The Media in Trouble
It's official. Conservatives are losing their monopoly on complaints about media bias. In the wake of Newsweek 's bungled report that U.S. military interrogators "flushed a Qur'an down a toilet," here is Terry Moran, ABC's White House reporter, in an interview with radio host and blogger Hugh Hewitt: "There is, I agree with you, a deep antimilitary bias in the media, one that begins from the premise that the military must be lying and that American projection of power around the world must be wrong." Moran thinks it's a hangover from Vietnam. Sure, but the culture of the newsroom is a factor, too. In all my years in journalism, I don't think I have met more than one or two reporters who have ever served in the military or who even had a friend in the armed forces. Most media hiring today is from universities where a military career is regarded as bizarre and almost any exercise of American power is considered wrongheaded or evil.
Not long ago, memorable comments about press credibility came from two stars at Newsweek: Evan Thomas and Howard Fineman. During the presidential campaign, Thomas said on TV that the news media wanted John Kerry to win. We knew that, but the candor was refreshing. Fineman said during the flap over Dan Rather and CBS's use of forged documents on the George Bush-National Guard story: "A political party is dying before our eyes--and I don't mean the Democrats. I'm talking about the 'mainstream media' . . . . It's hard to know now who, if anyone, in the 'media' has any credibility." It's worth mentioning here that the unrepentant Rather and his colleague Mary Mapes, who was fired for her role in presenting the forged documents, received a major industry award last week, a Peabody, as well as "extended applause" from the journalists in the crowd. (What's next? A lifetime achievement award for New York Times prevaricator Jayson Blair?)
Bias-prone. Instead of trampling Newsweek --the magazine made a mistake and corrected it quickly and honestly--the focus ought to be on whether the news media are predisposed to make certain kinds of mistakes and, if so, what to do about it. The disdain that so many reporters have for the military (or for police, the FBI, conservative Christians, or right-to-lifers) frames the way that errors and bogus stories tend to occur. The antimilitary mentality makes atrocity stories easier to publish, even when they are untrue. The classic example is CNN's false 1998 story that the U.S. military knowingly dropped nerve gas on Americans during the Vietnam War. On the other hand, brutal treatment of dissenters by Fidel Castro tends to be softened or omitted in the American press because so many journalists still see him as the romanticized figure from their youth in the 1960s. Another example: It's possible to read newspapers and newsmagazines carefully and never see anything about the liberal indoctrination now taking place at major universities. This has something to do with the fact that the universities are mostly institutions of the left and that newsrooms tend to hire from the left and from the universities in question.
I once complained to an important news executive that he ignored certain kinds of stories. He said that he would like to do them but that his staff wouldn't let him. He admitted his staff had been assembled from one side--guess which?--of the political spectrum. This conversation hardened my conviction that the biggest flaw in mainstream journalism today is the lack of diversity. Much bean-counting goes on in regard to gender and race, but the new hires tend to come from the same economic bracket and the same pool of elite universities, and they tend to have the same take on politics and culture. Much of what they turn out is very good. But when they omit or mess up stories, run badly skewed polls, or publish front-page editorials posing as news stories, nobody seems to notice because groupthink is so strong.
Time is running out on the newsroom monoculture. The public has many options now--as well as plenty of media watchdogs, both professional and amateur. So the press takes its lumps and loses readers. In March, a report on the state of the media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism said that in the past 17 years, Americans have "come to see the press as less professional, less moral, more inaccurate, and less caring about the interests of the country." According to the report, fewer than half of Americans think of the press as highly professional (49 percent, down from 72 percent 17 years ago). Another finding was that coverage of George Bush during the presidential campaign was three times as negative as coverage of John Kerry (36 percent to 12 percent). If the press is that much out of sync with the country, its future looks very uncertain. Something has to change.
This story appears in the May 30, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.