Saturday, September 08, 2007

The swiftboating of American journalism

-- by Dave

Every time I hear a professional journalist bleat about how unreliable and unprofessional bloggers are, it's difficult refrain from indulging a low mordant chuckle. It's not as though the public is falling for this high-and-mighty "we're professionals with standards that matter" schtick much anymore.

As Sam Smith of Scholars and Rogues points out, the bloom has long since departed that particular rose:
-- A 2004 Gallup Poll says “Americans rate the trustworthiness of journalists at about the level of politicians and as only slightly more credible than used-car salesmen.”

-- Only about one in five Americans “believe journalists have high ethical standards, ranking them below auto mechanics but tied with members of Congress.”

-- Only “one in four people believe what they read in the newspapers.”

-- Chicago Tribune Editor Charles M. Madigan says: “If you are a journalist, you should probably just assume that you come across as a liar.”

-- A 1999 American Society of Newspaper Editors survey said that “53 percent of the public view the press as out of touch with mainstream America, while 78 percent think journalists pay more attention to the interests of their editors than their readers.”

-- About 22 percent of respondents to a 2003 Pew survey said they thought “the unethical practices of [Jayson] Blair, which included fabricating sources and events, occur frequently among journalists, while 36 percent said they thought wrongdoing happened occasionally. Another 58 percent believed journalists didn’t care about inaccuracies.”

The fact is that the utter failure of the professional media in America to adequately perform its function as truth-tellers and guardians of the public interest in the past decade has had catastrophic consequences for the country, beginning with 9/11 and continuing through the Iraq war. And it's been that failure which is largely responsible for the rise of the blogosphere and related Web media, especially as the way more and more Americans are getting their information.

Indeed, we've been its sharpest critics, and blogs and sites devoted primarily to media criticism -- particularly those on the left, including The Daily Howler and Media Matters, as well as Eschaton or Hullabaloo -- have become some of the most successful, visible and effective voices on behalf of progressives, especially because they recognize the role the media have in fomenting right-wing crap aimed primarily at demonizing and belittling progressives and their causes.

If you've read these sites over the years, you can't help but be impressed by the mounting evidence of a serious dysfunction in the former profession of ink-stained wretches. The basic pathology is a simple failure to be committed to the truth based on known facts, a pathology that embodies itself in the false middle reporting that offers its audience a fake "balance" between the factual and the fraudulent. But now I think it's reaching the point of metastasis: an epidemic of crisis proportions.

Because now, thanks to figures like CNN's Lou Dobbs and Fox's Bill O'Reilly, it's possible to run completely bogus information and successfully pawn it off as real without paying any consequences whatsoever. Indeed, they can now fob off this false reporting as the highlight of their news broadcasts.

Exhibit A: Alex Koppelman's riveting Salon piece (which, unfortunately, seems to have attracted very little blogospheric attention) on the phenomenal case of the grotesque misreportage, by Dobbs and others, of the cases of two border-patrol agents who were convicted of shooting an escaping border crosser.

You all remember the CNN broadcasts about the case, complete with their own "Border Betrayal" logo, such as the piece in the video above. But as Koppelman explains, the facts of the case are almost completely at variance with the cold facts of the case, particularly as they've emerged in court.

That, however, has not stopped Dobbs and the anti-immigrant crowd:
How did Ramos and Compean get reinvented as right-wing heroes? The answer lies in the way Americans get their information, from a fragmented news media that makes it easier than ever to tune out opposing views and inconvenient truths. When people seek "facts" only from sources with which they agree, it's possible for demonstrable untruths to enter the narrative and remain there unchallenged. The ballad of Ramos and Compean is a story that one side of America's polarized culture has gotten all wrong and that much of the other side -- and the rest of the country -- has never even heard.

A number of people, as Koppelman reports, have played leading roles in this, but Dobbs is unquestionably at the fore:
There are five major players in the transformation of Ramos and Compean from cops who tried to cover up a bad shooting into martyred heroes of the great conservative pushback against illegal immigration. The most important of them is Lou Dobbs, the host of CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight." Three other players -- journalist Sara A. Carter, activist Andy Ramirez and union official T.J. Bonner -- are previously obscure figures who appeared on Dobbs' show. The fifth is Jerome Corsi, the conservative commentator who coauthored the book, "Unfit for Command," that launched the Swift-boating of John Kerry. Corsi pushed the cause of Ramos and Compean on the Internet while Dobbs was pushing it on TV. All of them have served as megaphones for the right-wing's counter-narrative of the case.

Lou Dobbs, whose show straddles the line between news and advocacy, has nearly doubled his ratings in the past two years by taking a strong stand against illegal immigration. Almost nightly, he includes an opinionated segment on immigration under such rubrics as "Border Betrayal" and "Busted Border." As soon as he noticed the Ramos and Compean story in August 2006, he became the prime mover in its coverage. His program has so far featured more than 100 segments on the Ramos and Compean case, including interviews with both agents that have been clipped and rebroadcast in other episodes.

Dobbs set the tone for his approach to the Ramos and Compean case with his first segment about the agents, on Aug. 9, 2006. (CNN did not respond to a request for an interview with Dobbs.) He introduced a short interview with Ignacio Ramos by saying, "Support is flooding in from all across the country tonight for two Border Patrol agents in Texas who could be sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting a Mexican drug smuggler. Amazingly, federal prosecutors allowed the smuggler to walk free." The next day, Dobbs ended a second segment on the agents with one of his famous audience polls. The question for viewers was, "Do you believe the Justice Department should be giving immunity to illegal alien drug smugglers in order to prosecute U.S. Border Patrol agents for breaking administrative regulations? ... Yes or no."

