Celebrations and critiques of contemporary journalism

Rod Tiffen, The University of Sydney

The Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Opened April 2008. http://www.newseum.org

Nick Davies, Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media London, Random House, Chatto and Windus, 2008 (408 pp). ISBN 9-78070118-145-1 (hard cover) RRP $54.95.

W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston, When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2007 (263 pp). ISBN 9-78022604-284-8 (hard cover) RRP $33.95.

By chance I was in Washington for the opening of the Newseum in April. I had taken an interest in this project since it was first announced six years ago by its owner, the Freedom Forum, originally the Gannett Foundation, formed by one of America’s largest newspaper chains. Until then Freedom Forum had sponsored a range of professional and scholarly activities to promote journalism, both in the United States and abroad, but it decided to stop all these, and dismiss the associated staff, to concentrate on the proposed museum.

The Foundation already had a small museum devoted to the news media, but it was poorly located, and could not be easily improved. Their goal was to establish an iconic new museum, close to Congress and the Smithsonian Institutions, one that would become a major Washington landmark. The Foundation had the money to make this happen. Having located the site they wanted, owned by the municipal government, their advisers said its probable market value was around $60 million, but to clinch the deal and minimise delay, the Foundation offered $100 million.

Perhaps for their purposes it was worth the extra sum, because they have a prime location to attract tourists, and they have constructed a very impressive building, altogether seven stories of videos, photos, text and activities. The pizzazz as you enter the building promises much, and many exhibits do deliver very interesting and pertinent material. It was particularly moving, for example, to watch the film of famous CBS news reader Walter Cronkite being handed on air the news that President Kennedy had in fact died from the assassin’s bullet, and the dignity and compassion with which he conducted himself. His understated display of professionalism was something which few if any of television’s contemporary ‘personalities’ could emulate. More sadly, few would see it as their task to try.

Davies mounts a damning and (mostly) compelling critique of the news media.

On the other hand many displays are superficial. For example the biographies of journalists are brief almost to the point of absurdity. The entry on the famous left-wing Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, for example, mentions his courageous trip to Hiroshima straight after the end of World War II, but none of the later controversies surrounding his reporting of the Korean and Vietnam wars. The exhibit about News Limited is sponsored by News Limited, and does not mention a single criticism that has ever been made of the company.

One is tempted to conclude that the Newseum accurately reflects its subject, delivering less substance than it promises, its presentation often more impressive than its substance, its omissions as important as its content. But amid all the false glitter, there are indeed some important nuggets of gold.

If the authors of two recent books on the state of journalism had been designing the museum it would have had a very different tone and content. Both are scathing critiques of the contemporary news media. Both are impressive and well worth reading, but their styles and approaches differ greatly.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies has received the most public attention, with a well orchestrated publicity campaign, and endorsements from several eminent media figures. Davies, an award-winning investigative reporter for the Guardian, investigates his own profession, and, as the book’s cover proclaims, ‘finally I was forced to admit that I work in a corrupted profession’. The book shows little evidence of him resisting this conclusion. While there is no doubt Davies mounts a damning and, in its central aspects, compelling critique of the contemporary news media, the book also is marked by many of the more irritating traits of his profession.

Most basically there are no footnotes, so as he compiles his catalogue of egregious incidents, one cannot easily follow them up. The title ‘flat earth news’ is more eye-catching than accurate or informative. The book’s sub-title claims that it exposes falsehoods in the global media, but this is indeed a flat earth view of the globe, with about 80 per cent of its material coming from Britain and most of the rest from America. There are other examples of conceptual stretch, for example his recounting of moral panics (p. 142) shows how that promising—if always problematic—concept has degenerated into simply meaning momentary sensationalism.

Davies’ book is rife with many of the annoying aspects of journalistic writing.

The book mounts its case with breadth rather than depth. Its style is to make a strong, damning generalisation, offer some supporting examples of terrible misbehaviour; then another generalisation and more semi-related examples from the author’s seemingly endless and always depressing catalogue of irresponsible journalism. There is little attempt to map the range and limits of the behaviour, or to see how representative or exceptional the incidents are. Just as in the media’s treatment of scandalous behaviour, the horror of the individual episode substitutes for a consideration of its prevalence. Like the profession he is exposing, Davies’s style is marked by moral simplicity. He offers one case after another of decline in the quality of journalism, and few, if any, acknowledgements of any improvements anywhere.

