Monday, November 07, 2005

News flash: reporters are not stenographers

Well, that's good to hear: We're not stenographers, we're journalists says Philip Dixon, former managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and currently chairman of the Howard University Department of Journalism.

Dixon was criticizing the actions of the press in the Massey case, in which countless reporters apparently reported the lies of Jimmy Massey without bothering to verify them, although such fact-checking could have been done easily, and there were inconsistencies in his stories to act as red flags.

What is it that Massey lied about? Oh, nothing special; just allegations of war crimes committed by the US Marines with whom Massey served during the Iraq war: one ever called any of the five journalists who were embedded with Massey's battalion to ask him or her about his claims.

The Associated Press, which serves more than 8,500 newspaper, radio and television stations worldwide, wrote three stories about Massey, including an interview with him in October about his new book.

But none of the AP reporters ever called Ravi Nessman, an Associated Press reporter who was embedded with Massey's unit. Nessman wrote more than 30 stories about the unit from the beginning of the war until April 15, after Baghdad had fallen.

One good sign in all of this is that even some in the press are questioning what went on:

"I'm looking at the story and going, 'Why, why would we have run this without getting another side of the story?'" said Lois Wilson, managing editor of the Star Gazette in Elmira, N.Y.

Join the club, Ms. Wilson. Some of us have been wondering that sort of thing for a long, long time.

Dixon's "we are not stenographers" statement was a response to this defense mounted by some reporters:

In many cases, journalists covered Massey as he was speaking at public gatherings. Some reporters said that because he was making public statements, they didn't feel an obligation to check his claims. Some editors worried they could be accused of covering up his claims if they didn't report on his speech.

What does all of this remind me of? As with many things, the answer is "Vietnam." Not My Lai, of course; that was a well-verified story. Rather, the Winter Soldier investigations, reported (to the best of my recollection) uncritically and widely--and very influentially--at the time, despite what turned out to be the lack of substantiation of so many of the claims.

I wonder whether these sorts of false claims of US atrocities happened during or immediately after WWII. Somehow, I tend to doubt it, although if anyone has any information to the contrary I'd be interested in hearing it. My guess, however, is that the all-too-real My Lai gave copycat attention-getting false claimants an idea for how to make a big splash in the press. But they would never have been able to do this to such great effect if the press didn't so often act as their accomplice and enabler.


At 1:47 PM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

To quote a commenter on another site,
"We're reporters, not verifiers. We report, you figure it out."

At 1:49 PM, November 07, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Do you have a link to the article you're quoting from?

At 1:58 PM, November 07, 2005, Anonymous Frank Martin said...

It did happen, but it was in the opposite direction. All too often cases of people over inflating their wartime service were commonplace after the war. LBJ overstating his role in the south pacific to the point that he was awarded the silver star and Senator Macarthy overstating his role as a "tail gunner" when nothing could be further from the truth.

World War II was a case where to not being involved in the war was tantamount to being considered "less than a man", so many men either outright lied about being in the war or fabricated their true histories to reflect something more dramatic than having sat in the backwater of the war as a supply officer.

Hollywood of the 1940's is another dramatic difference from todays perception of the military and the World War II crowd. After World War II, James Cagney sought out the decorated veteran Audie Murphy and offered to have him live at his home while he got his life in order and put Mr. Murphy through acting lessons. For the rest of his life, Mr. Murphy was able to count on the help of Mr. Cagney.

Most people know that James Stewart was also a bomber pilot in World War II, but what most people dont know is that he joined before pearl harbor and he served well beyond the number of flights required for rotation back to the states, in addition he served well beyond the end of the war.

The culture of the world in the 1940s said that a person had a duty to things bigger than themselves, the culture of the 1960s placed the self above all other things. There is no clearer demarcation of the values of the two generations than how they have dealt with the wars of civilization in their times.

At 1:58 PM, November 07, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Once again, Firefox has stifled the link. I will fix--thanks!

At 2:01 PM, November 07, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Frank: the Greatest Generation may have had one way of lying; the Boomers and post-Boomers seem to have another. Hero vs. antihero. Very interesting.

