On 12 April 2008, Nicholas Kristof’s column in the New York Times lamented the degree to which journalists had lost the public’s trust. He asserted (and was self-aware enough to acknowledge that his assertion might appear self-serving) that some of the public’s perception of journalists as untrustworthy was the result of a concerted effort from the political right wing to paint them in the most unflattering and unpatriotic of terms — a complaint made more defensible and, perhaps, a bit more poignant, when considered in hindsight from the current Trumpian political climate. But Mr. Kristof also identified a variety of other reasons for the public’s ire with journalists, including a certain insularity in their view of the world and, more importantly, an arrogance (which he again, thought to be a somewhat unfair characterization) about that viewpoint and about their own sense of self-importance. I sent this directly to Mr. Kristof, not for publication but to illustrate some reasons he might not have considered that the public’s sense of journalistic arrogance was not, perhaps, as exaggerated as he thought.
12 April 2005
One issue related to “arrogance” — perhaps something which makes readers see arrogance where reporters do not — is the seeming ignorance with which reporters approach so many issues, and with an apparent lack of concern over that. Reporters who majored in “journalism” have often seemingly studied very little outside of their writing and reporting curriculum; and most seem never to have worked outside of the media. Yet they, nonetheless, presume that they are not only qualified to report on complex political, social, and technological issues but to pontificate upon them — that their few days or weeks of research makes them not only observers of events but experts on them.
To be sure, there are some very smart people in journalism and sufficient time spent delving into a topic tends to bring you into contact with enough of the subject matter and with enough of the experts in the field to buy you some expertise of your own. Thus, high-level journalists and columnists — like yourself — who have worked within a specialty (say, foreign affairs) throughout a long career may be reliably considered “experts” in that specialty.
But that would seem not to represent the bulk of reporters writing the bulk of news stories.
You cited people writing about gun control who know nothing about guns, and mentioned a need to find more “red state evangelicals” for the newsroom. But it goes well beyond that. As a former military officer (many years ago), I cringed every time I saw a Pentagon press conference during the wars in Iraq: It was clear that almost all the reporters not only knew nothing about military operations but were also incapable of — and to all appearances had no interest in — understanding strategic or tactical or operational security considerations; and it was also clear they had no respect for those of whom they were asking questions. I see the same thing often in business reporting (or any reporting having to do with economics), in science and technology reporting, in pretty much any reporting of anything having to do with mathematics (like reporting on the results of statistical studies in medicine and sociology), and on and on.
Further, that sense of ignorance is exacerbated by the impression that the primary personal goal of reporters is not to tell us what is true but to expose something unexpected, something that will serve their career interest rather than our news interest. Of course people will work for success, and no good conservative ought to fault them for that. But it’s not supposed to be so obvious. In Iraq it is clear that setting a hard and fast date for troop withdrawal turns the insurgency into a game of “run out the clock”. Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney, and everyone else, have been saying that since the beginning and steadfastly refusing to cede that advantage. How many times must some reporter ask them, “Do you have a timeline for troop withdrawal?” Are they trying to report news or are they trying to get someone to screw up? And, if they do manage to get someone to screw up — if they manage to get their big headline and big “gotcha”: “Rumsfeld says troops will be home by September!” — how much damage to our goals and interests are they willing to inflict for that scoop? Do they care? Sometimes it seems not.
PS: in the same category as going for a “gotcha”, one complaint about the way the entire Abu Graib scandal was reported is precisely the way in which any consideration of national goals and national well-being were seemingly ignored. I know it is the job of the press to report news, not to protect the national interest, but if you have a choice between aligning with or against that interest, between making us safer or not, by the way you report a story, most people would prefer you choose the former.
The entire episode of abuse was rotten to the core. It needed to be condemned (and there was no condemnation strong enough) and people — perhaps even people all the way to the top of the chain of command — should have been held accountable. But there were two ways the story could have been reported, both fully consistent with the facts as they were known:
- By the time reporters heard about it, the military had already discovered it had a problem. People at the site had been or were now being relieved of their duties and an investigation was in work. There had clearly been a breakdown in discipline, one which may or may not have been exacerbated by orders or policy hints from the top, and the reasons for that breakdown needed to be investigated. But, since the corrective system was already on the case, people were going to be held accountable — and, yes, the press intended to keep attention focused on the investigation to ensure that. Further, now that it was known what had happened and that we were trying to correct it, people throughout the political realm, and in a bipartisan manner, could condemn it in graphic and extreme terms. It is a story about the dangers of zealotry and of a siege mentality; it is a cautionary tale about how our systems can break down when we put security on a pedestal above liberty and about how we need to be vigilant against such excesses; and it is a validation of democratic systems generally, that they provide built in mechanisms — including both internal checks and balances and a vigorous press — to ferret out and correct such all-too-human abominations if and when they occur. In fact, the story is a reminder of why democracy is so important, precisely because of the dangers inherent in the exercise of power and of the need to reign power in.
- Extra! Shocking photos that the army doesn’t want you to see! Cover up! Torture! We’re no better than Saddam! It’s Bush’s fault! He told them to do it! And, of course, since it’s now a story of cover-up and scandal during an election — rather than a story of how democracies can both fall prey to human failing and, yet, self-correct — it is overtly and implacably political. Bipartisanship is impossible. We must accuse and, therefore, we must circle the wagons. We must blame and, therefore, we must deny all responsibility. It is not tragedy, but farce. It is not a story about hubris and systemic breakdown, but a story about personal corruption and Imperial ambition. It is not a story about human frailty but about the hypocrisy of America and the moral emptiness of democracy.
The press, of course, chose the second version and spread its vision of American hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy throughout the world. And, of course, that made achieving success in Iraq and in the greater Middle East more difficult. That made it less, rather than more, likely that we could bring our troops home any time soon.
Is it any wonder that some people think that reporters “hate America”? Is it any wonder that some people think journalists are “arrogant” for choosing their own narrow version of what serves our interest and allowing their choices to supersede the choices made by those we’ve elected to govern on our behalf?
© Copyright 2005, Augustus P. Lowell