When news becomes partisan

By CLIFFORD D. MAY

An essential American institution is in crisis, but the mainstream media is not covering the story. That’s because the institution in crisis is the mainstream media, which appears incapable of self-examination, much less self-criticism.


When I trained as a journalist some 30 years ago, there were high walls separating news (what happened), analysis (how experts interpret what happened) and opinion (what someone thinks should be done in response to what happened). Those walls no longer stand.

Today, major media outlets routinely use news and analysis to score ideological and partisan points. The most recent example is the front page New York Times story on a National Intelligence Estimate that no one at the Times had read. The reporters and editors were satisfied they knew what was in it based on what they were told by "several officials in Washington involved in preparing the assessment or who have read the final document."

That document had been completed in April, but the officials leaked what they claimed was its key revelation _ that the war in Iraq has worsened the terrorist threat _ six weeks before the midterm elections. The possibility that this was the motive for the leak was not shared with Times readers.

The Times said its sources "all spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a classified intelligence document." A more honest explanation would have been: "All spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were committing a crime as well violating their professional oath by disclosing classified information."

To Times editors, such transgressions are sometimes admirable, sometimes despicable. The accusation that classified information had been revealed to reporters by members of the Bush administration led the paper to call for what became Patrick Fitzgerald’s multi-year, multimillion-dollar investigation.

Two days after the Times story appeared, the White House declassified parts of the National Intelligence Estimate, demonstrating that the Times’ description of the document was, to be generous, incomplete.

It is bad enough that journalists in the United States allow themselves to be manipulated while abetting the commission of crimes. There also is this: Terrorist groups abroad are utilizing collaborators to twist the news while intimidating independent journalists.

For example, during the recent conflict in Lebanon, Reuters distributed doctored and staged photographs. Other news organizations reported exaggerated casualty figures _ and took Hezbollah’s words that virtually all Lebanese casualties were civilian. Did you ever see a photo of a dead Hezbollah fighter? Or of a live Hezbollah fighter, for that matter?

Few reporters dared pursue the story of how Hezbollah concealed weapons among civilians. As a result, few news consumers knew what British Foreign Office Minister Kim Howell told a parliamentary committee after his return from Lebanon: that Hezbollah had extensively hidden caches of arms in schools and mosques, and rockets in apartment blocks.

"What I saw out there begs many questions about the way we try to define what constitutes a war crime," Howell said. "Every time the Israelis responded (to a missile attack) and smashed a building down, every picture of a burnt child and every picture of a building that had housed people (where) there was now pancake on the ground was propaganda for Hezbollah."

Perhaps the most chilling recent example of how terrorists manage the media was the kidnapping in Gaza of Fox News journalists Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig. Both men were abused, threatened and forced _ at the point of a gun _ to convert to Islam.

The message sent to reporters in the Middle East was clear: One day you may find yourself wearing handcuffs and a hood while men with guns and butcher knives read your dispatches. What do you want them to find?

To what must have been the kidnappers’ delight, Centanni and Wiig, after their release, seemed to accept the notion that journalists in such places as Gaza are obligated to act as public-relations representatives for their hosts. The media, Centanni said, should not be discouraged from "telling the story of the Palestinian people. … Come and tell the story. It’s a wonderful story."

Can you imagine a reporter in Israel saying it was his job to tell the "wonderful story" of the Israeli people? And were a reporter covering the White House to say it was his job to tell the "wonderful story" of George W. Bush, he would be fired on the spot _ deservedly so.

No one can blame journalists for trying to stay safe while doing risky jobs in dangerous neighborhoods. But is it really too much to expect some examination by the media of the altered reality in which they now operate? A little self-criticism when reporters egregiously fail to report a story without fear or favor might be useful, too.

(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)

10 Responses to "When news becomes partisan"

  1. ebbtide  September 29, 2006 at 1:28 pm

    I am a very partisan person, though I do have occassion when I have few partisan feelings at all…and the current state of the media is one of those times. I don’t see a vast conspiracy behind the current state of the media–it would be impossible to keep something like that a secret; though there’s no doubt in my mind that Fox News in particular is top-to-bottom the soapbox for the RNC–there’s no objectivity there.

    I would also add that (politics aside) the current state of the news media is pretty depressing in it’s world view–I would suppose that the Jerry Springer set needs news too and that’s why Natalie Holloway’s family was exploited beyond recognition. But the obsession with pedophiles and sex manics is disturbing–hasn’t that market been saturated yet?

  2. South Point Man  September 28, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    The lamestream media?

    It’s next to worthless. At least in the good ol’ US of A. Unless, of course, you wanted to know everything possible and then some about Brittany Speer’s baby. Then it’s outstandingly in depth. Until you feel like you’re drowning and suffocating in sheer dreck.

    The lamestream media and those who work for them have betrayed us to be sycophantic to evilness.

    They have become nothing but sheer crap. Crap at its crappiest and most stinking.

    However, a big thanks to those people who are journalists/newspersons who still do the job as it’s supposed to be done and don’t act like simpering, vacuous airheads. It’s because of them that actual news still gets disseminated. A Perry White Award of Journalistic Integrity to them all. Now, there’s a wonderful story for you.

