Over the years during debates about whether the press is liberal or conservative, I’ve always maintained that the question is irrelevant because neither answer is correct. The press is establishment, oriented to centrism and authority, whoever happens to be holding office.
In October 2006, Britain’s Lancet — one of the world’s oldest and best medical journals — reported on its findings about civilian casualties in Iraq. It found there had been 654,965 civilian deaths related to the war, which was about 2.5 percent of the population. This was in line with an earlier survey it had performed in 2004 and was higher than U.S. government estimates.
George W. Bush was told about the survey and he said, “Six hundred thousand or whatever they guessed at is just — it’s not credible.”
“Whatever they guessed at”? Lancet researchers, often in dangerous situations, spoke to more than 1,850 families in numerous household clusters in that unfortunate nation, 12,800 people in all. This methodology was far superior to other sources, such as Iraq Body Count, which (believe it or not) relied on media reports. And the Lancet survey was peer-reviewed, which was true of only one of a dozen or so other similar surveys.
Yet the press went along with Bush, thereafter usually quoting other, lower estimates than Lancet. Authority had triumphed over reliability.
In the late 1990s, U.S. leaders were pleased that a new news entity had been launched by the reformer Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa of Qatar. Named Al Jazeera (Island) and carried by satellite to 35 million people in the region, it provided an independent news source in the Middle East, to the consternation of other Arab leaders, who to this day want it shut down (in June, Egypt imprisoned two Al Jazeera journalists for terms of seven and 10 years, and in March, three Arab nations pulled their ambassadors out of Qatar).
Al Jazeera actually provided (and still provides) better coverage of innumerable issues than the U.S. press, including some events inside the United States. U.S. officials and journalists found it indispensable.
In May 2001 in the United States, Ed Bradley profiled Al Jazeera on “60 Minutes,” describing “an information revolution that allows Al Jazeera to bypass government censors and broadcast directly into people’s homes throughout the Arab world … Every single Arab country has complained to Qatar about Al Jazeera … But what makes Al Jazeera must-see TV for Arabs is its emphasis on news, investigative reports and documentaries, plus a wide range of talk shows that discuss subjects that, in most Arab media, are strictly taboo.”
Then on Sept. 11 that year, the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies occurred. In subsequent months and years, Al Jazeera maintained its stance of not serving as a voice for any government. The Bush administration was offended that Al Jazeera did not parrot its views on the Afghan and Iraq wars and pressured the government of Qatar to do something.
A British newspaper reported that in 2004 Bush considered bombing Al Jazeera’s operation in Doha. The U.S. press during that period responded to the Bush stance and began de-emphasizing Al Jazeera information in its reports. Authority had spoken.
On July 31, 2012, Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic floor leader, claimed without evidence that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney paid no income taxes for 10 years. But Reid conceded his claim might not be true. Two gullible reporters posted the rumor anyway, and it created a firestorm.
The fact-checking site Politifact, noting that Reid refused to substantiate the claim, deemed it false. Reid responded not by substantiating the claim but by attacking Politifact. An authority had spoken and some journalists were critical of Politifact instead of Reid. For instance, Time magazine and the Washington Monthly faulted Politifact for calling Reid on his rumormongering. Journalism had heard its master’s voice.
Lancet, Al Jazeera and Politifact are valued parts of the journalism community. They provide terrific service to the public. When major media entities can be demonized and damaged by politicians and even journalists buy into it, thus undercutting the usefulness of those entities, it says something about journalism, not politics.
Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.