The failures of U.S. journalists in wartime

By Robert Jensen

Published in Message: internationale Fachzeitschrift für Journalismus · April, 2003

[Published in the German magazine Message: internationale Fachzeitschrift für Journalismus, April 2003.]

Citizens most desperately need a critical, independent journalism when nations prepare to go to war. As the United States — the unchallenged power with the most destructive military capacity in the history of the world — has prepared to go to war against Iraq, never has such journalism been more important.

And in that moment, never have U.S. journalists so profoundly failed in that endeavor, with potentially dire consequences not just for Americans and Iraqis, but for the whole world.

It’s almost universally accepted that independent journalism is crucial to the functioning of democracy. Without sources of information outside the dominant centers of power (both public and private, the government and corporations), citizens cannot play a meaningful role in the formation of public policy.

For reasons well documented in decades of progressive media criticism and scholarship, the contemporary mainstream commercial news media in the United States is increasingly unable to practice a truly independent journalism capable of basic critique. The reasons can be summarized quickly: The effects of (1) the for-profit and corporate organization of the dominant media operations, dependent on advertising revenue; (2) entrenched professional journalistic routines that overwhelming privilege official sources of news and the point-of-view of the dominant powers in the society; and (3) the peculiar ideology of American exceptionalism and nobility that distorts both the gathering and presentation of news.

To critique the current coverage of the Bush administration’s war project, it’s important to establish criteria for good coverage. What should citizens expect from their journalists?

If citizens are to participate in the formation of public policy in a meaningful way (that is, something more than just voting for the political candidates whose ads and PR campaign they like best), news media must provide:

–a trustworthy source of factual information gathered independently;

–the historical, political, economic, and social context that will help citizens make sense of the facts; and

–the widest possible range of opinion available in the society.

Independent information is crucial. In any complex society, centers of power will use their control of institutions and propaganda techniques to establish the facts they present as authoritative. Journalists must be able to gather and present facts from outside those official sources. U.S. journalists are free to do that — and the good reporters in the United States take advantage of that freedom — but the bulk of the information transmitted by the mainstream news media comes directly from those power centers. Because that information is relatively cheap and easy to gather, and comes with the authoritative stamp of officials, journalists rely on such information to form the backbone of the day’s news report.

This problem has been exacerbated since Sept. 11, 2001, in part because of the administration’s use of ever more sophisticated propaganda techniques. In the run-up to a war in Iraq, it is stunning how much of cable and broadcast television news programs are simply the direct transmission of government information to viewers, often unchallenged by the journalists.

Citizens’ troubles are compounded by the failure of mainstream commercial news media to provide the crucial context and background. Everyone realizes that facts by themselves do not necessarily help people come to understand a complex situation. History and political context are necessary. But — reflecting an intellectual crisis that pervades all of U.S. culture — little of that context is offered. The United States is a notably ahistorical and insular culture; foreign visitors are typically dumbfounded by American’s lack of knowledge of the world and its history. Certainly journalists can’t be expected to fill all these knowledge gaps, but even crucial contemporary history is routinely ignored in U.S. news media reports.

These first two points can be demonstrated by journalists’ treatment of one of the benefits that Bush administration officials claim would come from a war in Iraq — the creation of a democracy, much in the same way we are told that the war in Afghanistan brought democracy to that country. This claim is made by officials and transmitted with virtually no critique by journalists.

But a few problems arise. First, the facts on the ground (which can be found in the coverage in the press outside of the United States) in Afghanistan conflict with the U.S. story. The loyal jirga process that led to the creation of the current government of Hamid Karzai was manipulated by the United States to ensure that former king Zahir Shah, who was favored by many Afghans to return as a unifying force, was pushed out of the picture. Strong-arming delegates to make sure a U.S.-approved leader was chosen is hardly an auspicious beginning for “democracy.” The U.S. media has also largely ignored the current conditions in Afghanistan — the country remains dominated by warlords and fundamentalist religious fanatics, women’s rights have made only small advances, and the drug trade is back in full force. All these facts, reported by journalists outside the United States, are largely unknown to Americans. Is democracy in Iraq going to be constructed on the Afghan model?

A bit of history would also raise doubts about the U.S. commitment to democracy in the Middle East. Currently our closest allies in the region are Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, whose thoroughly undemocratic regimes have long enjoyed American protection; Jordan, whose king took over from his father with no hint of democratic process; and Egypt, whose “president” won his last non-election with 94 percent of the vote in a system that clamps down harshly on dissent and political opposition. Through its economic assistance and military power, the United States has lots of influence on these countries, and inquiring reporters might raise the question of how this history of supporting undemocratic regimes jibes with U.S. officials’ calls for democracy in Iraq.

On the final standard — the airing of a wide range of opinion — the failure of U.S. news media is most obvious. Even a cursory viewing of the television news shows or reading of newspaper opinion pages reveals that current and former government officials and military officers dominate, along with university-based academics and think-tank “scholars” who overwhelmingly take positions in line with those officials. A typical “debate” over the war has pitted super-hawks (who want to bomb Iraq immediately without any concern for the United Nations or international law) against cautious hawks (who are happy to bomb but would prefer that the administration secure another U.N. Security Council resolution first). Real dissent from the dominant view is almost never heard, and when critics are allowed to speak they are often treated as marginal and given no chance to articulate a critique (I know this from experience, having been a guest on a half dozen cable television news talks shows after 9/11).

All these failures can be seen most clearly by looking at the treatment in the U.S. news media of the question of oil. It is widely assumed around the world that a U.S. war in Iraq will be in part about expanding U.S. control over the oil resources of the Middle East. Yet in the U.S. media one finds virtually no reporting on that question, no systematic attempt to relate the history of U.S. policy, and no airing of opinion from critics who argue that it is the motive force behind this war. Instead, we hear a parade of Bush officials deny that the U.S. policy has anything to do with the strategic control of oil, which journalists dutifully report and almost never contest.

My claim is not that U.S. journalists never make good on their obligation to provide independent information and critique, but rather that common journalistic practices produce a pattern heavy on disinformation, misinformation, and missing information. That’s why in a recent poll a majority of Americans said they supported a war, even without a U.N. Security Council resolution to authorize the use of force, and at the same time a majority said the Bush administration has failed to tell them what they need to know to understand why war is necessary.

It would be unfair to place all the blame for the current collapse of meaningful democracy in the United States on journalism; it is the failure of the whole intellectual culture, including the schools and universities. But journalists — who routinely claim that they provide that independent flow of information, context, and opinion that citizens need — are responsible for their significant role in this collapse.

More and more U.S. citizens are realizing the inadequacies of mainstream commercial journalism and are actively seeking other sources, both in the domestic alternative media and the journalism produced outside the United States. A critical reading of the mainstream U.S. press, combined with those other sources, can produce a reasonably complete picture of the world, but it requires considerable time and effort. The bulk of American still rely exclusively on the mainstream media for information, which allows officials to make policy with support from a population that often does not have the information needed to evaluate the policy.

This critique should be taken as an attack on all journalists or the craft of journalists. Many U.S. journalists do fine work even with these constraints. As a former working journalist, a freelance writer, and professor of journalism, I have great affection for the craft. But is clear that the structural constraints, the limitations of current professional journalists norms, and the crippling ideological blinders common in the United States have — on the whole — left journalists unable to make good on their own claims about their role in democracy.

Because a U.S. war could have disastrous consequences for the people of Iraq, the Middle East, and the world, the failures of U.S. journalism weigh particularly heavy on the world. Without a fully informed public that can transform information and critique into political action to constrain the U.S. government, the future looks particularly grim.