Blogger criticisms and the national media

The New York Times public editor's comments on Michael Gordon's Iran "reporting" reveal much about the growing influence of blogs on political journalism.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published February 27, 2007 1:47PM (EST)

It is highly likely (though admittedly not certain) that this quite significant criticism from New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame of Michael Gordon's gullible and blindly-pro-Bush Iran reporting stems directly from the same criticisms of Gordon's articles first voiced in the blogosphere. In fact, Calame's observation that "Mr. Gordon has become a favorite target of many critical readers" is almost certainly the result of complaints from bloggers and blog readers about Gordon's reporting generally.

Before proceeding to endorse these criticisms of Gordon, Calame mounts various defenses of some aspects of Gordon's reporting that are strained and unconvincing, to put it mildly, and even Calame's criticisms are couched in language that is excessively mild. But I want to put to the side for the moment the obvious deficiencies in Calame's critique and focus instead on the unambiguous criticisms he does voice.

Initially, Calame complains: "I do wish, however, that [Gordon's] article [reliant almost entirely on anonymous government sources] had found a way to comply with the paper's policy of explaining why sources are allowed to remain unnamed." Calame then complains that Gordon's most glaring, Bush-supporting assertion -- that "Iran is implementing a deliberate, calibrated policy approved by Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei" -- "needed some qualification," specifically that it required an indication of whether (as was later revealed to be the case) such assertions are based on mere inference, not conclusive evidence.

Calame also argued that readers "deserved a clearer sense" of whether such a belief about the Iranian leadership is shared by a consensus of intelligence officials (which, as even the President subsequently admitted, it is not). And Calame specifically criticized the inexcusably one-sided reporting which characterized Gordon's article and the failure of the Times subsequently to correct it:

Still, editors didn't make sure all conflicting views were always clearly reported. For example, the article on Mr. Bush's news conference pointed out that the position of the president -- and the similar position taken earlier in the week by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- differed from the suggestion at the Sunday Baghdad briefing that the weapons effort involved top levels of the Iranian government. That story also should have noted, however, that the president's view on this point differed from the intelligence assessment given readers of the Feb. 10 article.

Given the seriousness of these infractions -- exacerbated by their near total similarity to the serial acts of pre-Iraq-war malfeasance committed not only by the Times generally, but by Gordon specifically (both of which Calame notes) -- a much more critical tone is warranted. There is simply no doubt that Gordon stands out as a serious and unique journalism problem for the NYT, having not only co-authored (with like-minded Judy Miller) one of the most egregious and damaging acts of journalistic malpractice in the last couple of decades, but now engaging in the same behavior with regard to Iran -- not only as reflected by the February 10 article which Calame criticizes, but also subsequent Iran articles which were just as shoddy and irresponsible.

In fact, this is the second time in less than a month that Gordon has been expressly criticized in the pages of the NYT, having been chided in late January by his own editor when he "stepped over the line" and "went too far" by going on The Charlie Rose Show and expressly advocating President Bush's "surge" plan. Gordon clearly has a pro-war, pro-neoconservative agenda which engenders serial journalistic sins (and that is the case despite his having authored a book which, as many neoconservatives have done, criticizes the administration's handling of the war). There is a reason why Iran-obsessed warmonger Michael Ledeen -- Michael Ledeen -- recently called Gordon "one of our best journalists."

Calame cites several other NYT articles which he uses (fairly) to claim that the Times' Iran reporting outside of Gordon's article has been more skeptical, responsible and balanced. And it is true that the Iran reporting from the Times and other newspapers as well, in isolated instances, has been markedly superior as compared to the media's pre-Iraq-war Pravda behavior (it obviously couldn't be worse).

