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The Failures of Post-9/11 Media

A new book asks America's top journalists for insights on why post-9/11, pre-Iraq War news coverage was so shoddy.
 
 
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Kristina Borjesson knows well what can happen to journalists who push too hard to expose government secrets.

The award-winning reporter-cum-media critic was actually fired from her job at CBS after digging too deep -- and refusing to shut up -- about what caused the 2001 crash of TWA flight 800. In her acclaimed 2002 book " Into the Buzzsaw," Borjesson chronicled her forced exile from mainstream media and encouraged other banished reporters to share their stories, too.

Now she's at it again. In October, Borjesson released "Feet to the Fire" (Prometheus Books), a strapping collection of 21 interviews with the country's most influential TV, newspaper and magazine journalists. Her subject at hand? The impact of muddled intelligence -- and White House spin -- on mainstream media's desultory reporting of the lead-up to Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

What might be different today if the press hadn't swallowed so many administration lies, hook, line and sinker? Is it the media's responsibility to report what the people need to know, or what the government wants us to hear? And which -- if any -- journalists got their war reporting right?

With an arsenal of questions like these, Borjesson aims for the heart -- and the top -- of the "media elite," brain-picking notables such as Ted Koppel, Ron Suskind, John Walcott and Christopher Hedges.

And with Bush's approval at recent all-time lows, his administration marred by a succession of increasingly Orwellian scandals, Borjesson's timing couldn't be better.

AlterNet spoke with Borjesson via telephone about the power and prejudice behind the "free press."

Why and how did you decide to do this book?

Kristina Borjesson: Actually, it's a logical extension of my last book, "Into the Buzzsaw," which looked at the problems big investigative journalists have. It was important to me to tell people who these [journalists] were. It's important to me that the American public knows who the good journalists really are and the lengths they go to bring the important stories to the public.

Here we are in this amazing era of profound crisis. Particularly pre-war, I was watching television and reading the news, and when it was announced that we were going to war with Iraq, I was wondering why no one was really holding the administration's feet to the fire and asking loudly and often, "Why are we doing this, and why is nobody presenting information that reflects reporting is really digging into this?"

Then when we went off to Iraq, I felt like I needed to understand how this country's top journalists interact with this country's leadership at a time of crisis, to figure out what went right and what went wrong. I decided to pick journalists who were covering areas that I thought were most germane to that period -- whether it was people covering the White House [or] covering the war -- national security intelligence reporters, which is where the rubber met the [road], because the reasons for going to war were ostensibly based on intelligence.

The bottom line for me is to try to examine the best journalists out there, and see what it is about them and how they go about doing their work. And in the course of it, I just exposed a lot of stuff.

Were you shocked or scared by anything you learned over the course of your interviews for "Feet to the Fire"?

The thing that I found really profound was that there really was no consensus among this nation's top messengers about why we went to war. [War is the] most extreme activity a nation can engage in, and if they weren't clear about it, that means the public wasn't necessarily clear about the real reasons. And I still don't think the American people are clear about it.

The other thing that I found interesting was looking into why their reporting didn't get the kind of traction it should. The best reporters were from Knight Ridder. This is not according to Kristina; this is according to all the other top reporters that I spoke to. The reason why their reporting didn't get traction was because their reporting wasn't on television, and while they have a huge audience of 11 million readers during the week, they're not in the power centers of this country, meaning that they don't have a presence in New York or Washington.

Again, what does that say? It's not as if there aren't other bright reporters in television. If you look at the two power newspapers, the New York Times -- most famously, or infamously, their key reporter was Judith Miller. And Walter Pincus [of the Washington Post ] was doing all this great reporting, but it was ending up on page 17.

It's what I said about "Buzzsaw" -- people who are on the major radar don't do the kind of reporting that people below that radar do. The question is to look into why. The more powerful the news outlet is, the more visible it is, the more attention it attracts from people who, either inside or outside, want to suppress that reporting.

The other thing that was very clear in the pre-war phase is that the relationship between the White House (the executive branch) and the public, and the executive branch and Congress has changed profoundly. Walter Pincus mentioned that.

Basically it's about decisions that are made inside, and then it's a PR job. It's no longer this dialogue among our executive branch and our top leaders and Congress and the people via the press. [TV news is] essentially a PR job, and it's a very effective one; it's very sophisticated, and it's all day.

That created public perception that was pro-war. So people in television, a lot of whom tried to ask questions, were met with public outcry. That's another reason why [pro-war] reporting got traction. There is intense pressure and intense PR and perception-bending going on that makes it hard for really critical reporting on these sensitive issues to get out.

Were any nonmainstream media outlets reporting the real story?

