Meet the Stenographers
Press shirks duty to scrutinize
by Steve Rendall
EXTRA magazine - Fairness and
Accuracy In Reporting, December 2004
A bizarre debate has emerged regarding
whether journalists have a duty to investigate and assess the
credibility of sources and their claims. Some highly placed journalists
seem to say such judgments are not their job. Citing what they
say are journalistic principles, they claim that investigating
and reporting about the veracity of claims and the credibility
of sources is just not what they do.
In fact, it's not only their job, it's
an essential task of journalism. The Society of Professional journalists
is very clear on the subject: At the top of the group's Code of
Ethics, under the heading "Seek Truth and Report It,"
the very first tenet implores journalists to "test the accuracy
of information from all sources." Another tenet stresses
the importance of gauging the credibility of sources: "The
public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources'
But from the Iraq War to the 2004 presidential
race, reporters shirked their journalistic duty to take a critical
approach to official and partisan claims-to document them when
they are trite, and debunk them when they are false. Indeed, many
journalists have become little more than stenographers, repeating
whatever they are told without question.
'Professionalism" on Iraq
In a column lamenting the media's largely
uncritical acceptance of White House claims regarding the Iraq
War and occupation, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius (4/27/04)
attributed this failure to "professionalism." Citing
unnamed "journalistic rules," Ignatius argued that journalists
couldn't scrutinize administration claims unless the questions
were first raised by high profile Democrats and other elites:
In a sense, the media were victims of
their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism
of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts,
journalistic rules meant we shouldn't create a debate on our own.
As a New York Times reporter covering
the Iraq War, Judith Miller's reporting on WMD was unrivaled in
its influence, if not in its accuracy. Her coverage relentlessly
played up the Iraq WMD threat ("All of Iraq is one large
storage facility" for WMD, she credulously quoted a pseudonymous
source 9/8/02), while muting conflicting evidence. Miller explained
how she saw her role in a New York Review of Books interview (2/26/04):
My job was not to collect information
and analyze it independently as an intelligence agency; my job
was to tell readers of the New York Times, as best as I could
figure out, what people inside the governments who had very high
security clearances, who were not supposed to talk to me, were
saying to one another about what they thought Iraq had and did
not have in the area of weapons of mass destruction.
Miller's work was prominently cited in
a Times mea culpa on May 26, 2004, in which the paper's editors
apologized for a lack of skepticism toward sources hyping a non-existent
Iraqi WMD arsenal.
Prejudice for the president
While Miller and Ignatius claim that professional
constraints kept them from fact-checking their sources' claims
and from confronting them with contradictory information, CBS
News anchor Dan Rather offered a competing reason why Iraq War
coverage often left the public badly informed. Fielding a question
on Iraq coverage at a Harvard forum on the media (7/25/04), Rather
explained his journalistic philosophy as it applies to covering
the most powerful source on the planet:
Look, when a president of the United
States, any president, Republican or Democrat, says these are
the facts, there is heavy prejudice, including my own, to give
him the benefit of any doubt, and for that I do not apologize.
The Harvard forum revealed even more reasons
why news media might not dig deeply into dubious claims promoted
by a conservative White House. In a discussion that included several
nightly news anchors, there was general agreement that media were
under increasing pressure from well-organized right-wing activists.
ABC anchor Peter .Jennings described the impact of conservative
I think there is this anxiety in the
newsroom and I think it comes in part from the corporate suite.
I think that the rise, not merely of conservative opinion in the
country, but the related noise being made in the media by conservative
voices these days, has an effect on the corporate suites ....
This wave of resentment rushes at our advertisers, rushes at the
corporate suites and gets under the newsroom skin, if not completely
into the decision-making process, to a greater degree than it
Rather's admission that many, himself
included, share a presumption in favor of the president's truthfulness,
and Jennings' acknowledgement of an everpresent conservative pressure
on newsrooms, may help to explain why George W. Bush has gotten
away with so many deceptive declarations. As Washington Post columnist
E.J. Dionne (9/24/04) observed on coverage of the 2004 campaign:
"A press corps that relentlessly nitpicked Al Gore in 2000
in search of 'little lies' and exaggerations has given Bush wide
latitude to make things tip."
