White bread dipped in warm milk media


The issue of Columbia Journalism Review titled “Failures of Imagination” contains the strongest indictment of the mainstream press that I have yet to read, plus an editorial on vote-stealing that should be not just a scolding but a wake-up call regarding future elections’ coverage. CJR is the magazine of my journalism alma mater, which is arguably one of the nation’s premier schools for this craft and the somber tone of these pieces should count for more than academic hand-wringing.

The cover story is a 16-page account of what the media knew about things like rendition, torture (whatever that is), formerly secret detention camps and some of the other steps taken by the U.S. government in the wake of 9/11 to aprehend what I believe are called “enemy combatants.” I could not read every word; it was an exhaustive and exhausting read meant, I assume, to gather in one place the reporting that was done to gradually create a picture of the overseas detention centers and interrogation techniques that were begun under presidential authority, challenged in the courts and now, I gather from published accounts, ratified in retrospect by Congress.

I’ll leave it to those interested in the specifics of torture coverage to read the entire piece. What demands understanding and debate going foward is this observation from the article’s author, Eric Umansky :

“When the record on torture coverage is examined in detail, an ambiguous picture emerges: in the post-9/11 days, some reporters offered detailed accusations and reports of abuse and torture, only to be met with skepticism by their own editors. Stories were buried, played down, or ignored … . What is true and what is significant are two different matters. Everyone agrees that journalists are supposed to ascertain the truth. As for deciding what is significant, reporters and editors make that judgment, too, all the time — what story leads on the front page, or gets played inside, what story gets followed up. And when it comes to very sensitive material, like torture, many journalists would prefer to rely on others to be the first to decide that something is significant. To do otherwise would mean sticking your neck out.”

After 14 years in the business I get the sense that mass media generally practice journalism as the act of reporting on the statements and doings of important people even when these important people say or do nothing important at all. To follow a story that has not been vetted by an important entity is to embark on what an editor might call “a crusade.” I made a similar point in a recent posting about a whistleblower whose allegations of shoddy work in a government contract were ignored by official investigatiors, the Congress and the media — until he made being ignored the story.

I find the CJR piece interesting because it avoids the overstatement of media critics like Project Censored — which I think would be more rightly called Project Underplayed or Project Ignored. But it’s hard not to be angry with media that lavish incredible coverage on non-stories like the Jon Benet Ramsey soap opera. Remember when that sicko gave his apparently false confession? Every “respectable” news outlet in the country followed the tabloids right down the supermarket checkout aisle. It’s the modern day version of bread-and-circuses.

Oh, well, all that is water under the bridge. The only good way to recover from a mistake is to learn from it. That must be why CJR ran its editorial on “Guarding the Vote” in the same issue. Anyone not heard of hanging chads, and its sequel in Ohio? CJR says:

“We’re not making the case that the election of 2004 was stolen, and we’d rather look ahead than back. But we are arguing that intolerable things happened in Ohio that merited more sustained attention from the national press. And that targeting particular groups for vote suppression is reprehensible, yet effective, and will continue unless challenged. (In late August, Salon named six states that appear ripe for trouble.) Guarding the democratic process is part of the journalistic mission, and with another election approaching, now is the time to think about that. Suppressing democracy is, yes, a big deal.”