The Press in Time of War
How things have changed since September 11.
Tom Friedman is a special case because his take on the war is at odds with his paper's. The bestselling author of "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," he's criticized American foreign policy for years--but especially since Bush took office. And yet, in nearly all his columns since September 11, he has recognized the stakes ("this is World War III") and advocated a decisive military victory ("to not retaliate ferociously...is only to invite a worse attack"). He's criticized Arab-Muslim regimes that hypocritically side with the United States while allowing radical Islam to fester. And his solution is democracy--for, without it, "religion and the mosque become the vehicle of angry protest. . . . And when [authoritarian] leaders are seen as being propped up by America, America also becomes the target of Muslim rage."
The roots of Friedman's new outlook are both obvious and intellectually respectable: The world changed, and he has changed in response. In a more emotional way, this is also true of Rather and Rivera. The effect of September 11 was traumatic and mind-altering. But there are other reasons, too, for the change in journalism. The nature of the story--a war with many facets, foreign and domestic--requires more fact-based reporting and less commentary. Then, too, for television, ratings matter. This no doubt has played a role in CNN's coverage.
ONE SIGNIFICANT FACTOR gets little notice: the scrutiny the national press now gets from media critics, watchdog groups, press websites, and astute journalistic observers like Andrew Sullivan of the New Republic and Brit Hume of Fox News Channel. Many of these are conservative, and they're constantly on alert for liberal or leftist excesses. When they find them, they let the whole world, or at least elite opinion-makers, know. The result is a makeshift kind of accountability that didn't exist until recently. Large media organizations once haughtily ignored conservative criticism. Now they have to take it into account and react.
The case of David Westin, the president of ABC News, is a good example. On October 23, Westin spoke to a class at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Asked if the Pentagon were a legitimate target for attack by America's enemies, he said, "I actually don't have an opinion on that . . . as a journalist I feel strongly that's something I should not be taking a position on." The comment drew no criticism from the students, which may tell you something about them.
But four days later, the Westin speech was shown on C-SPAN, where Brent Baker of the Media Research Center caught it at 2 A.M. Baker put excerpts in the daily "CyberAlert" he writes for MRC's website. Rummaging through the Internet, Brit Hume spotted the item and mentioned it on "Special Report" that evening on Fox. Two days later, the New York Post picked it up and the next day so did the Drudge Report. That alerted Rush Limbaugh, who devoted an hour or more to it on his radio show. With Limbaugh's show still in progress, Baker got a call from ABC. A reply would be e-mailed to him soon for posting on the MRC website. It was a total capitulation. "I was wrong," Westin wrote. "Under any interpretation, the attack on the Pentagon was criminal and entirely without justification."
The impact this may have on ABC's coverage is uncertain. It hasn't affected what's become a hardy perennial at the network: obsessive emphasis on collateral damage caused by American bombing. Despite relatively few civilian deaths in Afghanistan, ABC has concentrated on the subject far more than NBC or CBS. But then it did the same thing during the Gulf War a decade ago.
At the New York Times, R.W. Apple, too, is grinding an old ax. Back in 1991, he wrote, "For all of President Bush's passionate insistence to the contrary, the war in the Persian Gulf has more than a few similarities to the war in Vietnam, in the sort of problems that it poses if not in the probable outcome." Trying to make a new situation fit an old story, he was wrong about the Gulf War--and he's wrong again about the war in Afghanistan, for precisely the same reason.
I'VE GIVEN little space to the two books under review, but not because they're unworthy. "It Ain't Necessarily So" is an impressive piece of media criticism, more serious-minded and rigorous than sloppy and alarmist reporting on science deserves, and surprisingly readable. The sins of the press are basic: ignorance, sloth, hype, ideology. Reporters frequently don't understand important scientific distinctions such as that between correlation and causation. They're inclined to report on a study based on a sensationalized press release, not the study itself. They turn ambiguous findings into "possible links" between, say, bug spray and Parkinson's disease. They let a preconceived idea, or template, determine the story. "If the template is that infectious diseases, sexual assaults, and mortgage discrimination each pose severe (and possibly worsening) problems, evidence to the contrary will often be ignored or rejected," the authors write.
"It Ain't Necessarily So" recounts dozens of examples of atrocious science reporting, but one stands out. That was the New York Times piece in 1995 on "whether the planned underground dump for the nation's high-level atomic wastes in Nevada might erupt in a nuclear explosion, scattering radioactivity to the winds or into ground water or both." The story got front-page treatment, though it was merely the theory of two scientists and any explosion would be thousands of years in the future. Their theory hadn't been peer-reviewed, but when it was, it was dismissed. The two studies that rejected the theory got no coverage in the Times. The more you read about the state of science reporting in "It Ain't Necessarily So," you're not surprised that the press hyped and mangled the anthrax story.
But you'd never have guessed from "Bias" (written months before September11) that Dan Rather would emerge as the war on terrorism's leading media supporter. Nonetheless, Goldberg tells an engrossing story about his twenty-eight years at CBS, his clash with Rather over liberal bias, and his take on liberal news coverage in general. He was a top-flight correspondent and Rather favorite until February 1996, when he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about liberal bias, particularly at CBS. "You can talk freely about many things when you work for the big network news operations, but liberal bias is not one of them," Goldberg notes. After the article, his career at CBS was stymied and he left the network in 2000. Goldberg tells plenty of CBS tales out of school (Rather's down-home quips are scripted, he observes, and CBS News boss Andrew Heyward privately agreed about liberal bias). In the end, he's pessimistic about erasing bias. "They continue to slant the news and then deny they're doing it," Goldberg says. "They just don't understand."
Even so, Dan Rather's metamorphosis seems real, if perhaps temporary. The scourge of liberal bias, Brent Baker of the Media Research Center, is persuaded. "He's not the Rather of the past," he says. In fact, Baker has kind words for most of CBS's war coverage and NBC's too. "There's not much to complain about thematically from a conservative point of view," Baker says. "Certainly the tone of coverage has changed. They're eliminating the spin. They're not trying to impute political motives to everything Bush does or says." All that, just since September 11. If it lasts, people may learn to like the press as much as they like, well, Donald Rumsfeld.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
December 3, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 12