  3. Dave  September 28, 2006 at 3:50 pm

    The only reason an intelligent person would buy the New York Times is if they were out of toilet paper and absolutely nothing else was available.

    Dave
    Mountaineer

  4. Fred P  September 28, 2006 at 5:09 pm

    I love that you chose to write an article about partisanism in the news from an extremely partisan viewpoint. Bravo!

  5. David Anthony  September 28, 2006 at 5:17 pm

    The days, if they ever existed, of the liberal media was in the ‘70s, that was thirty years ago. The days of the watchdog media ended in the 80’s when Reagan changed the media ownership rules. The Main Stream Media (MSM) is now owned by military industrial complex companies (GE-NBC et al and Westinghouse-CBS et al), a soft porn king foreigner (Rupert Murdoch- FOX et al) and Disney (ABC et al).

    The MSM sat on the story of Bush’s DUI (and Cheney’s 2 DUIs) before the ’00 election. They helped disseminate the twisted propaganda of a threat against America and cheered from the sidelines for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. When the country had an opportunity to recover from the damage of four years of Bush…the MSM…The Fourth Estate…our overseer…committed the mind boggling crime of sitting on the NSA wiretapping story before the ’04 election. Thus stealing from America the right of knowledge. Make no mistake about it, the MSM elected George Bush for a second term.

    Now, I make no claims to be an expert on the media, I am not a farmer either, but I can recognize bullshit when I see it. The MSM has become the American answer to the great Soviet parades of the USSR era. Instead of armaments and missiles, we get newsertainment about crime and punishment, the personal lives of celebrities and advice on how to spend money. The parade lands in our driveway everyday, it comes through the television, over the radio and over the internet. It is a parade that makes us feel safe that someone, somewhere is doing something to safeguard us all from our government. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    An investigative MSM died thirty years ago. An independent MSM died twenty years ago. The MSM, as an instrument of government and corporate shilling, is very, very close to flourishing in our lifetime.

    The only hope for change is to repeal the ownership rules established in the ‘80s. Have all government-involved corporations divest themselves of their media interests and no foreign ownership. Then, maybe we can save the watchdog and trust again in our own media.

  6. Jackson  September 28, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    The mainstream media has become more of a propaganda apparatus than it’s ever been, but this is only half of the problem. If the media has been caught lying to protect and further the radical Bush agenda, which it has on numerous occasions, the American people should have sense enough to stop taking it seriously, and seek their news and information elsewhere. When a people is unable to wean itself from a prevaricating mainstream media, that people have a major problem. They’re basically too stupid for their own good! It’s not like the mainstream media is the only source of information, they aren’t, so it’s a no brainer what should be done here. Lamenting the demise of the U.S. mainstream media is understandable, but continuing to take them seriously as a news source is not!

  7. Ann  September 28, 2006 at 7:31 pm

    Gee, you wouldn’t suppose GW’s having “over a thousand media outlets” monitored for content could have anything to do with media being a dirty joke–most of all on consumers, or would you? And how much of the monitored content is being edited or restricted by those doing the monitoring? We’re in a position to get far more accurate and broader news coverage from Canadian sources than MSM US sources. Comparing the content of the two sources left us dumping satellite tv. We got tired of paying too much just to be propagandized, terrorized, and mentally manipulated by media owners. By the way, the Reuters photos were of zero in comparison to the all encompassing, massive, endless whoppers the Bush administration spews in just one day. Should we even mention media has become nothing but a vehicle on which to transport ads both in paid for ads and ads in content?

  8. Big Time Patriot  September 28, 2006 at 8:18 pm

    “And were a reporter covering the White House to say it was his job to tell the “wonderful story” of George W. Bush, he would be fired on the spot _ deservedly so.”

    Seriously, do you ever watch the Fox News Channel? Seriously, not being snarky, but do you think a Fox reporter would get fired for saying their job was to report the “wonderful story of George Bush”?

    You can’t say there is no Right Wing bias at Fox when a Democratic President (Clinton) gets accused of negligence in the war on terrorism while a Republican President (Bush) who performed zero actions against terrorism in the 9 months before (-11 is not. And that same Republican President is allowed to repeat bizarre falsehoods such as “Saddam wouldn’t let the inspectors in” and never gets called on by Fox News to explain why he is flat out lying to America?

  9. Big Time Patriot  September 28, 2006 at 8:19 pm

    “And were a reporter covering the White House to say it was his job to tell the “wonderful story” of George W. Bush, he would be fired on the spot _ deservedly so.”

    Seriously, do you ever watch the Fox News Channel? Seriously, not being snarky, but do you think a Fox reporter would get fired for saying their job was to report the “wonderful story of George Bush”?

    You can’t say there is no Right Wing bias at Fox when a Democratic President (Clinton) gets accused of negligence in the war on terrorism while a Republican President (Bush) who performed zero actions against terrorism in the 9 months before (-11 is not. And that same Republican President is allowed to repeat bizarre falsehoods such as “Saddam wouldn’t let the inspectors in” and never gets called on by Fox News to explain why he is flat out lying to America?

  10. cincigal  September 28, 2006 at 11:21 pm

    I dont know who this Clifford person is(the one who wrote this load of crap)but it is obvious to me who signs his pay check;for this peice of propaganda at least.

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