Friday, January 14, 2005

Betraying the truth

The most striking aspect of the dustup over the CBS News 60 Minutes report on George W. Bush's National Guard service record is what it reveals about the standards of modern journalism -- not just at CBS, but throughout the national media.

Indeed, the reaction so far has been more instructive than any flaws CBS may have uncovered regarding its own practices.

When the Independent Review Panel that was assembled to examine the matter released its report earlier this week, it was clear that CBS' internal standards for reporting had been violated, and dismissing the four executives involved was appropriate. Most astonishing, certainly, was the CBS reporting team's failure to adequately establish the provenance of the so-called Killian memos. As I mentioned previously, this kind of failure is just emblematic of the shoddy standards that have come to prevail throughout the national media.

The same degraded journalism, in fact, has pervaded much of the ensuing discussion of the CBS matter, both before and after the report. As Corey Pein explored at Columbia Journalism Review, the rest of the media's handling of the story, particularly the carefully orchestrated firestorm that erupted on the right side of the blogosphere, was every bit as riddled with shoddy documentation and analysis, groundless conjecture, and politically motivated bias as anything CBS might have contemplated.

Moreover, once CBS broadcast its report and the right-wing-spin-driven brouhaha erupted over the memos, the Beltway press treated the matter of Bush's military records as a tainted story. Any pursuit of the many remaining unanswered questions about Bush's records and the White House's mendacious explanations for them summarily disappeared from the media's radar.

However, the evidence, as I've explained at length, is overwhelming that Bush skipped out on his commitment by failing to take his flight physical and disappearing from duty for the ensuing year or more; the Killian memos, if they had been legitimate, only would have supplemented and shed some fresh light on what was already a mountain of established and confirmed data. As Kos puts it, the bottom line is this: Bush was AWOL, and every independent examination of his record confirms it.

Not only have the national media failed to pursue this, or even acknowledge it, they are now characterizing the CBS panel's report as actually vindicating Bush -- even though it specifically does not. For that matter, it doesn't even make a definitive finding on whether the "Killian memos" were authentic or not.

Media Matters reported on this the other day:
On January 10, CNN host and nationally syndicated columnist Robert Novak and author and columnist Bob Kohn both falsely suggested that questions about Bush's service rested solely on the flawed 60 Minutes report. January 11 reports in The Washington Post and The Boston Globe relayed erroneous claims by Bush administration officials and other Republicans that the panel report vindicates Bush's assertion that he fulfilled his service and received no preferential treatment, without detailing the vast body of evidence that is completely unrelated to the memos and has not been contradicted or substantively disputed.

Appearing on the January 10 edition of MSNBC's The Abrams Report, Kohn reacted to CBS anchor Dan Rather's September 15 remark that nobody has questioned the "major thrust of our report" by asserting that "There's no story without the documents. ... it's just conjecture without the documents." Earlier that day on CNN's Crossfire, Novak asked why CBS has failed to issue a "formal retraction of George W. Bush ducking National Guard service."

In a January 11 article, The Washington Post reported that conservatives asserted that the panel's findings "would convince Americans that Bush had served honorably during the Vietnam War and received no special treatment," but failed to mention that the panelists explicitly stated (as noted below) that they were not addressing the issue of Bush's service -- not the strength of the evidence against him, nor the credibility of his response. Instead, the Post quoted a remark that made no reference to the panel's findings -- Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie's claim that "[t]he public has made their judgment: They know the president served and was honorably discharged."

Perhaps the rest of the press is eager to sweep the whole affair under CBS' carpet because the entire sorry episode stands as a condemnation of the degraded standards that have come to hold sway throughout the media for the past decade and more.

Atrios commented on this the other day:
[T]he worst Rather has been accused of by sensible people is letting partisanship cloud his judgment. Accepting that as true just for sake of argument, it's still a far less egregious sin than most of the Whitewater-era horseshit which has never been acknowledged as horseshit by the liberal media, even though unlike the Rather incident, much of that horseshit was clearly deliberately manufactured by the producers and reporters. These events were recycled and echoed throuhgout the entire liberal media, with no one calling foul and no one calling for their heads. Without making any statement about what the appropriate consequences for "Rathergate" should be, it's clear that the media attention by that liberal media and the actual consequences have been much greater than dozens of worse incidents involving clear deliberate deception by people in the media.

