Second Thought: Wednesday, August 18, 2004
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Elephant Hunting

Why do British papers cover America better than the U.S. press?

By K.R. ANDERSON

As a kid running my own newspaper — the Strawberry Shortcake Scoop — I published stories with little regard for analysis or impartiality. My story headlined “Mysterious fire engulfs woods” reported neighbors’ shocked reactions but not my brother’s confession that he’d accidentally started it. “School talent contest” praised my own piano playing without mentioning I was also the one writing the story.

Fortunately as a young reporter in college and then at one of Texas’ largest newspapers, I learned the importance of context, conflicts of interest, and reporting the full story. But far scarier to me than the fire my brother started is the blatant disregard of these journalism standards that I see in the mainstream press today.

Since our nation undertook what’s inaccurately called the “war on terror,” I have been unable to get thorough, accurate reporting from the mainstream U.S. media on a consistent basis. With the exception of a handful of columnists at the nation’s largest papers, a couple of programs on public television such as NOW with Bill Moyers, and sometimes the in-depth analysis in Sunday’s New York Times or Washington Post, the press seems to report whatever it is given in a vacuum — without context, judgment, or thinking. If the Fourth Estate is the watchdog that functions as yet another check on our government — a key part of the democratic equation — then it appears to have mislaid most of its teeth, and developments that could profoundly and horrifically change the entire world are being affected by that toothless bewilderment.

To be sure, the reporting on Iraq and terrorism has improved since journalists oohed and aahed over tanks rolling into Iraq 18 months ago. But the pattern that emerged at that time lives on in the American press — news outlets taking weeks or months to figure out that they have been cheerleaders, rather than critical observers, as the Times and Post have both ’fessed up to. And yet, many viewers and readers saw it immediately.

Last week, after hearing that the latest terror alert was based on years-old information, I clicked on The New York Times web site to see if their story questioned whether the alert was politically motivated. Instead I read only the Bush administration’s assurances that it was valid despite its whiskers. The story danced around the elephant in the room. But in the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper, there was the question in the second paragraph — Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge being asked if officials were manipulating the public by repackaging the old intelligence as new. Stories like that are why the Guardian is my publication of choice in these journalistically-challenged times.

The core problem is that too many reporters have been allowed to substitute superficial reporting for truly balanced and in-depth journalism. Why can’t the U.S. media consistently ask the obvious critical questions on issue related to Iraq, terrorism, and this president?

I worry that they are failing to ask critical questions out of fear that, in the current political climate, such basic journalism will be characterized as unpatriotic. With some reason. President Bush said “you are either with us or with the terrorists,” and his administration has made it basic policy to deny public access to information about what the government is doing and to freeze out any journalist asking critical questions. Ultra-conservatives have successfully made an issue of “liberal media bias,” and the press bends over backward to show they are being fair, when real fairness would require trying on the idea that people in the very top levels of the Bush administration are behaving unethically and lying regularly to the American people. Conservatives, tune this message out — as you’ve been trained to do — only at your peril.

Still, while it would be fun to blame President Bush for our mediocre press coverage, we can’t. Media companies, all on their own, have rushed to feed the masses with Britney Spears gossip, interior design shows, and six-paragraph stories on foreign policy. They feed an increasingly uncaring public what it wants, while cutting back on expensive, labor-intensive investigative reporting and raising their profit margins to new obscene levels.

In a week dominated by campaign stop footage and now gun battles in Najaf, I have some questions for any journalists out there who care about their place upholding the Fourth Estate:

— On behalf of the workers on Wall Street now under watch by armed guards based on the old intelligence information, can someone ask why those precautions weren’t put into place when the intelligence information surfaced years ago and then again this past January? Were the lives of the people who work in these places suddenly worth more right after the Democratic Convention?

— With the 300-plus “militiamen” dying in Najaf under Moktada al Sadr’s command this past weekend, has anyone reported that those militiamen were not terrorists but defenders of their homeland (Ruby Ridge, Waco parallels)? Have they written that al Sadr is the staunchest advocate for many of the poorest people in Iraq, but that he has been given no place at the Iraqi government table?

At home last week, a report on horrible job growth in July ran in The New York Times under the headline “Job growth grinds nearly to halt in July.” President Bush’s comment the same day: “The economy is strong and growing stronger. ... Today’s employment report shows our economy is continuing to move forward.” We can assume President Bush didn’t read the Times because he has said he doesn’t read papers. Smart thing to say if you want the masses to stop relying on the press and you want the press to retreat from its duty.

But maybe he’d let me use that lie about the economy in the next edition of the Strawberry Shortcake Scoop.

K.R. Anderson is a freelance writer in Dallas.


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