Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: Coming to Grips with the Failure of the Press

Posted at 12:05 pm, October 16th, 2008
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

As reports proliferate about greed and crime in the suites, it was refreshing to hear praise for a pair of principled newspaper corporate executives, Anthony Ridder, CEO of the former Knight Ridder chain, and Gary Pruitt of McClatchy. John Walcott, Washington bureau chief of Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) lauded both Oct. 7 in remarks on receiving the first I.F. Stone award for journalistic independence, by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation and the Nieman Watchdog Project, for the bureau’s outstanding work on the prelude to the Iraq war. Walcott and his colleagues were alone in reporting doubts about the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq as the country headed to war. They persisted in their “lonely journalism” in the face of denunciations and threats by administration officials.

At the award ceremony in Washington, Walcott credited the CEOs for unwavering support. Not once, said Walcott, did the corporate side even hint at less than full backing for the bureau’s work.

A member of the audience asked Walcott how he explained the very different kind of journalism at the time by the rest of the Washington press corps. He had no explanation. Could it have been the obverse of the Ridder-Pruitt reponse – that is, an unwillingness by corporate brass to contradict the Bush administration, and then communicating that view, subtly or otherwise, to their newsrooms?

There is no evidence that happened, although it conceivably did. A likely, and more troubling, scenario is that editors and sub-editors, acting not on orders but in the exercise of their own journalistic judgment, decided to put their professional skepticism in storage and become cheerleaders for war. In the case of the Washington Post, that meant, in a 19-month period, placing on the front page 140 stories that voiced the administration’s anti-Saddam rhetoric and running most skeptical coverage inside the paper.

Why did one of the world’s great newspapers engage in such one-sided journalism, and much of the rest of the U.S. press cravenly follow suit? (A recent report card by former Nieman Fellows gave the press a collective D for its pre-war Iraq coverage.) If Walcott & Co. could act in the finest of journalistic traditions, how could the rest of the press have gotten so far off base?

When trains collide and planes crash, there’s an inquiry for the obvious reason that unexamined failures invite further catastrophes. The press’s behavior during the run-up to the Iraq war was disastrous for the country and for the press. Individual papers failed in their responsibilities, but there was failure also by the press as a whole. When an institution as critical as the press is to the effective functioning of democratic society blunders as badly as the press did in its Iraq war coverage, it’s imperative that the reasons for the conduct be examined and understood. Otherwise, it’s a certainty that there will be more shameful days ahead for the press.

Apart from a few mea culpas, the press has shown no appetite for self-examination. The answer, in any case, lies not in self-flagellation by a few media outlets but in attempting to understand why an institution that prides itself on independence behaved like lemmings when the chips were down.

There is a limited window for acquiring the necessary understanding, while the actors are still available and their memories fresh. In a nutshell, why did the press perform as it did? When a problem is one of behavior, it’s reasonable to turn to behavioral specialists for insight. In February 2007, this site posted a piece by me calling for a study by social scientists of why the press as a whole failed to question sufficiently the administration’s case for war. Nothing happened. It’s tempting to believe that nothing should have happened; after all, why wallow in the past instead of moving on? Because to ignore the mind sets and latent tendencies of journalism is to guarantee they will come back to haunt us.

Doing nothing in the aftermath of massive failure is as irresponsible as the failure itself.

One Response to “Coming to Grips with the Failure of the Press”

  1. Murray Polnher says:

    Bravo, bravo, bravo!!!!

Comments are closed.

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