At 2:02 PM, November 07, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

I would hope some of the Veteran's groups would get on the band wagon on this one. There used to be and probably still is a group of formern Navy SEALS whose sole purpose was to debunk all the crazies claiming to be ex-SEALs.

At 3:28 PM, November 07, 2005, Blogger Dale St. Clair said...

How to neutralize the political power that prosecution of a successful war could bring to the occupant of the Whitehouse? Simply create the impression that the war is being lost. Pound away night after night with the negative & don’t worry at all about being factual. Tones to be used: funereal(safest), annoyed at the war(some risk), indignation at the war(risky but effective, given proper audience & timing); the underlying, unstated assumption of all material presented should be that the war is in the process of being lost. Rule of thumb: Negative stuff is newsworthy, positive material is not.

If you really can’t avoid reporting on something positive(huge turnout in successful vote for constitutional referendum) always include a rebuttal of some type at the end. Viewers & readers always remember the end, sometimes nothing else.

While you are at it do whatever you can toward discrediting the war by questioning motive & tactics of the administration, motive of pro-war supporters, morale of the soldiers, morality of the soldiers, disseminating negative myths(the war caused a poor response to Katrina) & making false class distinctions(soldiers are forced by poverty to join the military).

Report unsubstantiated drivel from questionable sources & “unnamed sources” (make up a few if you can’t find some real idiots) as much as you want because the fact they are uttering these words is in itself news. That simplifies the pesky task of fact-checking. The fact is, those idiots did utter those words. Right?

Don’t worry about accusations of bias, if any material is widely & persistently disseminated it will eventually be accepted as truth by a significant amount of the public. Remember: Anything you do can be defended. Half-truths, distortions, libel, falsehoods, character assassination, forgery & other criminal activities, even treason, all can be defended on the grounds that they are news.

At 8:44 AM, November 08, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

In many cases, journalists covered Massey as he was speaking at public gatherings. Some reporters said that because he was making public statements, they didn't feel an obligation to check his claims. Some editors worried they could be accused of covering up his claims if they didn't report on his speech.

This has been going on awhile now. While you could explain this phenomenon as simply believing what you want to be true, there is another far more sinister explanation.

Which is that the "media" have been listening to, believing, and being fed crap by the military public relations office whether that be press reports or public announcements, that the "media" already assumes that whatever the military tells them that it is true. So they don't bother to check.

They only bother to check, and that's an only, when they "feel" something is wrong. Like a military press announcement reported absolute total victory, then the reporters via their bias is now motivated to check it. But if they don't feel anything, if they don't know of any hints of falsification right off, they just ignore it and report it and don't really give a damn about all that "Truth" and "Public needs to know" garbage they keep spouting.

Too many times the media have defended themselves with the utter and worn out tripe that they are the "free press" and, although not perfect, is much better than the alternatives in a free society.

Well, now we are beginning to see that the "free press" is just another government propaganda machine that distributes gook to us plebes.

Combined with Michael Yon's descriptions of how journalists act with military fed info. Which was to regurgitate it, pick out the parts they like and start rechewing it.

Their claims as to their non-existent "biases" only make the problem worse. Because it makes them so much more stupid and easier to manipulate by people with power.

Want the media to spout your lies? Just make a big publicity stunt and talk about "Down with America!".

Or speak in technical terms that confuse the hell out of the reporters, and then the reporters will report stuff that they don't even understand and won't check because it would be hard.

Or do like Clinton, and use the carrot/hammer approach to blackmail/extort/bribe reporters with exclusives and blacklisting in the information coming out from the White House.

Lots and lots of ways this so called "free press" can serve the purposes of people who want to spread propaganda, both inside the US and outside.

So please excuse me, the next time I gag when the Editor of the New York Times talks about their "quality" of information.

Jon Stewart,

"You're hurting America".

At 8:47 AM, November 08, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Oh ya, that disgrace upon the Corps, in a day when this would have been a war to the knife, would have been summarily executed for sedition and treason.

At 11:11 AM, November 08, 2005, Blogger mimi k said...

Just discovered this site. Its now a “favorites.”

I have worked for newspapers for more than 25 years, and closely with journalists (though not a journalist myself).

There was little variance of opinion on the issues and I learned early that an honest debate would not take place. And I did not happen to mirror the formula thinking.

