Massing on Iraq Press Coverage
The way in which so much of the US press neglected to exercise their faculties of critical reasoning in the face of Bush administration claims about Iraq has generated remarkably little writing or self-reflection. It is in fact quite striking that talking heads and journalists who were completely wrong about Iraq, such as Judith Miller, appear to have more or less gotten away with it.
Michael Massing’s incisive review of the issue, forthcoming in the New York Review of Books, is available online at the indispensable Tomdispatch.com. Massing begins with the Fassihi incident and the Wall Street Journal:
‘ Toward the end of September, Farnaz Fassihi, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Baghdad, sent an e-mail to forty friends describing her working conditions in Iraq. Fassihi had been sending out such messages on a regular basis, but this one seethed with anger and frustration. “Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days,” she wrote, “is like being under virtual house arrest…. I avoid going to people’s homes and never walk in the streets. I can’t go grocery shopping any more, can’t eat in restaurants, can’t strike a conversation with strangers, can’t look for stories, can’t drive in any thing but a full armored car, can’t go to scenes of breaking news, can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside, can’t take a road trip, can’t say I’m an American, can’t linger at checkpoints, can’t be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can’t and can’t.” . . .
Interestingly, no such account appeared in the Wall Street Journal. For Fassihi’s criticism of Bush administration policy outraged some readers, who insisted that she could no longer write about Iraq with the necessary objectivity. In response, the Journal announced that Fassihi was going to take a previously scheduled vacation from Iraq and that this would keep her from writing anything more about it until after the US election . . . ‘
I remember the WSJ actually saying that Fassihi wouldn’t be allowed to report on Iraq again until after the Nov. 2 elections, once this memo leaked. It was as though she were now viewed as biased against Bush because she simply reported the reality.
I talk to journalists in Baghdad by phone, and they really are stuck in their hotel rooms. One told me of fears of being kidnapped, because shady characters follow the journalists if they try to go out.
Massing is right about the massive politicization of media coverage of the war and the ways in which editors’ desperate search for “even-handedness” favors Bush. If you have a mix of nine persons from across the mainstream US political spectrum, the addition of a 10th who is an extremist of some sort (say a fascist) would skew the average of the whole group substantially. Since Bush administration positions are often extreme and even fantastic, counting them as “one side” of a two-sided story ensures that the line demarcating the “sides” is drawn very substantially to the right of where mainstream US political opinion tends to come down.
Speaking of press coverage, The Independent has a piece on VanityFair.com, the magazine’s lively Web offering. The Independent quotes contributing editor James Wolcott as saying that bloggers are “the best thing to hit journalism since the political pamphlet.” It seems to me that this characterization of weblogs as a form of “political pamphlet” is historically suggestive. Robert Darnton’s work on the 18th century Grub Street as a context for the Enlightenment has shown the importance of pamphleteering. May we be so luck as to get a major intellectual movement out of all this blogging!