Tuesday, May 17, 2005


The Newsweek/Koran issue is interesting in several respects. First, it's just the latest in a series of debacles--Jayson Blair, Dan Rather, and in my opinion Iraq--that has given journalism a chronic and well-deserved black eye. What's going on here? Is it deadline pressure? Financial cuts? The need to fill space? General shoddiness? I work in a field that is completely unrelated to the media, so I am genuinely curious what's behind this mess. I've been a consumer of mainstream journalism for twenty-five years, and I cannot remember such a string of successive high-profile botch jobs before.

Against this backdrop, some new poll results concerning the public's attitude towards the media are interesting:
A survey to be released Monday reveals a wide gap on many media issues between a group of journalists and the general public. In one finding, 43% of the public says the press has too much freedom, while only 3% of journalists agree. And just 14% of the public can name "freedom of the press" as a guarantee in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in the major poll conducted by the University of Connecticut Department of Public Policy.

Six in ten among the public feel the media show bias in reporting the news, and 22% say the government should be allowed to censor the press.
As always with polls, the way in which the question is phrased is as important as the results, so I checked out the poll here at the University of Connecticut's DPP website. The two relevant questions were:

1. "Overall, do you think the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, too little freedom to do what it wants, or is the amount of freedom the press has about right?" 43% responded too much freedom, 12% too little freedom, 43% said about right, 2% did not know.

2. "Newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of a story." 55% strongly agreed, 20% mildly agreed, 11% mildly disagreed, 11% strongly disagreed, 2% did not know.

Incredible, isn't it? Slightly less than half of those polled thinks the press is too free. And almost half does not "strongly agree" that the press should be allowed to print a story without government approval.

Undoubtedly, part of this is a result of Rathergate, as well as the deeply entrenched public perception of liberal media bias. And as I discussed in this recent post, journalism as an institution certainly bears some of the blame. Still, it amazes me that so many people are so disgusted with either the mistakes or the perceived bias of the mainstream media that they favor actual government oversight or overt censorship. The way in which history has shown how people can passively accept or even actively encourage restrictions on their own freedom--and the implications that has for their type of government--has always interested me. It "can't happen here" though, can it?

In a democracy, people generally get the type of journalism they deserve. Maybe Jayson Blair, Rathergate, and Korangate are not so surprising after all.


Anonymous ctbill said...

Most dangerous words ever spoken: "It can't happen here."

5/17/2005 9:24 AM  
Blogger owenz said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5/17/2005 9:38 AM  
Blogger owenz said...

This will likely be seen as an anti-Republican post, though it isn’t intended to be.

In the last 30 years, the Republican Party and, more recently, the Democrats, have learned how to manipulate the press. The Republicans came first and mastered the process, so it’s important to look at the model they’ve created, which the Dems are now hoping to emulate.

The Republicans have created a multi-tiered program designed to both weaken and manipulate the press, which has been a thorn in their side since Watergate. The press-weakening plank is relatively simple: describe the media as liberal in general, and pounce on stories like this week’s Newsweek debacle (and Rathergate) to punctuate the point. The objective has been to undermine the media’s credibility by exploiting and perpetuating the perception that the press is biased, unreliable, and mistake-prone. They’ve largely accomplished this goal with the accidental assistance of the mainstream media, which appears both hyper-sensitive and tone-deaf to the attacks on its character. (The media seems to always lash out at the moment it should show humility – like during Rathergate – and curl in the fetal position when it should fight back – like it is right now with the Newsweek story.)

The message-control plank is more complex. The current version of the machine starts with think tanks which, working closely with the RNC, formulate a message using polling and long-term strategic planning. There is a heavy emphasis on linguistics; that is, how to “sell” stories that are unpopular on their face, but can be spun to the public through clever or manipulative wording. Once a message is perfected, it is fed to talk radio, blogs, and insider publications such as the Washington Times to generate inertia and test the reaction of the public and mainstream press. Fox News soon steps in and gives the story a wide-billing and a hard news edge. CNN, MSNBC, and the networks – afraid to be smeared as liberal or miss a building story – then pick it up and run with it. Finally, the traditional print media (which features conservative pundits on every Op-Ed page) pays attention, since everyone in Washington is chatting about the issue. This methodology, used brilliantly during the latter years of the Clinton White House and perfected in the run-up to Iraq, has allowed Republicans to control much of what the mainstream media reports.

