Friday :: Dec 3, 2004

Fear and Leaning in the Editorial Office

by larre
It's time we readers of newspapers and viewers of television demanded full and plain disclosure of the identity of the editors behind the reporters' story. Tell us the names of the men and women who make the assignments, edit the copy, decide which visuals are newsworthy and which are "unsuitable" for our delicate sensibilities.

Who can tell me the name of the managing editor of CNN News between 9 am and 3 pm? Who among you knows the identity of the person who assigned Judith Miller to shamelessly hype the run-up to the Iraq war? Just who is the dumbell who edits Elisabeth Bumiller's garbage at the New York Times? Who at National Public Radio decides when not to compare the number of Iraqi civilians murdered under Saddam Hussein's regime between 2000 and 2001 with the number of Iraqi civilians killed under George Bush's occupation regime in 2003 and 2004?

Michael Massing's mid-November feature article in the New York Review of Books, Iraq, the Press, and the Election has been on the web for awhile. Sadly, other than favorable mention at Tom Dispatch and in Mother Jones it has received less notice than it deserves.

Ostensibly, Massing set out to ask how Bush could have won reelection when his Iraq policy so plainly is a catastrophe for all concerned.

[I]t's not clear to what extent the public was aware of just how bad things had gotten in Iraq. For while there was much informative reporting on the war, a number of factors combined to shield Americans from its most brutal realities. A look at these factors can help to understand some neglected aspects of George Bush's victory.

Massing identifies many "factors" to explain why coverage of the Iraq war "shields" Americans from the truth. Among them are censorship and outright lying by U.S. military and political agencies, an appalling deficit of knowledge among reporters about the languages and cultures of Iraq, and "journalistic conventions" that mistake false equivalency for "balance." This passage sums up some of the factors Massing mentions:
As a matter of policy, any journalist wanting to visit the Green Zone, that vast swath of Baghdad that is home to US officialdom, had to be escorted at all times; one could not simply wander around and chat with people in bars and cafés. The vast world of civilian contractors -- of Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown & Root, of Bechtel, and of all the other private companies responsible for rebuilding Iraq -- was completely off-limits; employees of these companies were informed that they would be fired if they were caught talking to the press. During the days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, its administrator, L. Paul Bremer, and the top military commander, Ricardo Sanchez, gave very few interviews to US correspondents in Baghdad. They did, however, speak often via satellite with small newspapers and local TV stations, which were seen as more open and sympathetic. "The administration has been extremely successful in going around the filters, of getting their message directly to the American people without giving interviews to the Baghdad press corps," one correspondent said.

Massing also mentions the laughably overt bias of Fox News, although almost as an afterthought.

Bill O'Reilly spent far more time dissecting Rather's mistakes at CBS than he did analyzing Bush's deeds in Iraq. And that's how Fox wants it. The most striking feature of its coverage of the war in Iraq was, in fact, its lack of coverage.

Yet, as I think it over, for me the most compelling aspect of Massing's article is the disturbing picture he paints of how low American journalism is sinking in its Iraq war coverage due to fear. Not the fear of death that a war correspondent faces, which is very real and which Massing describes quite vividly, but the fear of newsroom executives who are safely embedded at their desks back in the United States.

Although it is easy to blame the kind of lousy or biased coverage Massing speaks of on bad reporting a good deal of it seems at least equally due to bad editorial direction. In my mind, his article raises this question: does the true story of Bush's War against Iraq remain hidden from the American people in large measure because safe and secure editors and publishers twist, bury, or kill the story? Are they acting out of political bias, stupidity, or old-fashioned careerist cowardice? Illustration in point:

Toward the end of September, Farnaz Fassihi, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in Baghdad, sent an e-mail to forty friends describing her working conditions in Iraq. Fassihi had been sending out such messages on a regular basis, but this one seethed with anger and frustration. "Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days," she wrote --
is like being under virtual house arrest.... I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't.
Citing the fall of Falluja, the revolt of Moqtada al-Sadr, and the spread of the insurgency to every part of the country, Fassihi declared that
despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a "potential" threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to "imminent and active threat," a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come.... The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can't be put back into a bottle.
Fassihi's e-mail soon ended up on the Internet, where it quickly spread, giving readers a vivid and unvarnished look at what it was like to live in the world's most dangerous capital. Somehow, Fassihi, in her informal message, had managed to capture the lurid nature of life in Iraq in a way that conventional reporting, with all its qualifiers and distancing, could not.