Dobbs has been helped along by his CNN Headline News cohort, Glenn Beck, who actually used the occasion of a report on Ramos and Compean to cast his lot with the John Birch Society. Koppelman details the activities of a number of similarly lesser figures, but notes that one in particular has played a behind-the-scenes role in much of the broader reportage: Jerome Corsi.

Yep, that Jerome Corsi. The fellow behind the "Swift Boat Veterans" scam that crippled John Kerry. His views on immigration, of course, are also well known; he teamed up with Minutemen leader Jim Gilchrist awhile back to write a book about the threat to the nation posed by immigrants. Note that back then, Corsi was evincing deep concern about the plight of border crossers in, er, less than convincing fashion:
"Politicians who believe that illegal immigration can be ignored must realize that Mexicans and others are dying every day along our nation's borders," adds Corsi, whose book "Unfit for Command" played a key role in convincing the American people to reject John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid. "These economic refugees are often abandoned and left to die by the human traffickers and Mexican soldiers who smuggle them across the border. It's nothing less than a tragedy."

But when two Border Patrol agents turn out to be among the people shooting at border crossers, Corsi evidently is not all that sympathetic. To wit, from Koppelman:
Lou Dobbs garners more than 800,000 viewers nightly, and he and guests like Bonner have been primarily responsible for the right's reshaping of the Ramos and Compean story. The case, however, has also been a focus of right-wing obsession on the Internet. Reporter Jerome Corsi has been instrumental in advancing the narrative on the Web. A reporter for WorldNetDaily, Corsi is best-known for his role in the Swift-boat movement. His latest book is "The Late Great USA: The Coming Merger With Mexico and Canada," a long conspiracy theory in which he claims to expose secret plans for a "North American Union" that would combine the three countries into one.

Corsi's most important contribution to the reworked conservative version of the Ramos and Compean case is to attempt to absolve the agents of a coverup. In reality, the incident was only discovered, and the agents prosecuted, because Border Patrol Agent Rene Sanchez, hundreds of miles away in Arizona, heard about it through his mother-in-law. In Corsi's version, however, Ramos and Compean's supervisors knew about the shooting as soon as it happened. Corsi relies on an early, ambiguous memo written by the Department of Homeland Security officer who investigated the shooting; the memo lists the agents' two supervisors among the Border Patrol personnel who were either at the location, helped destroy evidence, "and/or knew/heard about the shooting." The memo apparently refers to the known fact that the supervisors were at the scene of the shooting after it occurred but were not aware that it had occurred. At trial, the defense never tried to claim that the supervisors were present during the shooting, the investigator didn't testify that the supervisors were present at the shooting or had knowledge of it, and the supervisors took the stand themselves to insist they'd had no knowledge of the shooting till after Ramos and Compean were arrested. Compean himself admitted at one internal Border Patrol disciplinary hearing that he didn't report the shooting to his bosses because he didn't want to get in trouble.

Corsi is implying that the supervisors perjured themselves at trial. Contacted by Salon, Corsi stood by his scenario.

Unfortunately, there's been little attention paid yet to Koppelman's report, which is damning indeed, and should be broadly viewed by Dobbs' journalistic peers as an indictment of his journalistic standards. But that hasn't happened. Dobbs continues to play the story as factual, and Ramos and Compean are still martyrs of the nativist right.

Sam Smith, I think, has the perspective right on what's happened: The consolidation and commoditization of the nation's media in the past twenty years and more has significantly diminished its capacity to police itself, particularly when the offenders are major media figureheads and work for ratings-driven organizations like major broadcast news networks and major newspapers:
Regardless of publisher perception or economic reality, though, it’s painfully clear that coverage has deteriorated and that cost-cutting and revenue-rage has been at the core of the problem. A concern for the public interest may continue to exist in the newsroom as an inherent artifact of the essential character common in those drawn to the profession (hard reporting is like teaching - nobody is in it for the money), but it will never again be a primary motivator for the dominant organizations of the industry (if, in fact, it ever was).

The result is a news landscape driven by the logic of profit, not by the logic of public and community interest. Established networks, newspapers and magazines are therefore failing in their mission to provide reliable coverage of the events that shape the lives of their constituents.

This explain what’s happening with the news industry, but what does this have to do with “objectivity”? A couple things, actually. First, historically “journalist” has been a profession with canonized ethics and codes of conduct. It has been the physical embodiment of what reporting was, and objectivity was, in some measure, equivalent to the canons in other professions - like the Hippocratic Oath for doctors or the Lawyer’s Oath for attorneys. If the reporter came through a journalism school these principles were ingrained in his or her education from the first day of class; reporters who arrived in the newsroom via other paths got a quick and heavy dose of on-the-job training.

There’s nowhere else I’m aware of where these principles are being taught, so as the traditional institutions fade, so also do the professional codes that defined the activities of those who worked there.

Second, those codes seems to matter less and less even in the legacy organizations. Review the SPJ ethics code, then see how well you think the people at FOX, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and even places like USA Today are adhering to them. Those reporters may not be the models of professional behavior we wish they were, but they’re smart enough to know that while they’re not going to get fired for trampling an ethics code, they’re out the door the instant ratings and readership slip.

'Swiftboating', since the Kerry campaign, has come to representing a kind of pirating of the truth for partisan purposes. It's often seen primarily as a kind of campaign tactic, a way of undermining an opponent's message.

But it cannot succeed without the acquiesence of a lazy and compliant media dedicated more to ratings, horse races and beauty contests than to their duties as guardians of the public discourse. What 'Swiftboating' really reflects is the abject failure of journalists to reject this for the obvious propaganda strategy it is and to fulfill their obligations to truthfulness.

And it can't be any more painfully manifested than in the phony reportage on Ramos and Compean.

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