It’s a sophisticated and impressive operation. Fox News has even given the Republicans a new way to attack the media’s credibility while still controlling the message (a sort of 2-for-1 deal). Recent polls demonstrate that even Fox’s most conservative viewers believe the network has a heavy rightwing bias. The implicit message Fox sends out is this: we’re not “Fair and Balanced,” it’s just that our bias leans right instead of left. Thus, Fox News attacks the idea that “objective journalism” even exists. It declares that no media is objective and that every source of news ought to be questioned. Fox’s own viewers snicker at its faux objectivity and the transparency of the network’s bias accomplishes a goal unto itself: once you’ve watched Fox, it’s hard to believe any network news is bias-free.

As for the Newsweek story, my sense is that they made a mistake in trusting a source and that’s it. The White House is spinning like crazy, but unlike Rathergate, Newsweek appears have vetted the story to the best of their ability. It was serious error, but it was only an error (Rathergate appeared to have a bit more to it). Newsweek’s response should be to document both new and existing evidence of the degradation of Islam in American interrogation techniques, consequences be damned. Of course, the White House’s over-the-top response carries severe risks of its own. Unlike Ratergate, which focused on 30-year old documents that no longer exist, there is no shortage of Islam-and-Torture stories out there waiting to be reported. Something tells me Karl Rove will regret not letting this story fade into the memory hole.

Back to the main thrust of my post: I think what’s most interesting is how liberals are abandoning the media as well. Most leftwing bloggers seem to believe the best way to defeat the Republican spin machine is not to strengthen the independent media, but to create an equally strong liberal spin machine to counter what the Republicans have created. While rightwingers attack the press for bias, leftwinger bloggers have unleashed a withering and near constant attack on the press for its incompetence, laziness, and fearfulness. Reporters now face liberal outrage on the internet that rivals anything the Republican conjured up in the past.

When you factor in the death spiral of newspaper circulation, the public’s flat-lining belief in the press’s objectivity, and the general disinterest in the freedom of the press, the future looks dim for journalism. American universities continue to teach the lessons of objectivity and balance with great skill and enthusiasm, but the profession is subject to the pressures of the free market (full disclosure: I was a journalism major as an undergrad). If newspapers, magazines, websites, and television networks no longer think the objective/balanced reporting model sells (because the public is no longer buying it), it will cease to exist – no matter how many well trained and well intentioned journalists are out there.

5/17/2005 10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

scary, scary, scary!

5/17/2005 11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

owenz comments in response are right on and chilling for our Democracy.

5/17/2005 11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

speaking as a European.....

A nation not only get's the government it deserves( And good luck with yours )..... It also gets the press it deserves.

By the way, please stop useing the term "Free" press about the American media.... fact is, it's all owned by someone, and anything that is owned by an individual or small group, by definition, is not free. ( I hear PBS is going the same way)

Eighteen men ( who all know each other) own or control ninety per cent of anything the Average American is likely to read, hear or see.


5/17/2005 1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS to the above post.......

Rupert Murdoch.... owner of Fox ...... is a case in point... and an interesting one.... Apperently, while at University in Australia he was a member of a communist group\club ( This get's bizarre, but it's worth following)...

He built his intial fortune on the success of the Uk newspaper "The Sun".... and that was built on introducing the bare breasts of teenage girls (Some as young as fifteen) onto page three of that paper........ Soft-porn therefore pays the salaries of those right wing commentators on Fox who decry the appalling drop in morals prevalent amongst the society he has done so much to shape.

Here's where it gets interesting.

He expanded a decade ago into the far east market.... China in particular......through his satellite broadcasting ..... there, he agreed, at Communist China's request... to censor all his TV output in the region and remove certain sources of news and information from his satellite broadcasts completely.... such as the BBC.

There are long time observors of Rupert Murdoch who hold the belief that his "flirtation" with communism while at University was and is, in fact, a core belief..... that he is happy to help corrupt and destroy democracy from within, while makeing huge , untaxed, profits, through his media Empire.


5/17/2005 2:02 PM  
Blogger owenz said...

I wonder if most Sudanese would agree with the statement that “a nation only gets the government they deserve…”

As for Davegood’s comment on the free press – if you look around the world, the privately owned press is far more independent than government-run media. For every sterling example like the BBC, after all, you have government-controlled press in Egypt or China to provide a chilling counter-point. So while it’s true that media consolidation has hurt the American press, I wouldn’t be so eager to reject the private model altogether. Moreover, the US Constitution gives the American press a greater degree of freedom than virtually anyplace else on earth. One has to wonder if neo-Nazism would be such a problem in Europe if European governments didn’t rely so heavily on free speech suppression to fight it…

Regarding Rupert Murdoch, I think it’s more than a little ironic that he, of all people, would be accused of communism. Last I checked, he wasn’t donating any money to the proletariat. My read on Murdoch is that he’s a shrewd businessman who thinks media sells when it has the following three attributes: (1) tabloid sleaze/splash; (2) populist politics; and (3) a heavy emphasis on sports. This formula has allowed him to accumulate formidable empires in Australia, England, and the US, but I sincerely doubt he cares just how conservative or liberal his various publications are. He’s motivated by money.

