To be sure, journalists in Iraq have been inhibited by the dangers of reporting
outside the safety zone of American force protection. But important stories are still missing
even though there would be no personal risk in covering themfor example, the construction
of up to 14 well-nigh permanent American military bases in Iraq (under, no surprise there, a contract
If journalism's lapses on Iraq were exceptional, we might be more confident
of its performance on other subjects. But the media have been buffaloed with regularity, to the
point where the great game of catch-up now seems more the rule than the exception. Consider one of
the greatest dangers facing humanity: convulsive climate change. As the world continues to binge
on oil and coal, the temperature of the atmosphere soars while the weather goes haywire. Yet for
years, the news media considered the question of climate change a matter of legitimate debate.
A small band of paid-for scientists were ushered into the media spotlight again and again, obscuring
the fact that most of the world's experts had long since agreed on the nature and scope of the
crisis. After years of this obfuscationwhich helped make Bush's dismissal of the
Kyoto agreement seem more acceptableU.S. journalists have, thankfully, seen reason.
Partially, anyway. Nowadays, "Study Finds Climate Shift Threatens
California" does land in the New York Timeson page A18. What, me worry? One academic
study has shown that, during a six-month period in 1999-2000, Britain's Guardian devoted
three times more coverage to the climate issue than the Washington Post, more than twice as much
as the New York Times, and nearly five times as much as the Los Angeles Times. These days, the news
distributes occasional snippets about melting glaciers and fragmenting ice shelvesbetter
than nothing, but scarcely a full-blown investigation of a condition that is rapidly changing
the fundamental conditions of life on earth. TV news serves up breathless updates on the latest
hurricane, flood, heat wave, or wildfirebut, as Ross Gelbspan points out in his new book,
Boiling Point, without any hint that severe weather has anything to do with human-created climate
One network news editor told Gelbspan that the one time his broadcast
did run a story linking extreme weather with climate change, the network received "a barrage
of complaints" from industry lobbyists. This is one reason why, on this and other
issues, news organizations resort to stenographyhe-said-she-said as a substitute for
research and judgment. Some people say the climate is changing catastrophically. Some other people
say the first crowd are Chicken Littles. End of story. Similarly, even as the Swift Boat veterans'
lie-and-distraction campaign crashed against John Kerry's amply documented record, journalists
decreed that there was a certified "dispute" about the candidate's wartime actions.
Stenography plays into the hands of liars, self-deluders, and obfuscators
of all stripes. The obfuscators know this, of course, which is why they make sure to keep boxing journalists
about the ears, ragging on them as "filters," toying with them. It's a dominance
game played against "girlie men." It's a hit-and-run gambit the Bush crowd has
been perfecting since the days when they turned Willie Horton into the poster boy for liberalism.
And it's a game they routinely win as long as reporters, cowed by the "liberal media"
charge, turn themselves into megaphones for the right-wing noise machine.
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States singled
out the press for special mention and protection not because the founders admired the press of their
timeit was raucous and wildly unreliablebut because they well understood the self-aggrandizing
tendencies of unbridled power. They shielded the press not because they believed publishers to
be saints or savants, but because they knew it might take unshackled sinners to curb the grandest
sinners of all. Had they imagined global carnage and global warming two centuries hence and more,
they might well have thought, "In the face of such dangers, now we will be vindicated for caring
so assiduously for the liberty of the press. Surely in times that retry men's souls, the watchdogs
of the press will bark." Imagine their chagrin if they could see the press becoming that sagging
branch of distraction, "the media."
But they would also never say die. They would say that perhaps the journalistic
passion to "undo the folded lie," as W.H. Auden put itto curb what Walt Whitman
called "the never-ending audacity of elected persons"is only asleep. Perhaps
the yearning for truth and reason does not succumb so helplessly. Perhaps the public will refuse
to keep flying blind.