Friday, May 20, 2005

WOTM FAQ #3: Are the Media Monolithic? Can they Suppress the News?

A FAQ series featuring some real questions I have answered from time to time.

I received an email this week from a stranger. I reprint it below with my response. I hadn’t heard about the ”conspiracy” about the 10 Downing St. memo until I did some quick Googling about the issue. One of my first finds was an article by Washington Post ombudsman Michel Getler in which he noted that two self appointed “media watch dog” groups had been circulating via email a charge that U.S. media had been suppressing the story since it broke in the UK on May 1.

My correspondent evidently was alerted by one of these emails that spread like kudzu. Who needs the Associated Press when we have e-mail propagation? But I get ahead of myself. First, read the email I was sent:

I just read your rather interesting piece, The Myths of Encroaching Global Media Ownership, and am hoping that as an expert you might be able to shine some light on a more specific, media-related conundrum for me.

In just about every other nation the press has been reporting, starting two weeks ago in Britain, on the internal minutes of a British meeting in which President Bush and Prime Minister Blair made clear they were fixing the facts to further their desired goal of war on Iraq. It also made clear that the decision to start war with Iraq was set as of July 2002, in contrast to our president's claim that he hoped to avoid such a conflict up until March of 2003.

My question is not whether the president has been misleading the public; I believe there is abundant evidence to demonstrate that. Instead I am wondering if you can offer any possible explanation as to why our own media would, across the board, take a pass on this story for two weeks, the potential bombshell just now beginning to trickle in? It should be noted that the exact same pattern emerged with the Abu Ghraib scandal-- a story breaking abroad but not being reported on in the U.S. media until weeks

I personally can come up with only two explanations for our media's reluctant and stingy coverage: the interests of a pressuring party, or parties, are being put before the citizenry's right to unadulterated information; or alternatively, the media is itself manipulating and omitting important stories to further an agenda more important to them than informing the masses. Sounds a bit sinister, but are there less outrageous options? That the media wanted to make sure the story was legitimate first? Two weeks seems a ridiculous amount of time for that.

As you can see, the whole thing is indeed a conundrum. That is, unless I've already whittled the puzzle down to the correct options. I would very much appreciate any new insights you can offer me.

My response:

Neither of your "hypotheses" would hold up to an understanding of how editors think and work at the dozens of major news organizations (not to mention the reliable sector of the Blogosphere).

1. For one, I personally was aware of the story from an article in the NY Times in early May. So the story was out there, if not with the ubiquity you would have preferred.

2. You're question has been addressed by the Washington Post's ombudsman, who wrote in part:

When I asked editors at the time why there had been no coverage, I was told that "it was a story that, in the best of all worlds, would have been in the paper, but we were tied up with [British] election coverage."

In subsequent questioning, editors agreed that this story should be covered and said they were going to go back and do that. On Friday, a solid story by reporter Walter Pincus was published on Page A18. Nevertheless, I have to say I'm amazed that The Post took almost two weeks to follow up on the Times report.

3. Last Thursday an article in The Minneapolis Star & Tribune reported: "The underlying reality is that the United States has moved beyond the debate over the reasons for invading Iraq, said Daniel Hofrenning, a political scientist at St. Olaf College in Northfield. Most Americans are focused on seeking positive outcomes from the war, not reason to blame the Bush administration for starting it."

4. The "media" are not monolithic. The news organizations are extremely competitive. They have consistently lead with pieces about various reports that have not found WMD. The pressure to "break" news lead to CBS News' using the dubious memo on Bush's National Guard service and Newsweek's just admitted mistake in using shaky information about use misuse of the Koran at Guantanamo. If anything, the growth in the number of news organizations and the end of the 24 hour news cycle with the spread of the real time Internet news cycle has lead to a greater probability of stories embarrassing to government -- federal, state, local, school boards, etc -- than may be reasonable.

5. If "they" or our government were even remotely complicit in "hiding" big stories it would have been something like Abu Ghraib, not the British memo. The fact that more editors didn't pick it up may reflect the "culture" of editing (See Herbert Gans' landmark work from 1979, Deciding What's News. I mention it in my new study.) The British memo surfaced in the midst of their Parliamentary elections and therefore would naturally be pertinent domestic news in the UK and I would guess it was initially viewed by most US editors as a British domestic story.

Editors are not supposed to wear their political ideology on their sleeves (or on their news pages) though of course indirectly that seeps through-- hence the constant debates about whether the news media are overtly liberal (See Bernard Goldberg's book Arrogance) or too conservative (FAIR, et al). The fact that both sides seem to feel so morally indignant suggests that overall (that is, not every individual operation all the time) they are probably doing their job.If YOU were an editor, you might have played the story differently. That's why the Blogs are so much more opinionated than mass media-- they are often run by people who have a well articulated ideology they want to promote.

We all need to be less paranoid. Most of the time things are exactly what they seem to be. In this case, is was a broad consensus from a wide range of decision makers of all sorts of personal political stripes who, by and large, did not see the story as front page news. Perhaps it was poor news judgment. But I see no dark side to it. And, of course, the story was out there all along. Anyone who feels that the U.S. media doesn't provide everything they need only has to open up Google News daily to get it all.

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