I was deep into this book, “When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media From Iraq to Katrina,” when General David Petraeus, in charge of American forces in Iraq, appeared before Congress, followed by a prime-time address by President Bush telling the American people he (and, more to the point, we) are in Iraq for the long run. I switched on CNN an hour before the President’s address—and could not believe what I was seeing. Jack Cafferty and this new guy, Rick Sanchez, were tearing Bush and his policies limb from limb. Sanchez’s specialty seems to be “then and now”—playing a clip of Bush saying something several years ago (“We will hold the Iraqi government to these benchmarks,” for example) and comparing it with today’s reality.

When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media From Iraq to Katrina
By W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston
University of Chicago Press. 263 Pages.
Wow, I said to myself, have times changed. Actually, the three authors of this volume—W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston—would say what changed specifically was the power quotient in Washington. Bush was down, and there was no longer an imperative among representatives of the mainstream press to be as abjectly deferential to the administration as they had been in the run-up to the war and its first couple of years. CNN had obviously made the calculation that there was market share to be gained by putting a lot of distance between themselves and the Bush stenographers at Fox. I liked the results at CNN, but I doubted the motive was anything to celebrate.

It is the central thesis of “When the Press Fails” that the press has become excessively deferential to political power in Washington and has forfeited its (occasional) role as independent watchdog of government. The rule of the press road in Washington now is to run every story through the filter of political power and, unless another strong actor (say, Congress) raises a stink, the press will dutifully report whatever the administration says, without challenge. When you add into the mix an administration that admits to no requirement that it be truthful and straight—indeed, quite the reverse—we have the embarrassing story of press failure to challenge the deceitful case for war in Iraq.

Katrina proves the point, the three scholars write: It caught the administration unprepared, its spin and deceit machine on vacation, and the press, thus left to its own devices, showed that it can sometimes get to a truthful telling of an important story. (Made me wish they’d started their research with the press role in the Clinton scandals. Would have complicated their thesis a bit.)

Confronting Spin

The authors’ description of the press failure on Iraq certainly squares with what I saw and lived and the scars I bear. But they tie it up a bit too neatly for me. When they describe the press-management machinations of Karl Rove and others, for example, they express a belief that the press should have focused on the spin. In effect, they wanted the press to preface each sales pitch from the Bush administration with a warning to the public that it was about to get taken for a ride, that there was something improper about “a war being promoted through a sales campaign.” I can’t grasp how that was possible or wise, although that might just be my own lack of imagination, for I wholly support their criticism of the press’s failure to aggressively investigate the veracity of the claims contained in that sales campaign.

Some of what they propose could have happened. At the Star Tribune, I recall doing a lengthy editorial that was a point-by-point refutation of claims made by Vice President Dick Cheney during an appearance on “Meet the Press.” Early in the piece, I recall chastising Cheney for behaving like a public relations agent for the war rather than as a vice president required to speak truthfully to the American people. But the real story was the content of his lies. Even in exposing that content, the authors seem to expect more than the press is likely to deliver. “The lead-up to war was paved by ferocious government spin,” the authors write, “against which the mainstream press proved no match.” Elsewhere, they lament the inability of the mainstream press to provide “a sustained and coherent alternative perspective” to the administration’s.

But, in actuality, there is no “the press” and certainly not one capable of sustained and coherent perspectives. Nor was it the press’s job to “match” the spin. The press did a horrible job (with the cockle-warming exception of the brave Knight Ridder Washington bureau and a few others), but even if it had performed with exceptional skill, the outcome might have been the same.

I recall my early days of writing editorials about state government. I could drift into paralysis worrying over the impact of my writing and often had to remind myself that I was not the governor, not a committee chair, not responsible for the outcome. I had to do my best to offer well reasoned, informed opinion, but I was not the government.

What I would have liked to have seen prior to the invasion of Iraq was a bunch of aggressive, independent media actors—I. F. Stones on steroids—all trying their damnedest to investigate the truth of the claims being made by the Bush administration. I envisioned a cacophonous, disjointed, episodic, competitive free-for-all effort to test everything the Bush administration was saying. Might have carried the day, might not. That’s all the press owes, nothing more. It is not the government.

But even my middling scenario did not happen. In explaining why, I think the authors are on firmer intellectual ground. The most pernicious influence is the fiduciary obligation that owners of our highly concentrated media believe they owe to shareholders. That obligation is not to be sneezed at, but neither should it be allowed to crowd out the sacred duty to perform in service to the public, which is the reason we even have a First Amendment. I believe that “crowding out” is almost complete now and find myself longing sheepishly for the early days of Gannett, when old school print guys like John Quinn guided the journalism of that corporation. He and others from the print world brought to their corporate journalism jobs sensibilities about the role of the press in American life that now are missing, and we are much the poorer for it.

Strident Opposition

Many of the incidents included in this book remain powerful for me. As deputy editorial page editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, I was the principal writer on Iraq for the newspaper’s editorial page. We broke with Bush on Iraq when he broke with the United Nations. We became increasingly strident and began to draw national attention and a national Web audience. We suffered for it; our corporate masters strongly disapproved of our behavior; they wanted us flying well under the radar screen.

Our stridency I justified, then and now, by the ferocious, deceitful Bush spin machine that the authors of this book describe. This was an unusual situation in which the reasoned tones of traditional editorials—The New York Times and others who argued against the war in sonorous, measured tones from the ivory tower—weren’t going to make a dent. We needed to slug it out. We used facts and reasoned arguments, rather than ad hominem attacks and name-calling. But we were unyielding in our opposition to the war.

When the Downing Street Memo story broke, I retrieved the text from the Internet, and we ran the entire thing on our op-ed page, to my knowledge the only newspaper that did. When Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat, compared U.S. treatment of detainees to Nazi behavior and created a maelstrom with his words, I wrote that he had been right and had nothing to apologize for and that his critics were simply seeking to change the subject from detainee treatment to Durbin rhetoric. That one earned me a heated dressing down from our publisher, who said we were becoming laughingstocks.

Apparently the prevailing wisdom in corporate media boardrooms is that workers—even when they are journalists—don’t serve shareholders well by making waves. We make nice, which dovetails powerfully with the inclination to defer to power. So we go along to get along and, as our readership slides and market share plummets, we make nicer and nicer and nicer—until we can’t even grasp that serving the public frequently requires asking impolitic questions, making loud noises, and employing sharp elbows.

The boldest thesis in this book, the one I was most delighted to see—and least able to assert is really true—is that this attitude of timidity and obeisance is actually bringing on the decline in readership and viewership that it, in part, seeks to avoid. Americans are fed up with the partisanship, game playing, and general ineptitude of the political class, the theory goes, and by deferring to that class, the press has succeeded in getting itself lumped together in the public mind with it. If the press could reassert itself as a truly independent anchor of this democracy—scrappy, skeptical, proudly and fervently scornful of the “insider” perquisites so many journalists seem to treasure—then it might have a chance at pulling out of its economic woes.

Instinctively I think that is right, but it is unfortunately counterintuitive to those who now guide corporate media strategy. It has the added benefit of mixing back into journalists’ behavior the dedication to public service that these authors are so eager to have happen. Do well by doing good, we might say, or do well by taking names and kicking ass. Wish I could say otherwise, but I am not holding my breath.

Jim Boyd, a 1980 Nieman Fellow, is former deputy editorial page editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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