Sep 1 2008

CounterSpin Interview: The Media Ignore Their Core Duty

Arianna Huffington & Glenn Greenwald on media accountability

From Iraq to Enron, from Hurricane Katrina to No Child Left Behind, from torture to civil liberties to healthcare and much more, it would be hard to overstate the role the U.S. media played in enabling many of the policy debacles of the Bush years. And yet media accountability rarely goes beyond the half-hearted internal investigation, followed by, if we’re lucky, the half-hearted mea culpa. That the media are not prone to self-criticism isn’t a new thing. As crusading journalist George Seldes said decades ago, “The most sacred cow of the press is the press itself.”


CounterSpin talked to two independent journalists who have been chronicling media misconduct over the last several years, both with new books that take a hard look at the Republican-friendly assumptions that guide much of our political discussion and the failure of corporate journalism to question those myths: Glenn Greenwald, writer of the Unclaimed Territory blog at Salon, is the author of Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics; Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, wrote Right Is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution and Made Us All Less Safe.

CounterSpin: Arianna, you target journalistic malfeasance everywhere, from Bill O’Reilly at Fox News to Michael Gordon at the New York Times. But you make a special case about the rise of Bill Kristol, who went from being Dan Quayle’s brain to chief proponent of the Iraq War to, recently, a columnist for the New York Times. Tell us what his rise signifies to you.

Arianna Huffington: There is absolutely no accountability in the media. Somebody can be as totally wrong as Bill Kristol was, including saying that people should stop worrying about Sunnis versus Shi’as because Iraq is a secular society. Remember, that’s what he said in the lead-up to the war. And yet the New York Times sees fit to give him a regular column. Of course they should have conservative voices, but why have a completely discredited advocate?

It’s as though the so-called liberal media is suffering from self-loathing and they feel they have to keep rewarding people who consistently got it wrong. It’s the same thing when they have Richard Perle or Paul Wolfowitz give their opinions as to what we should do to get out of Iraq or to bring our Iraq adventure to a close. Richard Perle? Paul Wolfowitz? When did they ever call for the redemption of saying, “I was wrong, I’m sorry. That’s how I see things now.” I think if a journalist can go through that stage, then fine. They should be reintroduced into the circle of legitimate journalists. But before they do that, I don’t think they should.

CS: Well, the other side of that is also that people who were right about Iraq from the beginning are often excluded from the panels and the tables.

AH: Absolutely. I have a section in my book that I call “The Honor Roll” where I name many of the journalists who, as you said, got it right from the beginning—the Knight-Ridder journalists, Walter Pincus from the Washington Post—to counter the spin that “we all got it wrong,” which is the fall-back position. Yet, you’re right, somehow we go back to the people who got it totally wrong to help us now get it right.

On Tuesday this week (6/24/08), the New York Times had a story on page A6 at the bottom entitled “Government Study Criticizes Bush Administration’s Measures of Progress in Iraq,” in which basically we’re being told that once again a government report about Iraq was full of inaccuracies, misleading information and wrong data. Now, I think this should be, as it is on the Huffington Post, a splash. This is a front-page, above-the-fold story. It’s not a below-the-fold A6 story without any follow-up in the opinion pages.

CS: Glenn Greenwald, in your book you zero in on the media as enablers or purveyors of these Republican myths that you examine in political campaigns. For example, the template seems to be that there is a tough, ready-to-fight Republican over here in one corner, and he’s being challenged, barely, by a weak, somewhat effeminate Democratic candidate. You have pages and pages of transcripts where [MSNBC’s] Chris Matthews, whom you call “the media’s unrestrained id,” is personifying this and lionizing these Republicans. Where do you think this all comes from?

Glenn Greenwald--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Glenn Greenwald–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Glenn Greenwald: One of the things that I think is interesting is that you don’t even need to really speculate about it or draw any inferences about it. You can just go and look at what journalists themselves say about what they perceive their role to be.

I mean, if you ask journalists—and to some extent this has been asked of them—what is it that accounted for their pre-war failure to investigate the claims that the Bush administration was making about Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi threat, as opposed to simply passing them on, they’ll say things like, “Well, you have to understand that our phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook with people who were trying to tell us that this was false,” or “The Democrats weren’t making a very strong case.” They actually see their role—and [NBC’s] David Gregory said this recently—that their role is not to create debate. They actually see their role as simply passing on what people in political power say, rather than investigating whether or not those claims are true.

And for the last 15 years or so, political power in Washington has largely meant the Republican power structure. The journalist class formed this sort of partnership with Republican operatives during the Lewinsky scandal, when only the far right and the media were obsessed with Bill Clinton’s sex scandals and the rest of the country wasn’t. That’s when they got fed most of their information, that’s when their partnerships formed. And they’ve been relying on them ever since.

And you look at accounts of people who have covered the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, from people like Margaret Carlson, who has been at Time, and a whole slew of others, and they’ll just admit that the reporters who were covering the Bush campaign were charmed and enamored of George Bush and despised Al Gore for all of these personality-based, petty, juvenile, high school-type reasons. And it’s their own description of what it is they think they’re supposed to be doing and what they do that supports these critiques.

CS: One of the most pernicious things that you describe in the book is how the media perpetuate these story lines about kind of wimpy Democrats, and it’s the way that reporters pretend that by obsessing over, say, John Edwards’ haircut, they’re just giving air time or column inches to things people are already talking about.