I certainly don’t think Rupert is a communist. That implies he has political convictions. He allows the Chinese to censor his media because he’ll gladly sacrifice freedom of speech for a few bucks, which hardly makes him unique in the world of international conglomerate CEO’s.

All that said, dave’s point is well taken. Each time the FCC eliminates another barrier to media concentration, the pool of free ideas gets smaller. Unfortunately, I don’t think government-run media from across the pond is going to step in and fill the void either. Who other than the NY Times or Washington Post or CNN is going to spend the money needed to send journalists around the world? It sure as hell won’t be bloggers.

5/17/2005 3:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Sir..... you assume post assumes there are only two ways a , media outfit ( or any other organisation) for that matter CAN be owned....

One is directly, by the government ( often called communism\socialist etc).... the other is.... by private inviduals ..... ( who may end up owning the government as well because they own the opinion forming press)..... the fact is .... there are other, very succesful models of ownerships that place ownership and control of large powerful institutions beyond the reach of governments and self interested individuals alike.

One is the co-operative......In my country two of our oldest and mnost powerful newspaper are owned and run on that basis... the Observor and the telegraph.

Another is the BBC and the PBS ..... both of whom were set up to be at arms length from governments and any special interest groups but are currently umder attack and about to be "brought to heel" by thier governments.

My original point still stands.... your media is largely owned by a very small like-minded group of elderly white males who all know each other.

They control the formation of opinion within your society..... and opinion is politics.


PS.... Never been totally convinced by the arguement that Murdoch is a closet communist myself.......... but it's put forward by people who claim to have known him from his University days, long before I was born.... they think they see a consistent pattern..... damage and corrupt western democracies from within, useing capitilisms's tools.

5/17/2005 3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


B*gger.... the above should read "Gaurdian".... not "Telegraph"....sorry.


5/17/2005 3:45 PM  
Blogger owenz said...

Although the Guardian and Observer are owned by a unique trust, they are just that - unique. So far they have held up to the rigors of competition, but they are subject to the same market pressures that have battered American publications. As long as readership stays high it's not a problem, but I would assume the internet is hurting circulation in England just as is here. I will certainly concede that the Scott Trust provides the papers with enviable protection against outside influences (market driven or otherwise), however.

As it stands, I will still take the combined efforts of the NY Times, LA Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal News Division over what the Guardian and Observer have to offer, but that is subject to change. Politics aside, the ability of these American papers to uncover and document the news remains unrivaled, in my opinion.

Besides, I have to wonder: if the Scott Trust didn’t exist, would the British simply invent it? I doubt it. Establishing such a trust requires that some very rich individuals donate an enormous amount of money to the public good. Perhaps someone like George Soros will see fit to do so in America, but billionaire benefactors don't just appear because we want to them to. The bottom line is that someone has to pay for newspaper operations. The second a dying billionaire sets up an American version of the Scott Trust, I’ll sing the praises of the new and unique ownership form – but until that happens, I think we’re stuck with the two readily available types of ownership: private and government.

5/17/2005 4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Owenz :)

Sir.... you clearly know your field....... as for "would the british invent it?".... We did ... remember? These are British Newspapers.

You want to seriously make a case that the ownership of mass media should end up in the hands of a few like-minded individuals...... as it has... In the US and increasingly elsewhere..... and that it would benefit society.

By all means, make your case.....

But, and i may be wrong, you didn't seem to argueing that in your original, thoughtful post.

What I'm doing here is pointing out that you, along with most Americans I have ever met or corresponded with, assume that ownership and control of anything will be between "State" ( Ie communism\socialism) or "private individual" (Capitilism)..... The choices are far wider then that.....

Society and communities are entitled and fully capable of owning and controlling important entities and can do so in way's, that government on the one hand and selfish private interest on the other, are far more beneficial to all concerned.

Unless you actually WANT Rupert Murdoch and his ilk dictateing the terms of debate within your country?


5/17/2005 5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


A "Free" press.

Nothing and no-one, includeing the Press is "Free" if it is owned by some other entity. Ask any slave.

