Do national journalists agree with Gary Kamiya?

Kamiya writes: "I'm not going to go into chapter and verse about the media's specific failures -- they're too well known to repeat." Many, perhaps most, journalists would disagree.

Published April 10, 2007 3:27PM (EDT)

(updated below)

Gary Kamiya, here in Salon, has a superb analysis of the media's profound journalistic failures during the time period beginning with the 9/11 attacks through the March, 2003 invasion of Iraq. He presents a thoughtful and comprehensive examination of what caused those failures, and I highly recommend reading it in its entirety.

I want to focus on the paragraphs with which Kamiya begins:

It's no secret that the period of time between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq represents one of the greatest collapses in the history of the American media. Every branch of the media failed, from daily newspapers, magazines and Web sites to television networks, cable channels and radio.

I'm not going to go into chapter and verse about the media's specific failures, its credulousness about aluminum tubes and mushroom clouds and failure to make clear that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 -- they're too well known to repeat. In any case, the real failing was not in any one area; it was across the board.

Bush administration lies and distortions went unchallenged, or were actively promoted. Fundamental and problematic assumptions about terrorism and the "war on terror" were rarely debated or even discussed. Vital historical context was almost never provided. And it wasn't just a failure of analysis. With some honorable exceptions, good old-fashioned reporting was also absent.

That all seems extremely uncontroversial. And Kamiya apparently agrees, as he says that these media failures are "no secret," and that it is unnecessary to offer specifics because "they're too well known to repeat."

But I really question whether -- actually, I affirmatively doubt that -- most national journalists would agree with what Kamiya wrote. In response to some of the media criticisms I've been writing, I have had exchanges with some national journalists over the past few months, and the most surprising aspect of those exchanges -- at least it has been surprising to me -- is how little culpability they believe they have for the completely barren and corrupt public "debates" we had over the invasion and how little scrutiny there was of highly dubious Bush administration claims concerning Iraq, terrorism and related matters.

Many of them really do not agree -- at all -- "that the period of time between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq represents one of the greatest collapses in the history of the American media." Many of them will acknowledge that Judy Miller and a handful of other aberrational reporters produced bad journalism relating to Iraq, but they will insist that it was confined to a small circle and was not reflective of American journalism in general.

As but one illustrative example, after I compiled a long list of articles from Newsweek's "Senior White House Correspondent," Richard Wolffe -- articles from Wolffe which uncritically "reported" false pre-war claims about Iraq from anonymous government sources -- Wolffe went on Air America the following day to respond to the post and protested, in his most righteous tone, that I had unfairly depicted him as some sort of "Judy Miller or something" -- as though she's the only one guilty of abdicating her journalistic responsibility by failing to scrutinize claims from the Bush administration.

And, of course, one of the claims which prompted attention towards Wolffe in the first place was his statement, in the midst of criticizing bloggers while sitting next to Tony Snow, that "the press here does a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards and covering politics in general." Wolffe's gushing admiration for the job done by political journalists in the U.S. is, I believe, shared by most of his colleagues.

As the exchange I had recently with The Politico's John Harris reflects, they dismiss most media criticisms as nothing more than the by-product of crass partisan bias, which blinds their lowly critics and prevents them from appreciating the lofty and elevated methods which journalists use. As Harris put it:

Although we are a new publication, Politico has several reporters and editors who have been in this profession for two decades or more. They know that what counts is reputation over the long haul, not any individual story or any uproar du jour on the blogs. . . .

In your case, much of your criticism comes from a distinct ideological perspective. That's fine, but surely you must appreciate that not everyone acts with your degree of ideological motivation. In the case of people at Politico, our motivations are simple -- to write interesting and worthwhile stories and to put those stories before largest possible audience. . . .

The suggestion you casually throw about -- that people who have devoted their careers to covering news professionally have somehow compromised their values or are covertly aligned with a political agenda -- is one that I do not like to leave unanswered.

Many, I think most, journalists really don't recognize that our country suffers from -- as Kamiya put it -- "one of the greatest collapses in the history of the American media." They would most certainly disagree that "every branch of the media failed."