Consider Bush's statement about Saddam
Hussein, made at a joint press conference with U.N. Secretary
General Kofi Annan (7/14/03): "We gave him a chance to allow
the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." This charge,
repeated at a joint press conference with Polish President Aleksander
Kwasniewski (1727/04), is an astonishingly brazen falsehood, given
that U.N. inspectors were busily going about their work in Iraq
with a great deal of publicity in the months before the U.S. invasion,
yet it was not even reported by most media outlets. The New York
Times, for instance, never mentioned it. The Washington Post's
report on the comment (7/15/03) took pains to avoid calling it
a lie, instead writing that the president's assertion "appeared
to contradict the events."
The media's habit of tiptoeing around
the truth and the patent refusal of many reporters to call things
by their proper names prompted Paul Krugman, the New York Times
columnist and one of the few trenchant media critics in the mainstream
press corps, to write this grim assessment (9/6/02):
The next time the administration insists
that chocolate is vanilla, much of the media-fearing accusations
of liberal bias, trying to create the appearance of "balance"
won't report that the stuff is actually brown; at best they'll
report that some Democrats claim that it's brown.
When "the facts" are lies
The rise of the so-called Swift Boat Veterans
for Truth marked another episode in which many reporters seemed
to abandon any attempt to ascertain the reality of the story-and
some defended this dereliction as a professional virtue.
The Swift Boat Vets' claims that Democratic
candidate John Kerry's Vietnam record was fabricated and his awards
undeserved were given widespread publicity, particularly in August,
in the period between the Democratic and Republican conventions.
Many attribute Kerry's slide in the polls at this time to the
group's campaign and its amplification by the bountiful media
attention it received.
At the time, Swift Boat Vet coverage came
under fire from critics who said journalists had failed to adequately
expose the group's misleading and contradictory claims (American
Prospect, 8/23/04; CJR Campaign Desk, 8/25/04). They pointed out
that the coverage often amounted to little more than a presentation
of Swift Boat Vet charges set alongside rebuttals from the Kerry
camp, a form of "some say/ others differ" reporting
that assigned equal weight and credence to each side and left
the public at a loss as to who was telling the truth.
When Editor & Publisher reporter Joe
Strupp (8/24/04) interviewed Washington Post executive editor
Leonard Downie about Swift Boat coverage, he asked about a front-page
Post article (8/22/04) that, in Strupp's words, "appeared
to give equal credibility to both Kerry's version of the events
in Vietnam (which is supported by his crewmates and largely backed
up by a paper trail) and the Swift Boat Veterans."
Defending his paper, Downie told Strupp
that some Post reporting had undermined the Swift Boat Vets, but
added: "We are not judging the credibility of Kerry or the
[Swift Boat] Veterans; we just print the facts."
As Strupp and others have pointed out,
the Kerry vs. Swift Boat Veterans judgment was not exactly a hard
one: On Kerry's side you had the official military record and
virtually everyone who served on Kerry's boat; on the other, a
well-funded group of anti-Kerry activists with considerable links
to the Bush camp, whose leaders have a penchant for falsehood
and self-contradiction (CJR Campaign Desk, 8/25/04).
That's not the way NPR's Washington editor
saw it, though. Responding to similar criticisms about Swift Boat
coverage, NPR's Ron Elving told NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin
(NPR.org, 8/25/04): "There is no way that journalism can
satisfy those who think that Kerry is a liar or that Swift Boat
Veterans for Truth are liars."
In fact, journalism would eventually reveal
many Swift Boat claims to be, yes, lies, with belated exposés
published by the New York Times (8/20/04), Chicago Tribune (8/22/04)
and Nightline (9/14/04). (The most comprehensive exposé
of Swift Boat Vet mendacity, though, has been done by Bob Somerby
of the website Daily Howler; see, e.g., 8/23/04,9/14-17/04.)
