January 12, 2007
Even before 9/11, I had been increasingly disturbed by the disconnection between the reporting of news in the USA and what I receive via my satellite connection from France, Germany and elsewhere. In the post 9/11 world, the gap in factual reporting and astute interpretation between US media and much of the rest of the world became positively bizarre. What could explain this cultural shift in news reporting, this apparent decay of the US Fourth Estate?
Lisa Finnegan has squarely addressed my bewilderment in her new book, No Questions Asked, itself an excellent example of reportage. The title says it all. In the fallout from 9/11 reporters and news analysts stopped asking questions. Better to say, they stopped asking hard questions, they stopped asking follow-up questions, they stopped asking embarrassing questions.
Why? Finnegan cites and documents the reasons and the trends.
Patriotism and groupthink. US Americans and their news reporters like much of the rest of the population were emotionally overwhelmed by the events of 9/11. They lost it, so to speak when it came to examining the causes, hard facts and political motivations surrounding this unheard of attack on the US homeland. Once lost, independence of perspective was next to impossible to regain. A quagmire of unqualified patriotism and groupthink suffocated independant thinking and inquiry. Under stress, the culture had shifted to blind survival values. Dissent, when not attacked as treason, was dismissed or omitted was slightly reported and relegated to the back pages. The media willingly and even eagerly accepted direction from the government on what to write and not write. Being the government's mouthpiece was suddenly a virtuous thing to do.
Growing media monopoly. The culture of newsmaking and news selling had been in a process of transformation and consolidation. Media giants and moguls left little room for independent thinking when the emphasis is on profits in an enviornment of political, competitive and advertising pressures. Embarrassing questions sap power and cost money, as they often inquire into power and money. Cost cutting reduces time and resources for free and first hand investigation. Corporate and editorial policies are aligned to sell what they think people want to hear. They must bow to public opinion and so it is extremely important that they create it favorable to themselves. Post 9/11 reporting became a tug of war between broadcasting insecurity and promising security in the form of clear, easy answers. It delivered the poison and gave the recipe for the antidote in the same paragraph.
Gentrification of the newsroom. Finnegan also shows how news reporters themselves had changed culturally and socially. Through the first half of the 20th Century, US news reporters seemed to largely stem from the US working classes, with strong connections to the mainstream of the time, and possessed of considerable street sense. They smelled and instinctively distrusted political and corporate interests. Today many successful college educated writers and anchors have moved into upper class wealth and have few if any first hand experiences of the realities they could and should in many instances be reporting.
Tailor made news. Add to this, the "selling of the war." Vast sums of public money have been used to hire public relations firms and professionals to not only spin the political priorities of the Bush administration but to actually write the news reports and articles to be distributed to media both home and abroad.
Sacrificing objectivity for access. Few of us with outside perspectives could resist the temptation to replace "embedded" with "in bed with" when discussing the construction of war reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reporters all but became part of the US military itself, while "unilaterals," independently moving reporters were excluded and even fired upon by US forces. US Americans got to see a sanitized version of the war, which, as Finnegan points out in a magnificent metaphor, amounted to "seeing the war through a soda straw." Foreign media and direct footage were carefully filtered and censored and the costs of the war in US and other casualties were deemed uninteresting. On the political scene access to administration news conferences was restricted to those who asked safe questions--troublemakers lost their credentials and were isolated from news sources. Language is continually reinvented to mask unpleasant realities. Collateral damage, insurgent, and the like, cover the nakedness of civilian gore and resistence.
The power of Finnegan's analysis of the recent history, this cultural shift in media and news reporting, could perhaps be written off by some as a rant from the left. However, the author has carefully let the newspeople on all sides speak for themselves. The book is packed with quotations and reflections on the part of people who are household names in the USA: Rather, Chung, Maher. Blitzer, Amanpour, and numerous others. Despite the clear evidence of dereliction of the duty to ask questions, many are still likely to excuse themselves or blame other forces for their temerity and seduction than to apologize and address the issues. The core US value of "speaking up" here as elsewhere seems to be replaced by CYA.
In time, reality began to seep through the cracks. No WMDs, lots of real torture, flouting of the Geneva Convention, gutted constitutional rights, and above all the callous response to Katrina's victims are starting to bring home the terrible lack of investigative mettle and the ability of the both the USA as a nation and its media to see and criticize themselves.Will this lesson be taught and learned and make a difference? Finnegan offers steps back to honesty, responsibility and sanity, but how do you fix a broken mirror...?