The New York Times is often cited as the finest newspaper in the world. In Do Not Disturb (Black Inc, 2005), Robert Manne claims that the Times and Washington Post maintain a ‘fierce tradition’ of holding government and business to account. He clearly hasn’t been following the greatest media scandal of the last decade, and the invaluable contribution of both these publications in bolstering the Bush Administration’s deceitful case for war.
Let’s go back a few years. Times journalist Judith Miller was a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter with a history of covering terrorism and national security issues. In the run-up to the most recent Iraq War, Miller wrote numerous doomsday reports on Saddam’s supposed WMD stockpile. Her sources always anonymous seemed convinced that war was the only option to neutralise Iraq’s chemical, biological and possibly even nuclear weapons.
The paper’s editors allowed Miller free rein she was, after all, an award-winning reporter and failed (or chose not) to recognise her ever-increasing reliance on Bush Administration spin. It remains unclear how much the paper’s editors actually knew. Post 9/11, a traumatised American population was gradually but systematically set-up to support an illegal, immoral and counterproductive war.
The media’s role in this debacle is only now being examined and accountability has been minimal. But the story has intensified in the last few months. The current investigation, led by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, is examining how the name of an undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame, was leaked to the media. Figures close to both President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are prime suspects.
Plame is the wife of Joseph Wilson, a critic of the Iraq War. Judith Miller recently served jail time for protecting a source related to the Plame investigation and was, initially at least, hailed as a free speech hero by her paper. No more. The mood changed as information came to light that proved Miller’s compromised position with the Bush Administration. She will no longer be writing for the paper. (Check out Arianna Huffington for more on this issue.)
Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, argues that the New York Times became a willing vessel for government spin because the new political environment seemingly demanded it. Here’s Cole from his blog on 24 October:
The NYT had no sources to speak of inside the Bush administration – a real drawback in covering Washington – because it was a Left-of-centre newspaper in a political environment dominated by the Right. Miller had sources among the neo-conservatives, with whom she shared some key concerns (biological weapons, the threat of Muslim radicalism, etc) so she could get the Washington ‘scoops.’ And her perspective skewed Right in ways that could protect the NYT from charges that it was consistently biased against Bush. Of course, in retrospect, Bush’s world was a dangerous fantasy, and giving it space on the front page of the NYT just sullied the Grey Lady with malicious prevarications.
The Australian media have largely ignored the controversy. (Fairfax’s Michael Gawenda produced a small article about the Times‘s woes on 24 October. On the same day, he expressed admiration for the Times‘s ‘great depth and breadth’, describing it as ‘a paper that for newspaper junkies is one of the joys of living in America.’)
Surely, it’s important to examine whether a major media institution has been compromised in its reporting, and been unable to differentiate between spin, propaganda and fact? Miller was simply a reporter it was a litany of editors who allowed her work to be prominently published in the paper. They are equally culpable.
The Times isn’t the only guilty party. The Washington Post and other major newspapers were happy to regurgitate, rather than question, the Bush Administration’s lies. Indeed, such practices existed well before George W Bush, and have been a mainstay of relations between government officials and journalists in the Western world for decades.
The public’s confidence in the media is at an all-time low, and reporters and editors wonder why this is so. The mainstream media’s structural reliance on corporate largesse and access means they are increasingly unlikely to ask the tough questions of our political, media and business elite.
Jeff Cohen, founder of US-media watchdog FAIR, recently wrote, ‘ the cosy relationships between the elites of media and government persist to the point where we can’t tell today whether officials are journalists’ sources, or vice versa.’ The Miller/Times/Plame/WMD/Iraq scandal has put the practice of elite journalism on trial.
After the recent publication of the Latham Diaries (MUP, 2005), Mark Latham articulated the sad reality of today’s media: its job is not to serve the public interest, but to maximise profits. A statement bound to disappoint idealists, but a challenge to the rest of us.
Latham cracked the club in Australia and that is why his diaries are one of the most important political books ever written in this country. Until we realise that institutions like the Times will almost always side with the establishment they are structurally incapable of doing otherwise we will be doing little more than tinkering at the edges.
The Plame scandal is providing a fascinating ride through the machinations of modern government and its cheerleading media. Everyone’s hands are dirty from media players to the entire Bush Administration.
I’m happy that faith in the elite media is so low. The very foundations of its existence are revealed and the public is finally able to see who is colluding with whom. After all, we can at least vote for politicians every four years.
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