There is also the journalist’s penchant for concrete causality. Rather than an analysis of structural forces and gradual change (or even a series of tipping points), instead we get ‘it is rare in history to be able to identify the precise date of a turning point’ (p. 61). However he has one: ‘the bitter cold night of Saturday 25 January 1986, [when] they [that is, ‘business interests’] finally broke down the gates and conquered Fleet Street’ (p. 61). He is referring to Murdoch’s move to Wapping, which revolutionised the printing of newspapers in England, and which some business observers credit with prolonging the survival of some newspaper titles. Davies admits the greed and bad practice of the printing unions but they ‘were the only force strong enough to resist the new owners’. And without the printers supporting journalists’ strikes, the journalists’ union also lost its power. This causal chain is so full of problematic assumptions that it would take thousands of words to follow them through, but to say the key to maintaining journalistic quality was to maintain the inefficient, indeed often corrupt, practices of the printing unions, beggars belief. Anyway, whatever its relevance to Fleet Street, it hardly explains trends in the ‘global’ media that the author is claiming to describe

While the book is rife with many of the annoying aspects of journalistic writing, that is also its strength. It is lively, has a strong sense of narrative, a keen eye for the telling quote and detail, and most importantly, some excellent digging. Davies puts together story after story of journalistic malpractice. The sheer number and power of his stories at least partially justify the hype on the book’s cover. He has indeed conducted excellent investigative work on the news media.

One early target is the extra forces for productivity that have so often reduced journalism to ‘churnalism’; that is, the reprinting without cross-checking of media releases. He relates what he calls the ten rules of journalism, rule for ensuring profitability while avoiding the uncomfortable aspects of the search for truth. Then he turns his attention to the private life of public relations, and outlines a bewildering list of scams and fabrications, before exploring the parallel activities in political propaganda. Here he charts an illuminating picture of how the United States constructed Abu Musab Al Zarqawi as enemy number one in Iraq to suit its own political purposes, and then giving brief accounts of several other fabrications by the military.

The memo crystallised the essence of the deceptive behaviour of the American government.

In another extended case study he looks at the development of the Sunday Times, after it was taken over by Murdoch. He documents how it became more profitable, producing three times as many pages with the same number of journalists (as Murdoch congratulated the outgoing editor Andrew Neill in 1994), how it had lost its investigative prowess and how its bipartisan scepticism had given way to a one-sided partisanship. Perhaps to balance this he then does a damning expose of the Sunday Times’ main competitor, the Observer, and its poor performance in the lead up to the Iraq War. He writes that a ‘circle of resistance’ to anti-war material saw it fail to publish important scoops that the paper had about weaknesses in the case for war.

The failure of the American media to challenge the pro-war consensus is the main concern of Bennett, Lawrence and Livingston’s When the Press Fails. This book is almost equally damning of the media’s role, but its approach is very different. It focuses entirely on the US media and its performance under the Bush administration. Its authors are three eminent scholars in the field of media politics.

After traversing many issues to do with the reporting of the Iraq war, its centrepiece is a study of the reporting of the tortures at Abu Ghraib prison. The authors document how reluctant the US media were to use the word torture. Moreover, even in this peak of potential discredit to the American cause in Iraq, the media were often willing to let the Administration frame interpretations. The government was determined to isolate the blame on the individuals immediately at Abu Ghraib—‘Animal House on night shift’ as someone in Washington dubbed them. Even after the exposure of these abuses, only some of the media went exploring into how American official attitudes had shifted to condone practices any civilised person would call torture, let alone to the indiscriminate detention practices that resulted in huge numbers of innocent Iraqis finding themselves inmates in the feared prison.

