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The Great Media Breakdown

The press admits it fell for the administration's line on weapons of mass destruction. But the media's failure goes far beyond Iraq.

All governments lie, the muckraker I.F. Stone used to say. They fudge and omit. They bury and muffle inconvenient facts. They do this repeatedly, relentlessly, shamelessly. That's hardly surprising. Why shouldn't they seek— as a Marine Corps public affairs officer, Lt. Colonel Richard Long, told a conference on journalism and the Iraq war—to "dominate the information environment"?

But of late, the government has had plenty of help in its efforts at dominance. To a disgraceful degree, the organs of news have been grinding out its tune. Many are the reasons for deference. Reporters and editors are credulous, fearful, and flatly bamboozled. Timid about getting out ahead of a public they respect more when it is "conservative" (read: rightwardly radical) than when it is liberal, they bend over backward to accommodate spin doctors. They grant officialdom the benefit of the doubt. They fear risking independent judgment, which they have defined as occupational hubris. They are terrified of missing out on the perks of access. They fear that detailing the anatomy of official distortion will turn off readers and viewers. Their proprietors, seeking favor in high places, cool their critical engines. So the media yield to temptation and morph into megaphones, and falsehoods too often and too loudly repeated take on the ring of plausibility.

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Does that leave citizens clueless? Not quite. In a digital world, there's easier access to multiple sources of facts and analysis than ever before. But even as journalists lose their hold on a distracted public, they remain indispensable for arousing democracy and holding liars, bullies, and cheaters accountable.

If ever there were a time for unbridled journalism, this would be it: terrorist mayhem, war, corporate scandal, ecological crisis, economic upheaval. Public passion and curiosity have been stoked. But the potential investigators have been, to a considerable degree, otherwise occupied. Historians will someday burrow among the musty artifacts of America's supercharged 24/7 news organizations—TV with its glammed-up sets, its convention skyboxes and satellite feeds; the well-fed correspondents on a firstname basis with second-rate sources; the newsmagazines with their gloss, gossip, and fluff—and they will rub their eyes and marvel that a nation possessed of such an enormous industry ostensibly specializing in the gathering and distribution of facts could yet remain so befogged.

Befogged we have been, and don't take my word for it. With the nonappearance of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the problem grew sufficiently glaring that, earlier this year, the spirit of self-scrutiny spread throughout the nation's prestige press like a belated burst of antibodies. Here is the New York Times' ombudsman, Daniel Okrent, writing on May 30—14 months after the bombs began falling on Baghdad: "Some of The Times's coverage in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines; and several fine articles that provided perspective or challenged information in the faulty stories were played as quietly as a lullaby." Two months later, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz issued his own paper's self-critique, chastising "coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly onesided at times." Make due allowance for the boilerplate qualifications—"in hindsight," "looks," "at times"—and you see a condemnation so harsh, you know the blunders must have been grave indeed. Never before has American journalism been driven to correct itself so lavishly.

Yet even now, the news industry remains unwilling or unable to come to grips with the full scope and system of its failures, and the narrowness of the media's self-criticism does not inspire confidence that they will refuse to swallow government propaganda the next time. (Television news bigwigs, for one, have yet to admit any responsibility for having escorted the nation into a calamitous war.) In fact, the malfunctions extend far beyond the question of WMD, beyond even the routine deceptions of George W. Bush. The machinery of truth-telling has broken down.

THE MACHINERY was creaky already. In truth, journalism's golden age of Vietnam and Watergate exposés was not so golden. It took years to undo the lies about "progress" in Vietnam, and for many months, most news organizations missed the magnitude of the criminal operations running out of the Nixon White House.

Much of the time since then, the Fourth Estate has remained distracted. The Iran-Contra scandal lay scattered about in plain view until the dots were connected by a Beirut magazine. In the 1990s, any sense of proportion went missing: As murderous Islamism oozed out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Osama bin Laden fine-tuned his massacre machine, O.J. beckoned... and Whitewater... and Princess Diana. In 1998 and 1999, when Al Qaeda was gathering force and bombing embassies, the obsession of America's media was...Monica Lewinsky (and Clinton was accused of only seeking to distract us when he bombed bin Laden's camp).

Journalists have missed many a boat. But the problem of the past few years is that the media have taken to escorting the boat—amplifying disingenuous claims, downplaying doubts, belittling dissent. As it thrashed about in a state of emergency, America needed solid reporting—and solid skepticism—more than ever. Instead, large numbers of people were left believing that some of the September 11 hijackers were Iraqis, that Saddam Hussein was implicated in the terror attacks, and that the United States had actually found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

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