Don't know who you work for..... but I'm willing to bet whoever, or whatever it is..... that "entity" dictates to you what you can and cannot do, can and cannot wear, can and cannot say during your working week.... and has extended it's influence into the rest of your life.......I'm willing to bet for example, it can fire you should it learm that you have been caught smoking a joint, on your own time, on holiday, a thousand miles away from where you work.

People have been excommunicated from thier church becuase they redused to vote for George Bush

Just how "free" are you?


5/17/2005 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Sir, let us please be serious......are you claiming the information\news you recieved from the sources you qoute "NY Times, LA Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal News Division".... before during and since your countries attack, invasion and occupation of a country one tenth your size, and utterly incapable of defending itself, was, and is, in anyway reflected within these august newspapers?

Knowing what you know now......just how f*cking accurate were they?


PS. Note to the author\owner of this blog... you want to ban and delete me from your blog ..... I accept it with good grace and no critiisism.... you have the right and I will not contest it.

5/17/2005 5:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


As for the type of government the people of Darfur get.......it seems the regime in your country has taken a shine to it.

Do try to keep up.... just because the Wall Street Journal prints it... doesn't mean it is true, honest, or in your best interests.


5/17/2005 6:50 PM  
Blogger owenz said...

I understand that the Guardian and Observer had a skeptical take on the war and that, in hindsight, now seems wiser than that of many of the American papers. But I think focusing too narrowly on the war or the political leanings of a particular media source is a bit shortsighted. The American media views itself somewhat differently than the British media, which tends to report the news with an ideological slant (in the case of the Guardian and Observer, that slant is deliberately center-left). The newsrooms of the American papers attempt – to the best of their ability – to report facts objectively, without a slant. This is both a great strength and a great weakness. On the one hand, it means facts will be collected with an eye towards presenting a full and accurate picture without any bias. On other hand, American journalism is often cursed by its attempts at “balance”; that is, it will always search for “another side” to an issue, even if the person or party presenting the other side is lying. In searching for a truth that encompasses a broader political spectrum, the American media is more susceptible to manipulation.

During the war, I was frustrated by the American press’s willingness to be duped by the Bush Administration. I don’t believe this was a result of the print media having an ideological bias in favor of the war (the TV news is another matter, although they are more motivated by ratings than anything). Rather, I think the American print media believed much of what it was told by the Bush (and Blair) Administration and naively reported many things that later proved untrue. In other words, the Administration took advantage of the inherent weaknesses in the American journalistic method, which was the point of my initial post.

The Guardian and the Observer were right on Iraq, but given their ideological slant, the war was a no-brainer for them. They viewed it skeptically from the start and ignored much of what the Bush Administration had to say because it is their position to reflexively resist the right. Their ideology coincided nicely with what happened on the ground, and they came out smelling like roses. If the Bush Administration had been telling the truth that wouldn’t have been the case, but that’s neither here nor there.

If the point of a news organization is uncovering facts and reporting them as thoroughly and even-handedly as possible, I will still take the American press over the rest of the world, even in its dying state. The point of my original post was not that American journalism is corrupt, after all. The point is that in the political sphere, the Republicans have figured out how to rig the system. They carefully manipulate the press to control much of the message and they undermine the press by attacking its credibility. As a result, American journalism is breaking down. Although media consolidation is a problem, it is secondary to a more immediate problem: Americans no longer believe in their press. Some of this is due to mistakes like those you cite in Iraq, but a lot of it is because of a direct, sustained attack from the right that has recently been joined by the left. As a former journalist this saddens me, but I don’t know how to stop it. Ironically, the end result will likely be a system much like England’s, where “objective journalism” is a relic of the past and the reality on the ground is a range of media outlets projecting a specific ideological position. It will be more realistic, but also more cynical. The American journalistic ideal – to present the truth without an agenda – is honorable. Unfortunately, it is beginning to look outdated.

A few last points…you claim there are many ways for society to own media other than private or government ownership, yet you cite only one: the Scott Trust. The Scott Trust was created by the original owner of the Guardian in 1936; it was not a clever invention of “the people” of Great Britain. Scott was very very rich and he left the trust behind when he died. If such a trust were possible to replicate, I’d love to see it happen, but your contention that the British people somehow created the trust is nonsense. Perhaps someday in America we’ll have our own C. P. Scott to leave us two independent papers, but until that time, I’m eager to hear some of these “many other” ways you think one can finance a major media entity. If the Scott Trust were easy to duplicate, I imagine other English papers would be owned in the same way.

