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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.

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 them—for example, the construction of up to 14 well-nigh permanent American military bases in Iraq (under, no surprise there, a contract with Halliburton).

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 obfuscation—which helped make Bush's dismissal of the Kyoto agreement seem more acceptable—U.S. journalists have, thankfully, seen reason.

Partially, anyway. Nowadays, "Study Finds Climate Shift Threatens California" does land in the New York Times—on 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 shelves—better 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 wildfire—but, 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 change.

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 stenography—he-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 time—it was raucous and wildly unreliable—but 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 it—to 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.

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