There were plenty of them. But I was trying to look at the most powerful outlets I could find that were doing a good job. And basically what I'm doing with this book is bringing these people to the public's attention and saying, "Forget about Chris Matthews on 'Hardball.'" Go ahead and watch 'Hardball' if you want, but if you want the real nuts-and-bolts reporting, go to Knight Ridder. Look at what John Walcott, Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel are doing.

I am going to try to make the great journalists of this country stars, and bypass all those little triggers that suppress great journalism and keep the public misinformed or uninformed.

If you had to make one or two interviews from your book required reading for the American public, which would you pick?

You've got to read the Landay and Strobel one, and the Walcott one. The national security and intelligence reporters are the key ones in the book for a lot of reasons.

Why? What might people be shocked to learn in those particular interviews?

Jonathan Landay was invited just recently to speak on "Hardball" about his reporting. For some reason he got bumped, and the producer on the show read his pre-war stuff and she goes, "Oh my god, you were reporting this stuff back in 2002."

When he was doing the comparison between the national intelligence estimate's classified version and the public version, and he was doing the analysis on what it would take to have nuclear weapons and what could you see just read those chapters.

There's Ron Suskind as well. He really tells you who these people are and how they're operating. And Pincus is interesting because he explains the problems, the whole PR attitude. That's a huge component of the problem, because it creates the other problem, which is a public that's hostile to getting the real information.

The only other thing that people should be aware of is the bigger picture of what Krugman calls "the Revolution" -- how this group of people came into power through a system that they are now trying to dismantle, both on the national and international level. And that in the superbig picture. It's basically about the paradigm shifting from nation-states to corporate states, where the nation-state's resources -- their money and their military, and so on -- are used in the furthering of corporations.

Bush and Blair's press conference [at Camp David on Sept. 7, 2002], when they quoted from a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, came up repeatedly in your interviews. Can you explain its significance in the context of pre-war intelligence?

In [that] joint press conference, they talked about this IAEA report [which allegedly said] that Saddam Hussein could reconstitute his nuclear arsenal in a very short time. The fact of the matter was that no such report existed .

In fact, older reports basically said the opposite.

It was reported, and a few journalists picked it up. It was picked up by NBC's Robert Wyndham that day. But it was interesting, because when [Wyndham] mentioned that there was no such report, the White House didn't say, "We're sorry, we didn't mean the IAEA report, we meant another report." Their answer was, "Well, that was our perception at the time."

It was just a bizarre response. And then the report disappeared from their website, and that was it. The whole event disappeared.

It's fascinating what's going on, because there's this virtual reality that's created by speeches and statements. If there's nothing there to counter it, it becomes the [public's] perception. And everybody acts on the perception. Whether it's real or not, it's now treated as real, so it becomes real.

The press is going 50 on this issue, and the administration and their perception-bending machines are going 500. And that's the problem that needs to be solved institutionally.

When, for example, Colin Powell goes and gives his speech to the U.N., how, as a reporter covering it, can you question every fact that he [gives] while he's putting it out, so that when that speech is over, you know what's true and what isn't?

It's possible. The networks could do it, the print reporters could do it, just by having somebody checking everything back at the office and staying in touch with that reporter in the field. It's possible to do. But it's not done

I think they should have access to international fact-checkers. One of the biggest problems with investigative journalism, and journalism in general, is the delay between when statements are made and when they're checked out, because you have to report what the president says right away when [he says] it.

Do you think that lack of fact-checking and follow-through are part of the reason that the American people are still so muddled about the link (or non-link) between Saddam Hussein and 9/11?

Well, yes. The fact is that unless networks are willing to do the real reporting, it's a tough thing to ask of them. Because of the leadership's PR machine, if the public is hostile to getting critical information, then you could lose a lot of money.

What's happening now is that there's a whole alternative press system out there that is doing their homework, and they're doing it really fast. And people are beginning to know where the good sites are and where conscientious reporters [are] -- whether they're journalists or professors or whatever.

Look at Juan Cole's Informed Comment [blog]. A lot of people I know don't watch the network television news anymore. Every once in a while when I do catch it, it's a day or two behind sometimes. So why bother? They're going to suffer from that; they are suffering from that.

How have the internet and blogs contributed to this -- the way we're getting our news, credibility ?

It's making it very scary for the networks, because they're obsolete from A to Z. This woman, Robin Meade on CNN in the morning, with the Jessica Simpson look-alike makeup? If you put Jonathan Landy and Warren Strobel on television, that's it -- they will have no competition.

These guys are good-looking, they're edgy, they're intense and they're telling you the truth -- they're lifting the veil. Nothing would glue people to their chairs more than something like that. Because what you're getting are these older white guys who are coloring within the lines constantly. Even the subjects that they choose to cover for the news are just obsolete from beginning to end.

They keep trying to make it more entertaining. And they don't realize that, in this new world now, what would be most compelling is just really hard, true reporting being presented, by the way, by the people who are actually doing it -- and packaged in a way that is more interesting, and that moves more, with more cuts.