(It’s worth noting that the New York Times Company is not a conglomerate: its holdings are rather limited and primarily media-related, and it has been run by the Sulzberger family for many years. Rupert Murdoch they ain’t.)

As for my freedom, the American state I live in has legalized gay marriage – has Great Britain? Really, you needn’t worry about my freedom. The moral position of left-leaning Brits is hardly superior to that of left-leaning Americans. After all, most left-leaning Americans didn’t vote for the American President who went to War in Iraq. Can most left-leaning Brits look in the mirror and say the same about Tony Blair?

5/17/2005 8:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what can't happen here? Arbeit Macht Frei? It's already happening.....

5/18/2005 1:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Why do you keep insisting that the american media ( while awknowledgeing and lamenting it has been damaged and weakened).... is still the best in the world?

Just how good a job have they done in reporting honestly, accurately and fairly the true state of the world we all live in?

The media in other countries..... virtually ANY other country ... reported the true state of affairs over Iraq, who wanted War, why they wanted it and what they expected to gain.... and they were proved right.... NOT in hindsight, they were right at the time concerned.

Your media didn't just perform badly ( and even if that's all thier guilty of.... it still doesn't square with your claim they are more to be trusted then any other news source does it?)

It's clear they knowingly did so... and do so today..... Some fifty per cent of Americans still believe to this day that Saddam Hussien had WMD and\or backed 9\11.... It takes a massive concerted effort by your media to bring that about....when your own government and George Bush himself have been forced to awknowledge that in fact Saddam didn't have WMD... and there is no evidence whatsoever of any involvement in 9\11.

Corruption is to light a word to lay at the door of your news media.... Betrayal matches more closely what they have done and continue to do.


5/18/2005 3:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS to above post

Owez.... that you clearly wish the real state of affairs within the American Media was different.... that "honourable" and courageous reporting should be the norm, and that is greatly to your credit.....

But the gap between what you wish for and reality is so huge no attempt can be made to intellectually bridge it.

You are left with the choice of looking at the world as it actually is, and trying to do something about it, or retreating into fantasies.


5/18/2005 4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


and Owenz.... "Dying" ... was the term you used to describe the current condition of American News Media... was it not?


5/18/2005 5:33 PM  
Blogger Tayefeth said...

Who other than the NY Times or Washington Post or CNN is going to spend the money needed to send journalists around the world? It sure as hell won’t be bloggers.

There is precedent for blog readers sending a correspondent overseas: Back To Iraq. Chris Allbriton is currently writing for "a variety of outlets," but his second trip to Iraq was reader-funded.

5/19/2005 12:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Why send a correspondant at all?

Those "embedded" with the "Coalition" have proved worse then useless... many awknowledging that themselves... locked up as they are in Saddams former palaces......

Why not read the blogs from within those countries or areas of interest ( when they are avaialable)..... there are many fine ones from Iraq..... Who would you rather trust and believe?..... the direct voice of someone living day to day with the reality of any given situation..... or thier voice filtered through the perceptions and mindset of someone who flew in, stayed half an hour, conversed through a (usually government supplied) interpreter, and flew out again?

Blogs are primary source material...... thanks to the web I no longer have to rely on some corporate owned entity to tell me what they think I ought to know, or think about, in any given situation..... I can usually reach directly someone living it, and hear what THEY think and fell about what's going on.


PS.... that said.... I follow the writings of certain correspondents with great interest and pleasure:)

5/19/2005 1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In a democracy, people generally get the type of journalism they deserve"

And one could also add "government they deserve".

If one wanted to discredit the media and they were in the WH, all one would have to do is just create false information from what one would reasonably think is a reliable source.

Jayson is a different story, but Rather and Newsweek it could very well be.

I do often wonder why Judy Miller from NYT used Ahmad Chalabi as a trusted source?

Look how easily a finger in a bowl of chili brought Wendy's to its knees. The WH could very well plant a finger in the US media to also bring it to its knees. Since these stories, I'm giving the media a break. Their job is extremely hard these days.

Do you think it is beyond Karl Rove to plant misinformation?

5/22/2005 12:54 PM  
Blogger David Johnsen said...

Considering what Rove did to McCain in South Carolina in 2000, it is certainly not beyond him to plant misinformation. He was involved in similar shenanigans in a couple of Texas campaigns, too.

And FWIW, I agree with owenz that the Republican Party's goal is to destroy the media's credibility, thereby neutralizing the Fourth Estate. It's a logical, albeit shameful, objective for a party that controls the executive and legislative branches and is in the process of stacking the judiciary in its favor.

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