Torturing the Truth

Random Lengths News | June 15, 2004
In an early April interview with Random Lengths , the author of a recently-released study, “Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Susan Moeller, said there was a “malevolent synergy” between Bush Administration manipulations and standard journalistic practices. The result was a suppression of accurate information.

When Random Lengths re-interviewed Moeller several weeks after Sixty Minutes II aired the prisoner abuse photos from Abu Graib, Moeller said that some of the same journalistic practices were responsible for previously burying the story—pieces of which (detention of innocents, prisoner abuse, and more general human rights violations) had long been evident. In both instances, standard journalist practices helped to stifle public understanding, rather than enriching it.

A systematic study of press failings regarding torture and abuse of prisoners couldn’t be done overnight, even if it were theoretically possible. Which is why Moeller’s WMD study deserves a second look—it underscores systematic problems that distort information across a wide range of subjects.

“It wasn’t just the content, it was the form that shaped what we thought,” Moeller explained. The Bush Administration understands how to use the form far better than practicing journalists do, her study showed. “Poor coverage of WMD resulted less form political bias on the part of journalists, editors and producers than from tired journalistic conventions,” her study warned.

The study covered three three-week periods, in May 1998, October 2002 and May 2003, including stories in the Washington Post (46 stories); New York Times (49 stories); Los Angeles Times (44 stories); Christian Science Monitor (18 stories); and two leading British papers, The Guardian (six stories); and The Daily Telegraph (two stories). The Washington Post and New York Times are particularly influential in setting the agenda for broadcast media coverage. Such coverage is invariably more superficial due to time constraints.

“There’s a malevolent synergy between this administration, and its understanding of the daily news cycle, and the media’s proclivity to prioritize breaking news, major figures, etc.,” Moeller said. “This administration understands, not just how to get people out on the news shows, but how to continue dominating the news cycle.” As a result, she explained, “You never get second day stories any more. You only have first day stories.”

Second day stories are critical follow-up pieces, which can reveal serious contradictions, provide counter-evidence, explore contrary points-of-view, etc. By speeding its response, “You have the administration stepping in with its own framing,” pre-empting more balanced second-day coverage, Moeller explained. While never perfect, “in a slower news age or with a less news-savvy Administration, the way news people went about doing their job was much more successful.”

Some of the study’s major findings were:

“1. Most media outlets represented WMD as a monolithic menace, failing to adequately distinguish between weapons programs and actual weapons or to address the real differences among chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological weapons.

“2. Most journalists accepted the Bush Administration’s formulation of the ‘War on Terror’ as a campaign against WMD, in contrast to coverage during the Clinton era, when many journalists made careful distinctions between acts of terrorism and the acquisition and use of WMD.

“3. Many stories stenographically reported the incumbent administration’s perspective on WMD, giving too little critical examination of the way officials framed the events, issues, threats, and policy options.

“4. Two few stories proffered alternative perspectives to [the] official line, a problem exacerbated by the journalistic prioritizing of breaking-news stories and the ‘inverted pyramid’ style of story-telling”

The ‘inverted pyramid’ style gives first say on what the most “important” person has to say—a key to how the Administration drowned out other points-of-view. (A similar failure of this same convention in dealing with the Vietnam War was a major reason behind the explosive growth of the alternative press in the 1960s.)

The impact of such coverage has been profound. A study by the Project on International Policy Alternatives (PIPA) found that as recently as mid-March, sixty percent of Americans believed that Iraq either “Had actual weapons of mass destruction” (38 percent) or “Had no weapons of mass destruction, but had a major program for developing them” (22 percent). Furthermore, 65 percent said either that most experts agree Iraq did have WMDs (30 percent) or that experts are “evenly divided on the question” (35 percent).

While experts continually cast doubt on Bush Administration WMD claims, their perspectives never served to frame the coverage of the issue—even to this day, as PIPA’s findings show. The same could be said about human rights experts and local observers whose warnings about US maltreatment of Iraqis dated from the original invasion. But following up on such warnings is not the corporate media’s strong suit.

Indeed, the first similarity Moeller cited between the two instances was “the tendency of the media to focus on the breaking news stories, rather than stories that take enterprise.” Investigative stories are harder to do, Moeller noted. “They are time-consuming, and expensive, they take attention away from what’s happening now…both in terms of time and real estate, space in the paper.” Even the best-intentioned reporters face “the tyranny…[of] the 24-7 deadline, always having to compete with what just happened.”

Stenographic reporting was “less of a problem,” Moeller said, “although you are again seeing the consequence of pack journalism.” Previously, the pack ignored glaring signs of human rights abuse—including the US massacre of civilians in Fallujah on April 29, 2003, which sowed the seeds for the ongoing resistance there. Now that the pack has picked up the scent at Abu Ghraib, will it follow it back to where it should have started sniffing over a year ago?

That would be “time-consuming, and expensive,” as Moeller put it.

Random Lengths News

Founded in 1979 as a counterbalance to the conservative, corporate- owned daily paper, Random Lengths News draws on the rich history of the Los Angeles Harbor Area. The name harkens back to a description of the lumber that used to...
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