Even I have to admit that I love MTV -- I love the style.

When I watch network news, it's just so hard to watch. It isn't attractive. They all look alike, they all sound alike, they all say the same things. And I don't care how much makeup Robin wears, or how high she teases the back of her head and smiles and whatever. She's not interesting, and she's not covering interesting stories.

Literally -- the other day, she was covering something about dogs. It was obviously a throwback to one of those [ideas that] "the key stories are vets, pets, tits and tots."

You said earlier that it can be hard for reporters to deliver the truth if Americans are hostile to that truth. Do you think this has changed at all since the war started?

What's interesting is that there's a pattern to the coverage whenever we go to war. Before the war, everybody is gung-ho, because the PR machine is in full swing [and] everybody wants to get behind the president. Really, if you want to be re-elected, start a war, because people don't like to change presidents.

And then you go to war, and there's bang-bang footage and it's all exciting. And the people start to die, and now you're into the everyday flogging of the war. It's the same stuff all the time, so people get tired of that.

But as the casualties start to rise, that's when the reporting starts getting critical, because it's hitting a critical mass with the public that their kids are dying. Once a critical mass of kids start arriving home in coffins, the reporting starts to change, because journalism is not proactive, it's reactive.

In the case of this war, there is another added element to that. People have discovered, way before the war is over, [that] the president's reasons for going to war turned out to have no basis. That creates questions in people's minds, too.

But again, you're constantly swimming against the PR machine that comes out with, "You're not supporting the troops if you're critical. We're going to win this war; it's important -- the Iraqi people are behind it." Our tax dollars are being used to blow smoke at us. That is profoundly troubling.

You can see that people are sidestepping the mainstream system now, with the internet and so on. You can do the Buckminster Fuller thing with getting out the information, but now, when you've got this machine that's constantly trying to create and bend perceptions, and that doesn't go through the journalism outlets.

In one of your chapters, Tom Yellin said that his biggest question as a [ABC News] producer is determining whether to lead viewers to the right story or respond to what they want to hear. That seemed to be a common conflict among most of the reporters you spoke with.

That's the vise they're in, exactly.

How do they reconcile the two?

This is where James Bamford, who's independent, really slams the network people. And, by the way, all of these journalists, when asked, "Who do you think did the best job?" Many pointed to Sy Hersh [of the New Yorker ], but he didn't feel comfortable being interviewed.

The decision to run a story, or not, ultimately doesn't rest in the hands of the journalists who do the stories -- it rests in the hands of their superiors. And their superiors are the ones who have to make decisions based on whether it's good business or not. And believe me, if you're going to lose viewers because you're going to tell a highly critical story, more often than not, in television, the story will not go on.

In newspapers, what they do is just put it on page 17. They marginalize it in the back pages.

Krugman has a fan base over at the New York Times , but he is "balanced" by David Brooks, so there is always a mitigating factor that keeps a certain perspective from gaining primacy. For example, Bamford pointed out that, on television talk shows, the way they "balance" things is this: If you're going to have Richard Perle on, he's a neo-con, super-right-wing guy. So his real equal, on the other side, might be someone like [Noam] Chomsky. But Chomsky will never get on television; he's too left-wing.

But Perle isn't too right-wing. So what they do is take a centrist, slightly left-wing senator, maybe, who is going to provide a weaker left-wing perspective to Perle's overwhelming right-wing perspective. And that's how it's done on television. That's how a certain viewpoint is controlled on television. That's why the whole thing about the left-wing mainstream media is laughable, particularly when it comes to television, just by virtue of the sources that they choose to bring on.

It seemed like most of the journalists you interviewed were very concerned with their credibility, and how that would convey to their audience. Tom Yellin talked about it being all-important for journalists to earn the public's trust. Do you think people are as worried about that as journalists are?

This is a strange era that we're living in, because it's polarized now between right and left. Obviously there are people who choose their news sources because their politics dovetail with that of the news source. But that should not be a concern of any good journalist.

It seems like most American people don't care about a journalist's credibility unless it's called into question.

Well, they certainly attack it enough. If you read Ron Suskind's chapter, I ask him, "Given all the events that have occurred, what kind of system of government are we moving towards?"

There was this silence. And I said, "I'm going to record the fact that there's a long silence here."

[Then] he started talking about how you have to be judicious in what you say, so as not to be marginalized.

I don't know if it's on both the right and the left, but if the truth is 12 inches long, some journalists will only go six inches into that truth. Because to go the full 12 inches might create a backlash that could marginalize them. But to go six inches into it is still safe.

Because [under] this administration, if you're on their radar, and you write or air something that is critical enough and gets their attention, they will lash out at you, and they're very good at it. That does have a deterring effect, even on the big journalists.

