Ever since 9/11, much of the media has engaged in a brand of journalism that more closely resembled stenography. It consisted mainly of uncritically regurgitating White House misrepresentations of foreign policy and terrorist threats. This failure on the part of the fourth estate resulted in such travesties as the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and the buttressing of an ever more imperious executive branch that brazenly ignored the Congress, the people, and the law. While some of the worst offenders later issued mea culpas, they obviously didn’t learn very much.
In recent weeks, many of the same news organizations have been repeating administration assertions that the Iraqi insurgency is predominantly an Al Qaeda operation. Neither the President nor the press have bothered to supply verifiable support for the claim.
Enter Clark Hoyt, the New York Times public editor, who’s latest column criticizes the laziness of “Seeing Al Qaeda Around Every Corner.” His analysis of the paper’s performance is a crushing blow to the reporters who suck up to official Washington purveyors of spin. Some excerpts:
“Why Bush and the military are emphasizing Al Qaeda to the virtual exclusion of other sources of violence in Iraq is an important story. So is the question of how well their version of events squares with the facts of a murky and rapidly changing situation on the ground.
But these are stories you haven’t been reading in The Times in recent weeks as the newspaper has slipped into a routine of quoting the president and the military uncritically about Al Qaeda’s role in Iraq – and sometimes citing the group itself without attribution.”
“While a president running out of time and policy options may want to talk about a single enemy that Americans hate and fear in the hope of uniting the country behind him, journalists have the obligation to ask tough questions about the accuracy of his statements.”
Hoyt actually did the work that the reporters were supposed to have done. He interviewed Middle East experts to get an informed evaluation of the administration’s dubious assertions. One such expert, Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, summarized the problem for the Times as well as the press more broadly:
“I have been noticing – not just your paper – all papers have fallen into this reporting.” The administration, he added, “made a strategic decision” to play up Al Qaeda’s role in Iraq, “and the press went along with it.”
Hoyt went on to blast stories that referenced militant links to Al Qaeda “with little or no attribution – and no supporting evidence…” However, Dean Baquet, the Times’ Washington bureau chief, and Susan Chira, the foreign editor, both defended the paper. But Chira, at least, acknowledged that the paper had used “excessive shorthand” when referring to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and admitted that, “We’ve been sloppy.”
As the new public editor for the Times, Hoyt deserves credit for writing a clear and honest appraisal of his colleagues and their work. He was recently recruited from the well-respected McClatchy newsroom (formally Knight Ridder) where he was the Washington editor. With just a handful of columns published since he arrived, he is building credibility for a paper that has harbored journalistic disgraces like Judith Miller and Michael Gordon (who is still there and still slanting stories to propound an aggressive militarism, this time directed at Iran).
I can’t help but wonder what influence Hoyt may have had in the Times’ recent, but long overdue, editorial calling for the U.S. to leave Iraq. It is one of the best summations from a mainstream media source for why we must end this debacle. It has more in common with the above par reporting of Knight Ridder than it does with anything the Times has published in the past two years. And it was published less than a month and a half after Hoyt’s hiring.
It remains to be seen if this is a prelude to responsible reporting at the Times or an aberration that, like Hoyt, could be ignored or discarded. But it is encouraging to see an article like this hold the media to a higher standard. The article closes with Hoyt quoting an old maxim of war:
“Military experts will tell you that failing to understand your enemy is a prescription for broader failure.”
Failing to understand the media could have similarly dire consequences. And, indeed, it has. That’s why it is so important for this type of authentic self-examination to be undertaken and observed.