In late August a forceful Los Angeles
Times editorial (8/24/04) declared the Swift Boat Vet charges
"false." However, then the editors went on to say that
news reporters at the Times were constrained from doing the same:
"But the canons of the profession prevent most journalists
from saying outright: These charges are false .... Not limited
by the conventions of our colleagues in the newsroom, we can say
it outright: These charges against John Kerry are false."
The editors don't explain what journalistic
canons restrict journalists from calling a falsehood a falsehood-from
calling things what they are.
Pushing the limits
However mysterious, the belief in this
convention is widespread, particularly among mainstream journalists,
and it has touched other campaign coverage.
In October a listener wrote to NPR, complaining
about NPR host Juan Williams' interview with Florida Gov. Jeb
Bush (10/5/04). Criticizing Williams for failing to hold the governor
accountable for what she saw as deceptive statements, the listener
wrote: "What I heard was Jeb Bush getting a free run to state
his politics with no questioning of his obvious wrong and misleading
statements. This is not the first time I have heard Williams 'interview'
A week later, she received a personal
note from Williams defending his softball style:
Thanks for the note. The interview with
Governor Bush, as with other public officials, is intended to
allow them to state their views and positions. That allows you,
and others, to make an informed decision about their policies
If Williams had an interest in any possible
"wrong and misleading statements" by his interview subject,
he didn't express them to the listener. Nor did he explain how
listeners are supposed to make an "informed decision"
when the people whose job it is to inform them refuse to do so.
On those occasions where journalists do
set out to hold news subjects accountable for dubious claims,
the results can be bizarre. A New York Times article (10/8/04)
addressing George W. Bush's habit of taking liberties with the
truth started out well enough. Headlined "In His New Attacks,
Bush Pushes Limit on the Facts," the article documented a
pattern of Bush distortions-including claims that as president,
Kerry planned to "wait for a grade from other nations"
before acting in self-defense, to raise taxes on the middle class
and to install a vast national healthcare system.
However, at the crux of the piece, in
place of what should have been a simple declarative sentence assessing
Bush's credibility, the reader was confronted by this tortured,
anonymously sourced sentence: "Several analysts say Mr. Bush
pushed the limits of subjective interpretation and offered exaggerated
or what some Democrats said were distorted accounts of Mr. Kerry's
positions on health care, tax cuts, the Iraq war and foreign policy."
Letting the country down
The media's refusal to call a distortion
a distortion or to question a source's credibility has received
little criticism from most journalists, and a spirited defense
from some. However, criticism has sprung up in some prominent
Reacting to the media's "he said/she
said" reporting in the Swift Boat Veterans episode, Comedy
Central's Daily Show (8/23/04) ran a parody of the coverage with
anchor Jon Stewart grilling "reporter" Rob Corddry:
Stewart: Here's what puzzles me most,
Rob. John Kerry's record in Vietnam is pretty much right there
in the official records of the U.S. military, and hasn't been
disputed for 35 years.
Corddry: That's right, Jon, and that's
certainly the spin you'll be hearing coming from the Kerry campaign
over the next few days.
Stewart: That's not a spin thing, that's
a fact. That's established.
Corddry: Exactly, Jon, and that established,
incontrovertible fact is one side of the story.
Stewart: But isn't that the end of the
story? I mean, you've seen the records, haven't you? What's your
Corddry: I'm sorry, "my opinion"?
I don't have opinions. I'm a reporter, Jon, and my job is to spend
half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time
repeating the other. Little thing called "objectivity"-might
want to look it up some day.
Stewart: Doesn't objectivity mean objectively
weighing the evidence, and calling out what's credible and what
Corddry: Whoa-ho! Sounds like someone
wants the media to act as a filter! Listen, buddy: Not my job
to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening
Rock musician Bruce Springsteen delivered
a more sober but no less pointed critique. In a Rolling Stone
interview (9/22/04) largely about his political views, Springsteen
offered this assessment of media coverage of the campaign:
The press has let the country down. It's
taken a very amoral stand, in that essential issues are often
portrayed as simply one side says this and the other side says
that. I think that Fox News and the Republican right have intimidated
the press into an incredible selfconsciousness about appearing
objective and backed them into a corner of sorts where they have
ceded some of their responsibility and righteous power.