The Washington Post 's Bart Gellman gets letters all the time from people at the Pentagon, or they send letters to the press saying Gellman's reporting is inaccurate. Just recently, the Washington Post had to respond to something like that publicly in an editorial. A lot of the guys in here, certainly the Knight Ridder boys, have no compunctions about reporting exactly what they find, no matter what.

Most of the reporters you talked with denied that there was self-censorship in their news organizations. Do you agree?

I know from firsthand experience that self-censorship goes on. I also know that agenda reporting goes on in these major outlets.

From time to time you'll see a "Nightline" that is so satisfying to watch, because it's looking at some critical issue that needs to be aired, and it's looking at it intelligently and it's presenting facts. Just as often, you'll see reports that are just ridiculous. But what goes on most consistently is just reporting that is either inane or doesn't cover what needs to be covered to the extent that it needs to be covered. That's why people are turning away in droves from those news divisions.

How do you think news coverage of the war has changed?

It has become more critical. More questions are being asked because all this money has been spent. More than 2,000 of our men and women have died over there, and there doesn't seem to be any end in sight.

Notwithstanding the fact that the president keeps talking about victory, we paid a huge price in terms of national prestige and our relationship with countries around the world.

I think the reporting is becoming more critical. I mean, that's why [the Bush administration] keeps mounting all these new campaigns. It's fascinating --it's one campaign after another. They have a message, and then all of them go out there and put out the same message.

But sometimes it backfires, like when they came out against the anti-war critics, it didn't fly very well. After that, Bush came out with a campaign message of, "We will be victorious, and good things are happening and there's an Iraqi election coming up."

They keep waving the flag of democracy under people's noses, but I was reared in Haiti, and the Americans "helped bring democracy" on a couple of occasions, but they didn't like the results. I'm not impressed by the whole "democracy" thing.

What about the international press? How does it compare with the American press in terms of reporting the truth and not kowtowing to what people want to hear?

It's easier to be free to critically cover major events if your own country and the blood of your own countrymen are not invested. In terms of the Iraq war, sure, everybody else has probably been able to do a better job, because they don't have the stake in it that we do. The Germans, of course, having gone through Nazism, [are] more vigilant about censorship and so on.

Although, again, their big media conglomerate, Bertelsmann, controls a lot of the media over there. The corporatization of mainstream media is not just happening here.

But again, the fact that they're not as invested in the Iraq war makes it easier for them to cover it critically.

Do you now have more faith or less in American media and the journalistic process?

I have more faith, because I've met and talked to 21 really smart, conscientious journalists, so obviously that buttresses my faith. I have faith in American journalists just because I've spent since 2001-2002 championing the best journalists, and trying to promote good journalists by having them write about their experiences and, in this case, interviewing them.

What's more important to me is that I've found a way to make the public more conscious of good journalism and journalists. I think it's important for people to know who the good sources of information are. Who they are, because it's an individual matter. It's not Knight Ridder so much as it's Walcott, Strobel, and Landyonce. These people go out over the airways or on panels around the country, and people meet them and hear them speak. People will say, "Oh, now I get it." And to me, there's no better mission right now because of the crisis we're in.

How do you feel about Fox News' impact on TV journalism? Did the reporters you spoke with consider it a valid threat to what they were doing?

Some of them, like Peter Arnett, felt the impact of Fox News. He was interviewed on Iraqi TV and was summarily pulled from view. It was fascinating, because you have Geraldo drawing little maps in the sand and nothing happens to him, but Arnett gets it between the eyes for basically quoting what the American military was saying about itself.

Some of them, like Arnett, felt the power of Fox, because they did 24-hour attacks on him and what he did. He was pulled from view as a result of that.

Then there's Tom Curley, the president and CEO of the Associated Press, who thinks that Fox is an important voice because they present this right-wing point of view. He talks about the diversity of voices, and how Fox is great because it's part of that.

Me, I don't care what wing the truth flies in on -- right or left -- as long as it's the truth.

I frankly do not see Fox as a purveyor of the truth. I don't give a damn that they're right-wing. I don't want to paint them with one big, broad, black brush and say they lie all the time. Sometimes -- I've got to give credit -- in the morning, you can't find anything on Iraq, because Robin's there [on CNN] talking about little pet dogs, but at least Fox is in Iraq.

Really, Fox's audience is very small. It's only about 1.8 million, I believe. But they're powerful, because they are connected philosophically and politically to the White House.

Are there any news websites that you love and would like to promote?

I love Asia Times online. You've got to do a story on those people.

I wouldn't have Juan Cole in my book if I didn't think his website was amazing. It's just intelligent analysis and real information. That's the thing -- you can't just report the facts. If you don't have history and context and good analysis, then that reporting makes no sense. If you want really great analysis, plus the facts, plus people who use all kinds of sources when they're covering the Middle East.

I love AlterNet, too. I go there all the time.

Laura Barcella is an associate editor at AlterNet.