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The Media at War

Did journalists working the Iraq beat botch the story of the year? At a forum hosted by New York Magazine, The Guardian, and The New School, we turned the microphone on the press.


At the end of June, I went to London to participate in a conference hosted by the Guardian newspaper about the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq. The Brits were asking, it struck me, exactly the questions the U.S. media was trying to avoid asking about itself. How much had the press bought the Bush package? How much had professional skepticism been overwhelmed by Pentagon spin (Victoria Clark and General Vincent Brooks), commercial patriotism (flag logos on every television news show), war romanticism (the embeds), and the intimidation factor (9/11 and the Fox effect)?

In the column that I wrote when I returned from London, I said that I could hardly imagine an American news organization holding such an event. Whereupon it occurred to me: We ought to hold such a conference. And to make it a little hotter for the American media, we ought to do it with British reporters, who had had a significantly more critical war (and who were having a much more hostile peace). The Guardian immediately offered to send its war editors and reporters to join us, and we rounded up their American counterparts.

We rushed to do this conference quickly—before the August exodus from the city—because (and this was just a few weeks ago) we thought the war might be less of a story by the time everyone returned in September.

That, of course, was short-sighted—as, it seems, almost everything about this war has been. Clearly, the war will be more of a story. It gets bigger every day. Not least of all because the media is now having to rewrite itself. The questions we failed to ask, the stories we declined to pursue, have surely helped get us into the present mess.

What follows are highlights of the conversations that took place on July 24 at the New School, commencing a critique that I expect will go on long into the fall and until we figure out exactly why we’re in Iraq.

Did the American media sell out in covering this war?

John R. (Rick) MacArthur, president and publisher, Harper’s magazine: I was virtually reading only foreign press during the first few days. It was the only way to get any information about what was really happening. I thought the Financial Times and Le Figaro did a far better job than any American newspaper, and certainly if you read the Guardian and the Independent, you were far ahead of the curve, because any American newspaper had sold out to such a degree that it made it impossible for them to report anything straight. It was just rank cheerleading.

Mike Elliott, editor-at-large, Time magazine: I think the American media has done a fabulous job since September 11. Like a lot of people, I read the French newspapers and looked at the English newspapers, and I watched the BBC feed. So I was aware there were other stories out there. But when I sat down to write, I trusted my own reporting.

Bill Hemmer, anchor, CNN’s American Morning: I saw French television in Kuwait, and I thought they were decidedly anti-American.

Was the coverage jingoistic?

Gary Younge, New York correspondent, the Guardian: By and large in the American networks, you would hear people talking about “we.” As if the network was actually in the war. “Tell us what these weapons will do for us.” It was a mood. The media wasn’t just physically embedded; it was politically embedded, too.

Hemmer: We don’t use words like “we” at CNN. Word goes out periodically from senior staff to avoid it. But I think that the word “hero” has been used.

Did 9/11 set the tone?

MacArthur: Yes, 9/11 is still a factor because people are still afraid that someone will put an A-bomb in a suitcase and throw it on the subway. But then again, you have credulous—not even credulous, but enthusiastic—support of this notion. Based on no evidence. No reporting.

Elliott: Most of America has forgotten about 9/11. I don’t think it has changed the United States in the way that people say that it has. If it had done so, in the year afterward you would’ve seen an upsurge in recruitment to the armed forces. It didn’t happen. You would’ve seen an upsurge in religious observance or devotion. It absolutely didn’t happen. Every bit of reporting I’ve done has convinced me that outside of this little hothouse that we live in in New York and Washington, people have left this behind. I don’t think our readers come to this story with some incubus of 9/11.

Hemmer: I’m sorry, I think the tentacles and the shadows of that day extend into almost everything that we do almost daily.

Did the British press do better?

Alan Rusbridger, editor, the Guardian: Britain is the most competitive newspaper market in the world . . . There is something about this rough-and-tumble of daily journalism, this thing which takes a positive pleasure in washing as much dirty linen as possible in public, that actually leads you to some confidence that if there’s dirt out there, somebody is going to find it.

MacArthur: I once asked Christopher Hitchens why it was that the British press was so much more ferocious than the American towards politicians who were, for the most part, lying bastards, and he said, interestingly, that in a constitutional system, to attack our representatives is in some sense to attack ourselves. The sad thing is that we haven’t progressed to the point where we realize that it isn’t our government anymore. And that the press’s first responsibility is to the Constitution, not to the temporarily elected administration.

The British vs. the American Press

John Kampfner, reporter, BBC's War Spin: You can see the difference between American and British journalists at summits. The American journalists stands up when the President comes in, backs rigid, at attention. And the British are slouched in their chairs. The impression I have from the U.S. media is that it regards the people in authority, the people in government, as good men who need to be proved otherwise. In Britain, we work from the assumption that they need to prove to us that they're telling the truth.

Elliott: I think that's an incredibly interesting observation. I've been at numerous press conferences in France where the French corps stands at attention when their president walks in. I would say that the attitude that right now is very present in the British press--that a politician is a lying Bastard unless proven otherwise--has gotten to the stage where it is really, really dangerous. Nobody elected us.

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