In his weekly column, Gene Lyons elaborated on this point in more detail:
Amazingly, the CBS team reporting on the president's lost year in the National Guard -- and do let's recall that the suspect memos made a neat fit with other signs that Bush took a powder -- never talked to the purported source of the documents even after Burkett changed his story about who it was.

That's incredible.

Or would be, that is, had Conason and I not documented even worse transgressions in our book, "The Hunting of the President."

During the infamous Whitewater scandals, reporters pursuing Clinton credited the "revelations" of paid sources; edited audio tapes and video clips to make innocent remarks appear suspect; routinely hid exculpatory evidence (my favorite was a Washington Postarticle neglecting to mention that Clinton never endorsed a supposedly suspicious check); intervened with the Justice Department on behalf of an embezzler under indictment; actively assisted prosecutors trying to flip witnesses against the president; hyped stories about nonexistent FBI testimony alleging that the Clintons got $50,000 from a crooked loan; and even gathered information from sources and turned it over to Starr's prosecutors.

Those should have been firing offenses, too. But that was then; this is now. That was Clinton; this is Bush Last week, columnist and TV pundit Armstrong Williams got caught violating the most basic rule of all: He took $240,000 from the White House for touting its education reforms. There was a signed contract; he fulfilled it. Even Pravda did things more subtly.

This failure betrays any ethos of journalism that aspires to be about determining the truth. The vacuum created by the decline of traditional journalistic standards of fact-checking and substantiation is always, in short order, replaced by propaganda.

That in turn means the direction of public discourse will be determined by whoever has the most aggressive spin machine. Over the past decade, that has been the Republicans.

The result has been an unending litany of reportage in which Republican propaganda has been treated as established fact, daily news budget have become a virtual replica of daily GOP talking points, and editorial news judgment has been driven by the conservative agenda. Atrios and Lyons describe, I think, the ways this has driven political coverage in America.

But it goes beyond politics as well. Most egregiously, it has affected the work of the press corps in covering our government, largely by altering the relationships of journalists to the government. With conservatives in control of every branch, the press has become increasingly a propaganda organ for the government, and in particular the executive branch; simultaneously, its historic watchdog function as a check on abuse of government power has seriously eroded.

As Matt Yglesias says, this could not be more clear than in the instance of the decision to invade Iraq, as well as the continuing occupation of that country. The press was eager to embed itself and remain in the graces of an extraordinarily controlling and punitive administration that had little regard for the truth, and in the process failed to ask the hard questions that might have prevented the nation from entering into an ill-starred conflict whose chief accomplishment appears mostly to have been to kill over a thousand American soldiers, kill thousands more Iraqi civilians, and create conditions certain to only create even more terrorists bent on destroying us.

And now that the weapons of mass destruction which gave the administration its only serious pretext for the invasion have been officially established as not having existed, it can't be any more clear that America was led to war under false pretenses.

But on the day it was announced, that news received far less attention than the relatively meaningless CBS panel report.

Many liberals believe the answer is to create their own aggressive spin machine and think-tank infrastructure. No doubt that would help reverse the swing of public discourse to the right. But it won't solve the problem.

At some point, journalists are going to have rediscover their commitment to the standards of the craft, particularly the old adage: "Get it first, but get it right." At some point, we're going to have to recognize that getting it first without getting it right leads to disaster.

Certainly, the producers at CBS have learned that. Unfortunately, no one else in the media seem to. Indeed, the lesson everyone seems to have gleaned from the whole episode is: "Don't get right-wing bloggers pissed off at you." If that's what everyone comes away with, it'll mean we're only worse off now.

UPDATE: I meant to include a link to Mark Gisleson's excellent analysis of the panel's report over at Norwegianity.

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