GG: You saw this when there was the uproar after the ABC debate hosted by Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, where they were lambasted for spending the entire first half of the debate on the pettiest and the most insipid of matters, Barack Obama’s lapel pin and things that Americans couldn’t care less about and that are just childish and petty. And their defense was, we spend time on these things because these are what the American people care about. That’s always their excuse. When John Edwards’ haircut price or Barack Obama’s bowling score are the dominant news stories, which they are for a week or two weeks in our country, that’s the excuse that they give. It’s a complete fiction.

If you look at public opinion polls, Americans hate the media, in large part because they spend so much of their time on issues that don’t matter to them at all. And, in fact, the public on both sides of the aisle is in agreement that so much of the problem is that they spend their time on petty gossip and irrelevancies that the reporters love because it’s extremely easy to pass on. They make chatter with each other. It’s gossip that they don’t have to actually do any work for or any critical thinking about or spend any time investigating.

What ends up happening is they all talk to one another about it. They all see that they are all reporting it themselves. So they mistake that fact that the news cycle was dominated by these stories as proof that that’s what Americans care about. That’s because they’re extraordinarily self-absorbed. They think that whatever they’re talking about is by definition what Americans care about. And yet there is no evidence for that at all, and there is plenty of evidence to prove that the reason people are so dissatisfied with the media is because they essentially ignore their core duty, which is to report on what the government is doing and investigate that.

CS: In the book you go back to 1988 and George H.W. Bush. In a strange turn, the Republican was derided as a wimp or possibly a wimp, and he later reclaimed his masculinity by invading Panama. During the campaign, the wimp label got affixed to his opponent, Michael Dukakis. It’s one of these things that the media will occasionally cop to getting wrong, that “we shouldn’t have said those things about George H.W. Bush.” You never hear anyone saying, “We shouldn’t have called Michael Dukakis a wimp or portrayed him as such.” It’s like the sin was being that way to Bush and not necessarily to Dukakis.

GG: To me, the real precedent for this election is that 1988 election, because the reason Michael Dukakis began 18 points ahead of George H.W. Bush in the polls was because the country had soured on the Republican brand after eight years of rule by Ronald Reagan, and they wanted to change parties, they wanted a Democrat in the White House. And all the Democrats, in fact, were far ahead of Bush in those 1987 and 1988 polls.

And what Roger Ailes, who now runs Fox News, and [Bush campaign manager] Lee Atwater realized was that if the election turned on discussion of substantive issues, then there was no way that they could win it, because the Republican brand had become so sullied. The only way that they could win it was by creating this cult of personality around Bush and, more to the point, demonizing Michael Dukakis as this out-of-touch, exotic, weak, gender-confused elitist, using these sort of base personality attacks about whether he was sufficiently angry about the idea of someone raping his wife or how he looked in a helmet while riding around in a tank.

That is exactly the playbook that the Republicans now are trying to use to elect John McCain. And the media naturally plays along with it, and eagerly does so, by focusing on these petty and insipid personality-based attacks. That’s why the most imperative thing—I know Arianna’s book focuses on that, and mine does too—is to put John McCain under the spotlight so that these media myths, this iconography that’s created around him, can’t withstand real scrutiny.

CS: There is this sense that we’re in a different era with the rise of new media and the blogosphere. Both of you have been very prominent critics of the media, and have had exchanges with prominent journalists about your criticism. Does it make you more hopeful that maybe some of these myths can be challenged more directly just by getting under the skin of some of these journalists?

GG: Yes, I think definitely that the blogosphere and alternative media are having a much larger impact than they have had in the past. It’s now virtually impossible for any significant journalist to even pretend that they’re not hearing the criticism that is directed at them, and the sense of shame and embarrassment that are important tools to use when they do disgraceful things has gotten a lot stronger. I think you saw that most prominently with how George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson had to spend that whole week on the defensive, justifying the questions that they asked. That was previously unheard of, where major network news anchors would have to account for the kinds of questions they asked and the behavior that they engaged in. And you see large journalists responding to Arianna’s criticisms, mine, and a lot of other people’s in the blogosphere all the time. That definitely starts to shape and influence what they do.

At the same time, I think it’s important not to overestimate that. The influence of the established media is still very significant. A lot of them are very insular, and a lot of these behaviors are very systemic and cultural. So we can definitely prod and influence and alter their behavior to some degree, but they still wield a very significant influence. And the prospect of changing how they behave is a long-term one. It involves continuing to change their behavior but also creating alternatives to how political news is getting reported.

Arianna Huffington--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/jdlas

Arianna Huffington–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/jdlas

AH: I completely agree with Glenn. I think the significance of the new media is remarkable but should not yet be overestimated. Old media are still incredibly powerful. And, let’s be fair, they’re still breaking a lot of the stories. One of the things that I think is imperative for us to try and convince old media to do more of, or at least do it for them, is stay on these big stories that they break. I thought the story this week about continuing incorrect data coming out of the government about Iraq is incredibly significant. But I bet it’s going to take the blogosphere, it’s going to take new media staying on it and developing it and finding out exactly what happened, before the story can capture the public imagination and create the right amount of outrage.

Arianna Huffington and Glenn Greenwald were interviewed for the July 4, 2008 CounterSpin by Peter Hart and Steve Rendall.