failed to provide the critical analysis, independent reporting, and the diverse range of opinions necessary for the American public to evaluate the Bush administration’s claims about the war.

After the hunt for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction came up empty, Bush was forced to appoint a commission to study the “intelligence failures” in the run-up to war.

As journalists pursued that story, some argued that the press had finally stepped into its role as the proverbial watchdog on power. But journalists continue to allow officials to define and shape the news in ways that keep US readers and viewers in the dark, just as they were before and during the war.

Analysis left wanting

The term “intelligence failures” does a lot of political heavy lifting for the president, implying that the false claim that Iraq had WMD is a result of a failure in the intelligence community rather than careful planning in the White House.

By framing the issue as a question of intelligence failures, not political propaganda, the Bush people hope to divert attention from the fact that they lied. Unfortunately, the vast majority of mainstream commercial journalists in the US fell – or chose to fall – into the administration’s trap.

The Bush intelligence failures script goes like this: We have been working hard to protect ordinary Americans from harm. Based on the information from the intelligence community, we went to war in Iraq to eliminate a threat to our safety.

Now, after the war, we realise the threat may not have been so great. But we can’t be blamed for working to protect America. And besides, the world and the Iraqi people are better off without Saddam Hussein in power.

Bush wins

With the focus on intelligence failures, Bush wins the political battle, no matter what the allegedly “independent” commission he appointed concludes. There can, and likely will, be admissions that mistakes were made, data was misread, some interpretations were unsubstantiated.

Perhaps a few mid-level officials, maybe even the CIA director, will fall on their swords to absolve the administration. Bush will concede what can’t be denied, but continue to claim he only had the interests of the American people in mind when he acted.

But what if the Iraq war wasn’t the result of an intelligence failure? What if it was the result of a spectacular political success – the manoeuvring of a nation to war when no threat existed?

The analysis that the Bush administration fought a war for empire by using an argument about self-defence is widely discussed in the rest of the world. But US readers and viewers have to scour the web for alternative sources or go to the foreign press to hear such discussion.

Independence questioned

The “embedded” reporting system was heralded by many in the press as a step forward. Instead of the press pools and heavy-handed censorship imposed by the Pentagon in the 1991 Gulf war, about 600 reporters in 2003 travelled with US military units and were relatively free from censorship (officers had the authority to censor in the name of “operational security” – a notoriously slippery term – but almost never felt the need to exercise it, given the overwhelmingly pro-Pentagon coverage).

But embedded reporters were not allowed to travel independently; once they left their unit, they could not return. And given the realities of travelling, eating, sleeping, and enduring combat with soldiers, it is not surprising that the reports of US embedded reporters largely reflected the point of view of the US military.

There was some excellent reporting done by embedded reporters, such as William Branigin’s 1 April story for the Washington Post about soldiers’ mistakes at a checkpoint that resulted in the killing of an Iraqi family.

But most of the reports sent back by those embedded reporters were either human-interest stories about the troops or boosterish narration of the grand advance of troops, with little attention to the gruesome realities of war suffered by the Iraqi people.


National Public Radio reporter John Burnett said he was enthusiastic about the system at first, but later described embedding as “a flawed experiment that served the purposes of the military more than it served the cause of balanced journalism”.

“During my travels with the marines, I couldn’t shake the sense that we were cheerleaders on the team bus,” he said.

While the embedded reporting was often dramatic, it did little to help people understand the meaning of the war. For example, a breathless Walter Rodgers on CNN told viewers: “The pictures you’re seeing are absolutely phenomenal. These are live pictures of the 7th Cavalry racing across the desert. You’ve never seen battlefield pictures like these before. What you’re watching here is truly historic television and journalism.”

Such scenes were historic television. Indeed, real-time broadcasts from the front were new. But it was hardly historic journalism. It was, in fact, mostly state propaganda filtered through a friendly media that rarely could think outside the framework offered by the US civilian and military authorities.

No Diversity

One function of journalism is to give citizens access to the widest possible range of opinion in the society, so that people can test their own views and come to informed political judgments. In the months leading up to the war, the US media failed miserably at this task.

On television, current military officers were typically “balanced” with retired military officers, while current Republican State Department officials squared off against former Democratic State Department officials – all of whom shared the same fundamental assumptions.

Virtually no guests were allowed who challenged the basic framework of the Bush administration. A study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted that 76% of the guests on network talk shows in late January and early February 2003 were current or former officials, and that anti-war sources accounted for less than one per cent.

Fred Hiatt, editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page, defended this narrow range of opinion, saying: “Through much of the fall [of 2002], the debate wasn’t really ‘anti-war’ versus ‘pro-war’, as the lopsided congressional vote back then suggests; it was what is the right way to approach this problem. I think we offered as wide a range of opinion on that question as any newspaper.”

That comment is typical of the narrowness of the US commercial media. There was, of course, a debate raging all over the world. There also was a vibrant anti-war movement in the US that was tapping into domestic anger at, and fear of, administration policies.

Hiatt’s citing of the congressional debate indicates just how limited is his vision; if Democrats and Republicans in Congress agree that war is inevitable, then why would there be any reason to consider other opinions?

Hundreds of thousands of people in the US, and as many as 10 million worldwide, took to the streets on 15 February 2003, to express those opinions. Not only were those people mostly ignored in news stories, but their critique was largely shut out of the mainstream media’s channels.

Enduring problem

The paradox of US journalism is that a press which operates free of direct governmental control produces news that routinely reproduces the conventional wisdom of a narrow power elite. Coverage of the Iraq war highlights two of the key reasons.

First, the majority of US journalists are unable to transcend the limiting effects of the ideology of American exceptionalism – the notion that the United States is the ultimate embodiment of democracy and goes forward in the world as a benevolent champion of freedom, not as another great power looking to expand its influence around the world.

Uncritical acceptance of this ideology permeates mainstream US coverage; even ‘critical’ reporting usually tends to take it as a given.

Official sources

Second, journalists are trapped by the routines of “objective journalism”, the most central of which is the slavish reliance on “official sources”.

This gives powerful people in the government and corporate worlds (and the intellectuals in the think tanks and universities who mostly serve those powers) the ability not just to comment on the news but to define what is considered news and to frame it.

The consequences of these two forces on news coverage of US foreign policy, military affairs, and wars are predictable: The free press becomes little more than a conduit for state propaganda, unable to act in truly independent fashion.

Rather than simply replicate the Bush administration’s framework about the war that both Republicans and most “respectable” Democrats accept, journalists – if they were performing their function in a democracy as a critical, independent source of news and analysis – would have at least considered an alternative explanation:

To deepen and extend US control over – not direct ownership of, but effective control over – the crucial energy resources of the Middle East, the Bush administration shortly after taking office settled on regime change in Iraq.

The events of 9/11 made pursuing such a war easier, but a rationale was still needed to invade Iraq and establish a client state. Alleged WMD threats became the centrepiece of the argument, as administration officials dealt in distortions, half-truths and out-and-out lies to scare the public.

After the war, the focus on intelligence failures diverted from key questions: Should the US be able to prosecute a war of conquest in violation of international law; run an occupation authority that ignores its legal and moral responsibilities to rebuild the country it destroyed in two wars and through a dozen years of economic sanctions; and manipulate the political process to ensure that a future Iraqi government will subordinate itself to the US?

That is a more accurate and compelling way to understand the war. Unfortunately, most US journalists continue to read from the Bush administration’s script.