Belaboring the Obvious

Sunday, May 10, 2009

He Said, She Said....

Jay Rosen has a new post up on the phenomenon at his PressThink blog.

The post and the comments are thoughtful, but, somehow, they don't hit a couple of the underlying problems on the head, to my mind.

The first is the perceived audience of the reporters and the papers engaging in "he said, she said" journalism as a matter of policy. In the example given in Rosen's post, a puff piece in The New York Times on a spat between Hank Greenberg and his former baby, AIG, there's little but the spat itself, and the reporter appears to take no sides, makes no judgments about the historical facts. It's a model of steno journalism. Greenberg denies any culpability for AIG's woes and says the bailout can't work, and AIG says, in effect, "Greenberg doesn't work here any more, and we're doing okay."

Rosen notes that there's nothing to guide the reader on the history, and that it's confusing. So, he asks Ryan Chittum at the Columbia Journalism Review if this is the best the Times can do. Chittum replies: "This one’s easy: No. The Times’s story offers no analysis and forces readers—95 percent of whom know little or nothing about Greenberg’s tenure at AIG—to try to guess who’s right."

This, broadly, gets at the heart of the problem with "he said, she said" journalism. One can't ascertain any truth from the article itself, and with history ignored, one can't even guess at the truth. But, let's look at this a bit more closely. "...95% of [readers] know little or nothing about Greenberg's tenure at AIG...." If knowing Greenberg's history at AIG is an essential part of the story, and excluding it frustrates 95% of the readers, who is the intended audience for this gossipy little piece by the Times' Edmund L. Andrews?

Greenberg? AIG? A few insiders on Wall Street that have pointed Andrews to this spat because they're friends of Greenberg, or of the current CEO of AIG, Edward Liddy? A hedge fund manager who thinks he can play both sides against the middle by getting this into print? We simply don't know anything except that the story only tells us of a beef between a big multinational company in serious trouble and its former CEO. Does the story matter to the ordinary person whose 401(k) has been shredded? Does it provide any real information that would cause the good-citizen reader to call or write his Congress critter, asking for an investigation or corrective legislation? Because the story is informative in a way that's sensical to a very few, what's its real purpose?

This certainly gets to the question of audience and circulation. Reporting what the insiders say is of little use to the general public if the reporting is either slanted to what only the insiders understand or has no general public interest. Do that on every page of the newspaper, month after month, year in and year out, and people are going to think that their subscriptions just aren't worth the money.

Walter Pincus very recently wrote an interesting article on the future of newspapers, and while some of it was CYA for Pincus and The Washington Post, he made one point worth considering--media consolidation has reduced most cities to one newspaper, usually one morning edition, and that contributes to the "he said, she said" phony balance in reporting. Competing papers were often started, he wrote, because particular partisans weren't seeing their views in print. When those voices were subsumed by market forces, the editorial stance of the remaining single paper sought to achieve balance by including all points of view. (This doesn't exactly explain why The Washington Post has been such a stalwart stenographer of government while in competition with The Washington Times. Perhaps it doesn't view that paper as any competition at all.)

Which brings up the latter point. Rosen's article makes mention of time pressures to produce--that deadlines often make it necessary to forgo research necessary to divine at least a little truth--but that seems too easy an excuse, when one considers that papers drive public opinion in ways that papers love to downplay when they drop the ball, and love to play up when the time for nominations for Pulitzers come around. One of the examples that will be forever etched in my mind is the "Nurse Nayirah" testimony to the late Tom Lantos' Congressional committee, in which the "nurse" made the inflammatory claim that she had witnessed invading Iraqi soldiers dump three hundred newborns on the floor in order to steal their incubators and send them to Iraq.

Thanks to the efforts of Kuwait's PR firm, Hill & Knowlton, this "testimony" (I put that word in quotes because the young lady in question was never sworn) was widely distributed, in the news and in government circles as just one example of Hussein's inhuman perfidy. George Bush the First quickly incorporated it into his pep talks promoting war, even working up a few choked-back tears whenever he mentioned the subject (which was in every fucking speech). Because of that effort, the "testimony" was highly successful. As Rick MacArthur made abundantly clear in his recounting of the propaganda effort surrounding the first Gulf War, Second Front, not only was the entire story an intentional, fabricated lie, it was done so as to sway public opinion toward a war that the American public perceived as a beef between Arab states, and more importantly, it was meant to sway Congress to approve Bush's mendaciously contrived war. And, as MacArthur reports, it had the desired effect. The vote in the Senate in favor of American entry to that war was very close--52-47--and seven Senators said to the press or on the floor of the Senate that the "testimony" was influential in determining their vote for war.

The point here is that the "testimony" occurred in October, 1990. The Senate vote occurred on Jan. 12, 1991, almost three full months later. Not one reporter in all that time fact-checked the testimony or the credentials of "Nurse Nariyah." The "nurse" turned out to be the fifteen-year-old daughter of the Kuwait ambassador to the U.S., who had been in Washington at the time of the invasion, not in Kuwait. Not one reporter followed up on this completely phony fabrication. In part because of press acceptance of this big lie, even Amnesty International got snookered and was forced to retract a report which included this whopper.

So, it wasn't a matter of not enough time to divine the truth. There was no interest on the part of the press to even check simple facts, when stumping for war would sell more papers. The long-term results of press incuriosity in 1990 have been devastating to this country, the Mideast and Central Asia. Had the press revealed the "Nurse Nayirah" story to be the complete fabrication it was, the vote for war in the Senate might have been the opposite of what it was, Bush the First might well have been forced by the Saudis to remove American soldiers from what Osama bin Laden and many other Muslims considered the holiest of lands, thus removing bin Laden's primary motive for attacks on the U.S., including those on 9/11, and making the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq much less likely. Half a million Iraqis would not have died from the after-effects of U.S. destruction of essential infrastructure such as water-treatment, sewage and electrical plants, and millions more would not be dead or displaced from their homes due to the second Gulf War. Thousands of U.S. military families would not now be shattered by war-associated deaths of loved ones, also mounded up on top of a panoply of unchallenged and undissected lies.

I.F. "Izzy" Stone, the legendary newsletter publisher, said, "all governments lie." More than anything else, that is what the newspaper publishing industry has forgotten--or actively sought to ignore--in the last thirty years or so.

There are consequences, sometimes exceedingly grave ones, for failing to maintain a healthy skepticism and distrust of government, and never more so than when the "free press," which guides so much of opinion in this country, cannot find the time nor the energy nor the will to find even the small truths which have the power to expose the big lies.


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