Ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, there’s been debate over whether American media have been an alert watchdog of government policy and actions. Critics say the media have failed to ask tough questions of the Bush administration or to keep the public fully informed of events leading to the war with Iraq. One media analyst says a number of factors came into play after 9/11, including patriotism and politics.
Paul Waldman is co-author of “The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists and the Stories that Shape the Political World.” He is also an analyst with the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Waldman says following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, journalists wrestled with the same feelings and emotions as many others.
"It’s important to remember that American journalists are Americans like anyone else. And all of us had kind of a visceral reaction to the terrorist attacks. The question is: what do you do with that as a journalist?"
For example, some TV news organizations required their reporters to wear small American lapel flags, while other news outlets prohibited the practice. It was the beginning of a debate over whether the media were providing full and objective coverage of events and subsequent US policy.
In recent weeks, the media have more aggressively questioned the Bush administration about its pre-war claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and its post-war expectations. Mr. Waldman uses the Washington Post newspaper as an example of how its coverage has changed.
He says, "Even just taking one newspaper, the Washington Post, which after the war was over has been extremely aggressive in going back and questioning some of the claims the administration made. Doing very tough stories, without saying explicitly that they were lying, really unpacking in detail the kinds of claims they made before the war started. But if you go back and look at the coverage that same newspaper, the Washington Post, was doing when the administration made these claims in the first place, they weren’t nearly as aggressive. They had some stories but they were buried on the inside of the paper. As we’re running up to the war, there’s a kind of a natural rally ‘round the flag’ tendency that happens on everyone’s part. But it happens to a certain extent among journalists, too."
One issue that’s received much attention has been the U-S public perception that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Polls said at one point, 70-percent of Americans believed in Iraqi involvement, despite a lack of evidence. Critics blame the administration for repeatedly implying there was a link and not setting the record straight sooner. The administration says it based its decisions on what it believed was reliable intelligence reports. But Mr. Waldman says, “The media have yet to find a clear and effective way to report incorrect impressions and untruthful statements – particularly those that emanate from the White House.”
He says 9/11 changed the way the media portrayed the president.
"Things like highlighting when President Bush sort of trips over his words, something that reporters were fond of doing for a long time. And that was eliminated right after September 11th. And so, it wasn’t that he suddenly became more eloquent. He was tripping over his words just as much as he ever had. But at that point reporters said, well, it’s not important anymore. We’re not going to focus on that," he says
The Bush administration, he says, was skillful in making its case for war with Iraq. And as a result, the focus of reporters’ questions shifted.
"So, there was a lot of discussion over what the attack plan will be and when it was going to start. And to a certain extent that was adopting the administration’s perspective. And so, you could see that in specific cases, too. For instance, you might recall at one point Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to get out of Iraq. Now, no one seriously believed that Hussein was going to leave, but that kind of a countdown is kind of a standard narrative device to create suspense. That’s something the administration did skillfully to shift the questions from: is it a good idea for us to go to war to when are we going to war and how is it going to play out when it happens?"
He says there were journalists asking tough questions during the lead up to war, but it was not across the full spectrum of American media.
The coverage of the war itself was different. The Annenberg School for Communications analyst says lessons learned from the Vietnam War served the Pentagon well. In the first Gulf War over 10 years ago, it was rare to see pictures of U-S casualties. The Pentagon kept a tight rein on media coverage. In the latest war against Iraq, he says the Pentagon used a new technique. The imbedding of reporters within military units, he says, resulted in coverage that was “stripped out of context.”
He says, "So you had these reporters who are with a military unit and they don’t really know what’s going on in the larger war. They can only see what they can see on the ground. And so what you get, especially from the television reporters, is some sort of very dramatic kinetic kind of images, tanks rumbling through the desert. But it doesn’t tell you very much about what’s actually going on. And even here, just like in the Gulf war, there weren’t a lot of images of dead bodies being shown to the American public."
Of late, the media have regularly reported on the number of American casualties, but still have not shown many pictures or videos of them.
So, why the change in media questioning, why has it become more aggressive?
"First of all, there’s a reality on the ground that Iraq is not turning out as cleanly as had been hoped. And so you are getting soldiers killed on an almost daily basis," he says.
But he also says news coverage travels in cycles.
"When the president’s popularity is high, reporters are much less likely to write critical stories. And if the president is popular, the questions they ask are, well, ok, why is he popular? Right now the president is not very popular. His popularity is down to its lowest point in his presidency. And so they begin to as a different set of questions. Why isn’t he popular, what’s going wrong? And that results in a lot of negative coverage," he says
Paul Waldman describes reporters as the “arbiters – or judges - of facts.” He says they are often hesitant to play that role out of fear of being called biased. But to hesitate, he says, means the public is not being served. He says, “The average citizen cannot be expected to wade through the euphemisms and competing claims, research the evidence and come to a conclusion about who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.”