I would guess that they would dismiss the great bulk of Kamiya's criticism as nothing more than a partisan-based inability to understand the role of journalists. As Wolffe put it to Tony Snow: blogger-critics "want us to play a role that isn't really our role." Or, as The New York Times's Michael Gordon sniped to Amy Goodman when she criticized his aluminum tubes story: "I don't know if you understand how journalism works." National journalists believe it's their critic who are misguided, not their own journalism.

Even The New York Times -- which, I believe (though I could be wrong) is the only major media outlet to acknowledge real wrongdoing in their pre-war reporting -- admitted to an extremely limited list of mistakes. In their "mea culpa," they cited a grand total of six separate articles, acknowledged limited mistakes with each of them, and ended by referring the reader to Michael Gordon's emphatic defenses of his own error-plagued reporting, which -- says the Times -- "serve as a primer on the complexities of such intelligence reporting."

These profound journalistic failures were by no means confined to particular reporters or specific newspaper articles but instead, as Kamiya says, "it was across the board." For that reason, one can randomly pick out almost any article or interview about Iraq from that period and find staggering journalistic malfeasance. As but one example, in the course of researching the anthrax issue yesterday, I just happened to stumble upon this CNN interview, conducted in September 2002 by Wolf Blitzer with former U.N. inspector Tim Trevan.

Here are some of the "questions" Blitzer asked, beginning with the first one:

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: There is a great deal of concern Iraq is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. The former U.N. weapons inspector, Tim Trevan, says Iraq has anthrax, botulism toxin and the nerve gas, VX.

BLITZER: He has had four years now to hide weapons of mass destruction. Don't -- isn't it prudent to assume that he's not going to put them at places like presidential palaces, sensitive sites that he knows if these inspectors return, they're going to want to go there right away? Hasn't he found other locations that may be totally secret?

BLITZER: So are renewed inspections basically a sham? Is it simply a waste of time?

BLITZER: I spoke to Richard Sperzel yesterday, who is a former weapons inspector. You probably know him. His greatest concern is something like anthrax that the Iraqis could engage in a massive anthrax attack. Is that a concern that you have as well?

BLITZER: The question, though, is: Could they deliver it in a significant military way and weaponized?

BLITZER: And a new element that the Pentagon has been talking about, the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, is these mobile vans that can move biological weapons around, and hidden, obviously, from potential U.S. retaliation.

There was nothing unique about Blitzer, CNN or that interview. It is just an interview I found randomly, but is completely representative of how journalists behaved during that time.

Alarmist though false claims from the war-seeking Bush administration is what viewers heard mindlessly passed down -- continuously and with virtually no dissent -- from our nation's "journalists." Kamiya is absolutely right that it was "one of the greatest collapses in the history of the American media." And he's also right that this collapse is so well-documented that it ought to be beyond dispute.

But many -- quite possibly most -- national journalists disagree with Kamiya (it would be an interesting and valuable exercise to survey them). As a result, nothing has really changed, and is unlikely to change any time soon. The first step to real change is recognition of a real problem, and journalists in general do not believe there is one.

UPDATE: Speak of the devil and he shall appear: Time's Ana Marie Cox reports on a "brown bag" talk delivered at Harvard's Institute of Politics by former ABC News Director Mark "Drudge-Rules-Our-World" Halperin (who is also John Harris' co-author). Halperin complained about how very, very unfair bloggers are when they criticize mainstream journalists, and how nobody, but nobody, other than our largest media outlets meets what he calls the "high standards of journalism." Cox entitles her post "The Word From Up on High." Like the Prodigal Son, it seems that Cox is becoming a blogger once again.

In Comments here, GMokery reports on the same Halperin event which Cox attended -- as well as a similar one at which Adam Nagourney of The New York Times spoke -- and both reports provide superb illustrations of the mindset outlined in this post. American journalism is practiced at the most elevated heights of honor, accuracy, meticulousness and professionalism, and it's the critics of journalists who are reckless and misguided.

How much longer do we have to wait before Halperin joins The Politico?

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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