When the watchdog heels

By Robert Jensen

Published in The Hindu · November, 2003

One slow night on the news desk of my last full-time job in mainstream journalism, a fellow copy editor and I were killing time doing what corporate employees everywhere love to do: ridiculing our bosses and the state of the business more generally.

That evening, the subject was the standards that decision-making editors (that is, everyone above us, which was almost everyone) have for assessing the validity of “facts.” We had always found amusing the journalistic rules that determine which assertions about the world count as facts (and, hence, could be included in stories without much concern) and which get tossed into other categories, either to be eliminated from stories or used only when highly qualified (allegations, speculation, opinions, etc.). That night, we decided to draw up a tongue-in-cheek “hierarchy of facts.”

We created five or six categories. I can’t recall the whole list and long ago lost the chart we made that night, but I remember the top and bottom categories. Resting on top, in the most exalted position, was the category of facts to which journalists are most wedded, the facts editors like best: Documented Facts.

On the bottom were the facts that potentially cause the most trouble for journalists: True Facts.

Our point was simple: The way in which contemporary mainstream journalists gather facts about the world privileges those things that can be documented, especially from “credible” and “authoritative” sources. City Hall documents, jail logs, police reports, court files, legislative reports — all provide Documented Facts.

For reporters, the key question (especially on a tight deadline) isn’t necessarily whether the facts in those documents are true, but whether the facts are in the document. If something was written down somewhere (or spoken in public by an official from one of those credible and authoritative institutions), then it is a Documented Fact. If it turns out later that this Documented Fact was, in fact, incorrect, well, the journalist can simply say, “I accurately conveyed the Documented Fact; I wasn’t contending I knew for sure the Documented Fact was True. But I knew for sure it was in the Document.”

Newsroom bosses love Documented Facts because they provide a reflexive defense to charges of incompetence, bias, or unfairness: “Don’t blame us; we just wrote down what was there.” It’s the model of journalist-as-conduit: Collect the facts, put them into accessible form, and push them through the pipeline to the public. (Later, in graduate school, I learned that a number of sociologists had written books pointing this out, making it, I suppose, a Documented Fact.)

The rules of libel law actually provide incentive for this approach by shielding journalists from liability when they use Documented Facts. If someone’s reputation is trashed in the course of presenting Documented Facts, journalists are protected from having to cough up money for damages, as long as the trashing came from an official source and the account of the material was fair and accurate. That’s a sensible rule; if journalists are to report fully on public business, they should be able to report on official documents and what public officials say without assuming excessive risk. But that mindset can inhibit journalists when they deal with True Facts that don’t appear in documents.

True Facts make most editors nervous (unless, of course, they can be rendered as Documented Facts). That’s not because journalists don’t like truth. It’s just that lots of True Facts take more effort to find and/or defend than Documented Facts. It’s a messy world in which there is often a lot of argument not only about interpretation of facts but about the facts themselves. And given that powerful people and institutions can make your life miserable if they don’t like your assessment of the facts, it’s easy to understand why journalists like to lean on Documented Facts.

The problem is, of course, that Documented Facts don’t always lead to the truth. For months, U.S. journalists accurately reported the Documented Fact that Bush administration officials said that Saddam Hussein was just about ready to drop a nuclear bomb on us or spray us with chemical weapons from drone planes. Dutifully, the U.S. media reported these Documented Facts, often on page 1. Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address that the British had learned the Saddam recently had tried to buy uranium in Africa. A British intelligence dossier had been cited by an authoritative source. Those were Documented Facts, duly reported. Unfortunately, those Documented Facts weren’t helpful in getting at the truth (that the claim was based on forged documents and was part of a pattern of lies and distortions the Bush administration employed to build support for the war).

Sometimes, when the administration tried to peddle Documented Facts that stretched the bounds of credibility too far, reporters would insert sentences to suggest that readers be skeptical. When the lies became too obvious to ignore, follow-up stories appeared, but never with the prominence of the original report.

Eventually direct challenges to these Documented Facts started showing up in the mainstream media — but mostly after the war was over. For example, the Associated Press produced a point-by-point evaluation of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s claims in his Feb. 5, 2003, U.N. speech, debunking much of the alleged evidence on which the call to war was based. The story moved on the wires in August.

In this case, “better late than never” comes up a bit short as an excuse. The war is over (sort of). Correcting the record now is better than nothing. But those killed in the war remain dead. The project of the United States ruling the Middle East by force has taken another step forward. And the Iraqi people continue to suffer for it.

Why did journalists, who consider themselves the watchdogs on power, not pursue more aggressively the Bush administration’s lies and distortions about alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and terrorist ties before the war, when it might have been meaningful?

No doubt part of the explanation is the simple fact that, on matters of war, the U.S. press has never been much of a watchdog. When it comes to war, journalism tends to “follow the flag,” as CBS anchor Dan Rather once put it. After 9/11, the hyperpatriotism in the country has exacerbated that problem. Another crucial factor is that much of the Democratic Party signed onto the war. So, there was no real opposition party to provide Documented Facts for he said/she said style reports that journalists find most comforting (and easy to write), and journalists were timid in pursuing stories on their own.

(A footnote: Journalists’ common acceptance of the ideology of patriotism and American supremacy also helps explain why certain Documented Facts — specifically those that undermine Americans’ view of themselves as the guardians of justice in the world — sometimes are of little interest to mainstream journalists. Take the Documented Facts that poured out of various U.N. agencies during the 1990s, detailing the death and devastation resulting from the harsh economic embargo on Iraq. Because those Documented Facts brought up the uncomfortable fact that the Clinton administration’s insistence on maintaining the embargo was killing hundreds of thousands of children and allowing Saddam Hussein to strengthen his grip on the country, U.S. journalists avoided them. When those Documented Facts did enter the news, they were subject to much heavier scrutiny than Documented Facts churned out by U.S. agencies. Scrutiny is good, but should be applied consistently.)

This is not to say that journalists never have tried to hold the Bush administration accountable in real time. In October 2002 under the headline “For Bush, Facts Are Malleable,” Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank wrote about Bush’s habit of, well, lying in public. Although Milbank used cautious language in the story, that basic point comes through — a point ignored by other journalists who continued to report the Documented (but sometimes not True) Facts about Iraq that flowed from the White House.

The most embarrassing performance of U.S. journalists came on March 6, 2003, when Bush held a rare news conference. With war clearly looming, and Iraq’s alleged possession of banned weapons clearly the linchpin for justifying war, 18 journalists asked questions — but not a single one dared challenge the president. All the questions took as a given that the Hussein regime possessed such weapons; all 18 ignored the fundamental question that most of the world was asking at that moment.

Perhaps the saddest moment came when one reporter, pointing out that “the nation is at odds over war,” asked the president, “[H]ow is your faith guiding you?”

Bush began his answer by saying, “I appreciate that question a lot.” Of course he appreciated a softball question like that. If I were a president who was lying about my motivations and bucking world opinion to pursue a war, I would appreciate questions that allow me to respond with platitudes.

“My faith sustains me because I pray daily. I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength,” Bush said.

Whatever one’s belief about the efficacy of prayer, it should not be controversial that when the president from the most propaganda-savvy administration in history finally appears for a news conference on the verge of war, there are better ways to use the moment than to pose a question asking about how his faith.

That night, U.S. journalists scurried back to newsrooms and did a fine job of relaying to the public the Documented Facts from the Bush news conference. But they failed in a more important task. That night the watchdogs didn’t bite or even bark — they heeled.