Jewish World Review June 19, 2003 / 19 Sivan, 5763

Jonathan Gurwitz

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Most Americans understand this cynical equation


http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Do news organizations get the facts straight, or are their stories and reports often inaccurate? That's a question the Gallup organization began asking Americans in 1985, when 55 percent of Americans responded that the news was largely accurate, while 34 percent felt it was often inaccurate.

For 15 years, confidence in the media declined slightly until the presidential election of 2000, when trust in its accuracy plummeted to 32 percent, while perceptions of its inaccuracy rose to 65 percent. A May Gallup poll demonstrates little change in those numbers — 62 percent of Americans believing the media to be inaccurate, 36 percent believing it to be accurate — a phenomenon the Gallup organization attributes to the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times.

But the same Gallup poll also shows that only 34 percent of Americans paid close attention to the Blair saga, much lower than other major, recent news stories, such as the war in Iraq. In fact the media's coverage of that war, and the continuing fallout from it, provide ample evidence for Americans continued skepticism about the accuracy of the media and the motivations of some of its leading players.

First came the case of Peter Arnett who, working for NBC and National Geographic, went on Iraqi state-run television to explain how "our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States" and "helps those who oppose the war." NBC and National Geographic fired Arnett.

Not long after Arnett's cameo for the Iraqi Information Ministry, when victory by coalition forces could no longer be doubted by an uncritical media, Eason Jordan — the chief news executive at CNN — dropped another journalistic bombshell. Jordan revealed that his network had for 12 years routinely suppressed critical news about the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of CNN's Baghdad staff and their ability to report effectively.

The editorial board of the Washington Post commented that "if CNN deliberately kept its coverage bland and inoffensive," as Jordan conceded it had done, "that would help explain why the regime was not perceived to be as ruthless as it in fact was, in the Arab world and elsewhere."

But CNN's presentation wasn't the only problem with how the government of Saddam Hussein was perceived. Documents found in the archives of the Iraqi intelligence services show that the Qatari-based network al-Jazeera — often referred to as "the CNN of the Arab world" — was infiltrated by Iraqi agents. The network fired its general director, Mohammed Jassem Al-Ali, two weeks ago, allegedly for unrelated causes.

Stephen Hayes, writing in the Weekly Standard last month, detailed the pervasive influence of the Iraqi regime on the media, through outright bribery and less obtrusive means, such as the control of access with CNN. While members of the Arab media, like al-Jazeera, were obvious and easy targets, Jordanian journalist Salama Nimat says, "the Western media has been playing the game too, including Americans."

Far from the media being a propaganda engine that helped propel the Bush administration and the American people down the tracks toward war in Iraq, it was if anything a shabby contraption manipulated by the Iraqi regime and often guided by anti-American bias. In the aftermath of the war — when successive accusations of poor military planning, mass coalition casualties and mass civilian casualties proved to be false — the media locomotive might have changed some of its conductors, but its direction remains the same.

Claims, for instance, that 170,000 artifacts from the National Museum in Baghdad had been looted in what some termed a "crime against civilization" were routinely repeated by newsrooms and editorial pages across the country, along with ritual denunciations of American culpability. The story originated in an April 14 report from respected writer John Burns of the New York Times, twice the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting, whose other reports from Iraq were among the best journalism of the conflict. This story, however, was false.

An investigation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — a group not normally sympathetic to the United States — concluded that 2,000 to 3,000 objects "may be missing," while other assessments place the number in the low hundreds, and perhaps even in the dozens.

Most of the museum's treasure had been hidden away by staff ahead of the assault on Baghdad, and the most valuable items were likely stolen by Baathist insiders who knew where to look and what to look for. The U.K. Telegraph reports that officials at the museum "have blamed shoddy reporting amid the 'fog of war'" for creating the faulty story. But retractions of the 170,000 figure or of the accusation of cultural genocide against the Bush administration are few and far between.

The same scenario is playing out repeatedly, with false statements attributed to — or the creative uses of elision applied to statements by — President Bush about the threat posed by al-Qaida, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz about American motives for war in Iraq, and intelligence reports about the existence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. The initial stories are headline news; the corrections, if they ever occur, are buried in obscurity.

In a recent article, Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund recalled a conversation he had with an Egyptian editor in 1991, about his interview with Saddam Hussein: "I remember him saying, 'Compared to tanks, journalists are cheap — and you get more for your money.'"

A significant majority of Americans seem to understand this cynical equation and the ways in which the accuracy of the news can be distorted, a fact reflected in the results of the Gallup media poll.



JWR contributor Jonathan Gurwitz is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. Comment by clicking here.

Up

04/22/03: War opponents share burden of guilt
04/10/03: Iraqis get liberation and respect
03/28/03: Constitutionally protected SOBs
03/25/03: Morality changes with the times
03/12/03: Will all of those, ahem, "sincere" peace activists remember the Iraqis tomorrow?
02/27/03: Blood already on UN inspectors' hands

© 2003, Jonathan Gurwitz