I do have to say though the last paper I worked for is better than most when it comes to the finished product and they are generally fair. I don’t bother with the editorials, I know what they will say on all issues.

But this has been my experience. Reporters start their stories with a perception already established and that precludes what questions are to be asked and who is to be asked. And then the responses are not what they want to here they are run by someone who will give them the quote they are looking for.

I also have worked around interns, either in college or recently graduated. They are enthusiastic, and they also come thinking in lockstep and regurgitate the myopic thinking of their education, probably since preschool. Most of them have poor or no critical thinking skills and apparently have had no civics background. Just like their superiors at the paper ... most of whom haven’t moved on from the ’60s anyway.

So, the quality of reporting will not change in the near future .... "we’re reporters, not verifiers ....we report, you figure it out."

Yep, so some of us have figured out how to get the rest of the story elsewhere. Maybe this is why newspaper readership numbers are down.

At 1:19 PM, November 08, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

mimi k--welcome! More and more, I feel that critical thinking is the most important thing to teach these days. With it, you can get by even without a ton of education, as long as you are curious and want to learn. Without it, it doesn't matter how much education you have, it will be virtually useless.

At 3:48 PM, November 08, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am ashamed that Jon Stewart went to W&M, my alma mater.

The military gives information to reporters in Iraq, who seldom leave the international zone and speak to very few Iraqis. Of this news, the reporters pick out what they think their audience will find interesting.

It would be plausible that in that situation, the military would conspire to give false information. Lord knows it has happened in enough other countries in the last 20 years.

But plausible is not the same as true. Absent actual data of reporters passing on information from the military which is later revealed to be untrue, critics should be more cautious ( a nice way of saying "pipe down"). In actuality, the MSM reports a war that the soldiers fighting it do not recognize.

There is no point in diagnosing a possible illness unless one sees symptoms. If I rode the train, and you say people often catch colds on the train, it does not mean that I actually have a cold.

At 7:18 PM, November 08, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The military are giving false information to the public, and they know it. Every General will claim that their actions are to inform the American public of the truth, but the reality is that without the information exclusive that the military gives to the press (things like Zarqawi's letter, not Zawahiri, keeping people like Michael Yon from reporting on it), Americans would not be lied to with information from military sources.

So it doesn't really matter what the military tries to do, when the results of their actions are ass backwards. Results are reality orientated, not wish fullfilled.

The American military, the public information office, and every General in existence will tell you that they are doing their utmost not to propagandize information to the American people.

The result is that the American military are doing everything in their power to empower the media in propagandizing information fed to the American public.

The military doesn't have to lie to the American people, all they have to do is to shrug their shoulders and say they can't do anything about the "media" lieing with their information.

Plausible denial

With the emphasis on denial.

In the end, it becomes a symbiotic relationship. The media serves up the propaganda, to the military's non-propaganda claims. And the military serves up the information, for the propaganda splicing and slicing of the media.

God Forbid, that the American military might start up their own propaganda machine, where they highlight the bravery and the courage of real life soldiers, depicting heroics on the scale of the Battle of Thermopylae each and every day.

It's not like they have to make the stuff up, since they complain enough and over about the media not reporting on these acts of valor.

The military and the Generals keep complaining, and then they keep giving orders to give the information, without exception, to the press.

I've heard of the military not being good at public relations, but this is ridiculous.

The military says they want to tell the AMerican people the truth, nothing but the truth, so help their oath to the Constitution?

They can start with by making 80% of the information they give out, exclusive only to Fox News and specific reporters. And 20% of their information, the ones based upon field actions and operations and technicalities, on the reporters actually in theater and out with troops. People like Michael Yon. Fund their equipment, provide them their protection, and let them loose with the info.

Exclusives only.

Any "public press report" is about the same thing as a mass propaganda campaign designation.

They can put it on their website if they are so eager about it.

At 7:22 PM, November 09, 2005, Blogger fly morgue said...

The Winter Soldier connection is not figurative - this long, rambling post details an actual meeting between the Iraq Veterans agains the War and the Vietnam Veterans against the War and describes a ceremony where the respective veteran groups formally pass the torch!


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