* * *
Interestingly, no such account appeared in The Wall Street Journal. For Fassihi's criticism of Bush administration policy outraged some readers, who insisted that she could no longer write about Iraq with the necessary objectivity. In response, the Journal announced that Fassihi was going to take a previously scheduled vacation from Iraq and that this would keep her from writing anything more about it until after the US election.

Both Fassihi and her editors insisted that this decision was not a criticism of her, but some detected a pulling back by the Journal, and an examination of its coverage tends to bear this out. In the weeks before Fassihi's departure, the paper ran a number of probing pieces on Iraq. On September 15, for instance, Fassihi and Greg Jaffe, in a front-page story, described how the steady rise in violence in Baghdad reflected growing cooperation among Iraq's once highly fragmented insurgent groups. After Fassihi's e-mail was circulated, however, such stories almost entirely disappeared from the Journal's front page, and they were hard to find inside as well.

The careerist fears of editors and publishers have not been confined to the Right.
[E]ven... "liberal" outlets had strict limits on what they would show. On September 12, for instance, a group of American soldiers patrolling Haifa Street, a dangerous avenue in central Baghdad, came under fire. Another group of soldiers in two Bradley fighting vehicles came to rescue them. They did, but one of the vehicles had to be abandoned, and a jubilant crowd quickly gathered around it. A banner from a group associated with Zarqawi was produced and placed on the vehicle. Arab TV crews arrived to record the event. At one point, two US helicopters showed up and made several passes over the vehicle. With the crowd fully visible, one of the helicopters launched a barrage of rockets and machine-gun rounds. The vehicle was destroyed, and thirteen people were killed. Among them was Mazen al-Tumeizi, a Palestinian producer for the al-Arabiya network who was doing a TV report in front of the Bradley. Hit while on camera, his blood spattering the lens, Tumeizi doubled over and screamed that he was dying.

The video of Tumeizi's death was shown repeatedly on al-Arabiya and other Arabic-language networks. On American TV, it aired very briefly on NBC and CNN, then disappeared. On most other networks, it appeared not at all. Here was a dramatic piece of footage depicting in raw fashion the human toll of the fighting in Iraq, yet American TV producers apparently feared that if they gave it too much time, they would, in Urban Hamid's phrase, get burned. (I still have not heard of a single instance in which the killing of an American in Iraq has been shown on American TV.)

Massing asks near the end of his article, "Now, with President Bush preparing for a second term, what can we expect from the press in Iraq?" His answer is predictably grim.

The initial signs, from Falluja, are not encouraging. Even allowing for the constraints imposed by embedding, much of the press seemed unduly accepting of US claims, uncritically repeating commanders' assertions about the huge numbers of insurgents killed while underplaying the devastation in the city. And little attention was paid to the estimated 200,000 residents said to have fled Falluja in anticipation of the fighting. Amid US claims that the city had been "liberated," these refugees seemed invisible. But, in light of the coverage in recent months, this should have come as no surprise.
He's right, but his own article suggests the cause goes well beyond the reporters in the field. It is rooted just as deeply, if not more so, in the editorial offices of our newspaper, magazine, television, and radio outlets. Blaming war correspondents for poor coverage is like blaming the soldiers for Bush's disastrous war policies.

Insiders usually know who shares the blame for execrable reporting, like that of Judith Miller. Still, like the New York Times' tardy mea culpa over its jingoistic and falsified coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war, for the rest of us it's usually just "the editors."

It's time we readers of newspapers and viewers of television demanded full and plain disclosure of the identity of the editors behind the reporters' story. Tell us the names of the men and women who make the assignments, edit the copy, decide which visuals are newsworthy and which are "unsuitable" for our delicate sensibilities. And I don't mean to be satisfied with some obscure scroll of names and titles in the masthead or running down the sreen at the end of every hour like the infamous 'best boy' credit at the end of a movie.

I want full disclosure of editorial responsibility for every major story. Who assigned it? Who edited the copy? Who picked the visuals? Disclosure of each story editor should be made in the same way and at the same time as the correspondents' name or byline is revealed.

We rightly expect the F.D.A. to label medicines that might make us sick or die. Consumers of news ought to have an equal right to know the names of editors and publishers whose cowardice is helping to shutter American minds and kill American democracy.

larre :: 5:43 AM :: Comments (11) :: Digg It!