For instance, an article in this morning's Times (by James Glanz and Richard Oppel) reports on new government claims that a raid on a Shiite weapons cache in Southern Iraq produced "the best evidence yet that the deadliest roadside bombs in Iraq are manufactured in Iran," but the article notes in the very first paragraph that "critics contend that the forensic case remains circumstantial and inferential," and goes on to point out early in the article:

But critics assert that nearly all the bomb components could have been produced in Iraq or somewhere else in the region. Even if the evidence were to establish that Iran is the source, they add, that does not necessarily mean that the Iranian leadership is responsible.

It is definitely true that there is marginally more of this sort of skepticism from the media concerning Bush's claims about Iran (although, as noted in an excellent post by Cernig -- who has become one of the most informed voices on these Iran-Iraq-related issues -- there are numerous additional reasons for deep skepticism about these Iran claims which were not included in the NYT article). What is worth noting here is that this journalistic improvement -- however mild it may be -- is still palpable, and seems clearly to be a by-product (at least in large part) of the work being done in the blogosphere to scrutinize our national media and to demand more responsible and skeptical journalism.

It is difficult to quantify the influence which the blogosphere has on our broader political debates. There are the blogging triumphilists who seem to think that bloggers are taking over the world and can change whatever they want with a few posts. And then there are those on the opposite end of the spectrum -- the gloomy, whiny defeatists -- who think that all is hopeless because the Big Bad System is so powerful and ingenious and Machievellian as to be invulnerable (attributes of omnipotence often assigned to the Rove-led Republican political machine -- until the 2006 midterm elections). But most people seem to reside somewhere in between those two poles, which is where the truth is also likely to be found.

Bloggers plug away every day with their media criticisms, their political assaults, and their demands for greater accountability from the political and media institutions which have been so profoundly and glaringly failing the country. Most of that work does not produce immediate results, and whatever work does produce results cannot typically be quantified or documented. No single blog post, by itself, is going to radically transform our political landscape or engender some spontaneous reawakening from our citizenry or political and media elite. And that lack of immediate satisfaction sometimes produces the misleading sense that no meaningful change is occurring.

But changes of this sort -- like the growth of a child with whom one lives -- are gradual and therefore imperceptible, but they are still occurring. Mainstream journalists can no longer ignore the criticisms and complaints that come from the blogosphere. They hear them and are affected by them and that has the effect of changing their behavior. The Michael Gordons in our press corps are not going to be able to aid and abet the efforts of Bush followers to fan the flames of war against Iran without substantial impediments, criticisms and attention -- not as much as is merited, but certainly far more than before.

For a long time, most national journalists studiously ignored the blogosphere completely, trying to demonize it and dismiss it away as some sort of frivolous cesspool of vulgarity and partisan hysteria (some still cling to that tactic). But in terms of size, impact and sophistication, the blogosphere has evolved beyond the point where it can be easily caricatured that way and it has grown beyond the point where it can be simply ignored. The instances where our nation's most influential journalists are compelled to respond to criticisms from blogs are now so numerous as to be routine, even expected.

And that criticism, provided it is persuasive and well-documented, will inevitably have an effect in re-shaping and improving our political discourse -- not immediately or flamboyantly, but gradually and inexorably. When it came to Iraq, it took almost a year-and-a-half for criticisms of the NYT's Gordon-type reporting to appear in its own pages. Yet this time, when Gordon tried the same stunt with Iran, it took less than two weeks for his own paper to criticize him, and numerous other articles on the same topic were published that were far more substantive and responsible.

That is genuine progress, and much of it is attributable to blogs, the influence of which will only continue to grow. People like Tony Snow, Richard Wolffe, and Lieberman-consultant Dan Gerstein feel compelled to scream that the blogosphere is a frivolous and inconsequential echo chamber not because it is, but precisely because they know it is not. If it were, they would continue to ignore it, rather than feel a need to lash out at it.

Media outlets know they are being watched and that a lack of adversarial reporting will be detected and severely criticized. There is much to complain about in our political and media institutions, and there is no shortage of those complaints, but it is also worth noting -- to dilute pervasive defeatism if for no other reason -- that there is also progress being made.

Glenn Greenwald

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