This content data is supplemented by good material from interviews conducted by Livingston. They help to give the flavour of reporting in Washington, including lines such as that used by Lawrence Wilkerson, one of Colin Powell’s closest aides about ‘the Corleone effect’. The metaphorical reference to the Godfather reflected the certainty that if you crossed the Bush Administration then, at some stage, its chief enforcer Karl Rove would wreak his revenge. Perhaps the most revealing was the attitude of the foreign editor of the Washington Post to the revelation of what, in America, was called ‘the Downing Street memo’ (p. 147). This referred to a leak in London when, in a memo of 2002 conversations in Washington, one of Blair’s chief advisers referred to intelligence being fitted around the policy. Here was a memo to America’s most important and most intimate ally that crystallised in a more authoritative way than the many other partial revelations the essence of the deceptive behaviour of the American government. Yet at first the Washington Post did not think it was newsworthy—‘but the blogs beat up on us so we had a big page-one spread about it just to shut them up’ (p. 147).

The simplest image would be of the media as a conveyor belt for official views.

The analytical framework of the book follows the influential theory originated by one of its authors, W. Lance Bennett—indexing. In this view, ‘journalists index the range of viewpoints in the news to the divisions of power they perceive within various decision-making circles of government’ (p. 217). I have never liked the metaphor because it connotes an accuracy and a mechanical automaticity that does not seem to me to characterise news. However it certainly captures an essential truth about news, that judgements of political newsworthiness derive, at least partially, from journalists’ sense of where the centre of gravity of power lies. As the authors say, the press works best when the processes of government are also working best—‘debating alternatives, responding to challenges from citizen interest groups—and when elected opponents publicly hold each other accountable’ (p. 8). But when the opposition is cowed, when the public and political consensus is overwhelming, as it was in the year after 9/11, and when the matters in contention involve claims that are not easily as refutable as they were about Iraq’s WMD, then the press tends to reflect and reinforce political conformity.

So what sort of museum about the news media might emerge if its design were influenced by the authors of these two books? Davies might have a Chamber of Chequebook Journalism, listing the highest prices paid, with the centrepiece being the pictures of the ‘Brangelina’ twins in August 2008, which sold for a new world record of $11 million (Sun Herald 3 August 2008) and a hall of horrors of misreporting, and then perhaps a ghost train in which glimpses of the activities of spin doctors and propagandists are fleetingly visible. Treatment of Bennett, Lawrence and Livingston’s book would be more difficult, because their approach is not to view the news media in isolation from their environment but to concentrate on the interactions between political forces and media reporting. Such analysis is far more accurate and penetrating. But rather than celebrating individual heroics it would necessitate exhibits that explored interactions and relationships, a more complicated assignment. Perhaps some ingenious designer could construct force fields, that capture how the media refract, distort, magnify, or illuminate aspects of the political environment, of how this sometimes leads to a spectrum of views but at other times—especially in the early years of the Iraq war—it produces only a monochromatic stream that excludes factors outside the mainstream. In such circumstances, the simplest image would be of the media as a conveyor belt for official views. More adventurously, perhaps, an exhibit could capture the echo chamber effect of the media when the polity is mobilised around a particular campaign, when, to switch sensory metaphors, it forms a hall of mirrors in which the dominant political views bounce around, eclipsing all alternatives and removing perspective from the developments being reported and debated, even when it is all based—as it was with Iraqi WMD—on a fiction.

Unfortunately there is one thing we can be certain of. These are not considerations that are likely to long detain the controllers of the Newseum. While celebration will continue to be their dominant motif, there is more hope that critiques such as in these two valuable books will impact on the self-reflections of the professionals employed in the news enterprise, and hopefully also feed into more informed and sceptical audiences. The price of a free press is eternal vigilance about its performance.

Rodney Tiffen is Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney. Professor Tiffen is one of Australia’s leading scholars of the media. He is author of Diplomatic Deceits: Government, Media and East Timor (UNSW Press 2001); Scandals: Media, Politics and Corruption in Contemporary Australia (UNSW Press 1999); News and Power (Allen & Unwin, 1989); and The News from Southeast Asia: The Sociology of Newsmaking (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1978) and numerous articles on mass media and Australian politics.

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