Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Superiority of the American Press is Crumbling

Published on Tuesday, November 8, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
Everything corporations touch turns to crap
by Joe Lauria
 

Some Italian reporters have long put American journalism on a pedestal but the myth of the American press’ superiority is crumbling.

American journalism wraps itself in the mantle of exceptionalism usually associated with U.S. foreign policy. Washington imposes international law on other nations but doesn’t believe it applies to itself.

Likewise, the U.S. news media pries into private lives and unearths unethical behaviour of government officials and corporate executives but refuses to examine its own ethical shortcomings. It is easy to block criticism when you control the presses and the airwaves.

But the most powerful American newspaper, the New York Times, has turned on itself over its failure to challenge the government’s march into Iraq. It was unprecedented for a New York Times columnist to rip a New York Times reporter in the pages of the New York Times. The biting Times news story about the misadventures of Judy Miller’s pre-war reporting was also very rare.

The self-criticism is peeling away a central deception of American journalism: that it is always objective and unbiased. In fact its biases are normally hidden, unlike in Italy where they are trumpeted on the front page.

Italian newspapers run editorials on the cover everyday. Front-page editorials in America are extremely rare.

Many Italian dailies are organs of political parties: Il Popolo was for the Christian Democrats, Il Manifesto still is for communists and so on. They don’t hide their political viewpoint.

In Italy, the prime minister owns a media empire. Berlusconi’s outlets naturally support his government. Carlo de Benedetti, a Berlusconi opponent, openly uses his media to oppose the prime minister. There’s nothing hidden about it.

In other words, Italy’s news is more honestly slanted than America’s.

A U.S. president could never get away with owning a newspaper or a TV station. But the president has a more indirect, subtle way to control the news. A government that finds a free press a nuisance must make it dependent while maintaining the illusion of its independence. This White House has done that splendidly by exploiting the great weakness of the American press: its clamor for Almighty Access and for leaks.

Too many American journalists are blinded by the illusion of celebrity and the vicarious power that comes from being close to high-level government officials. Careerism is often the motive rather than serving the public by challenging government, especially when thousands of innocent lives are at stake.

Access and easy leaks are confused with digging out a story that government doesn't want the public to know. Every official has a motive for leaking, and a reporter must find it out. Most often the leaker has an agenda and is exploiting the reporter’s ego to further it.

By cozying up to their sources, American journalists think of themselves as great reporters because of their access, not realizing, or not caring, that they are often being manipulated. Sometimes they agree ideologically with the leaker. But the chief job of journalism is to challenge authority, not take an official’s words as true just because he is an official.

Since US officials don’t own newspapers they leak to control the press, unlike Berlusconi and his opponents. But a Berlusconi ally who differs with him may leak to the opposition papers. This is key: a leaker who is a whistleblower against the powerful is entirely different from the powerful leaking to push their agenda.

To personify the difference between the Italian and the American press, one need only compare Giuliana Sgrena and Judy Miller. Both are controversial journalists. Both spent weeks in captivity because of the US invasion of Iraq. That’s where the similarity ends.

Sgrena was kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents while reporting the war from ordinary Iraqis’ viewpoint. She shunned press conferences. She avoided access to “official” sources. Her viewpoint is already well known. She is a communist. You can take it or leave it.

Miller’s politics are unknown. She was imprisoned by a federal court for protecting the name of a powerful official source who may have broken the law by smearing a whistleblower trying to avert the deaths of ordinary Iraqis and Americans. She admits now that the stories she wrote based on leaks about WMD were wrong, stories that purposely drummed up support for invasion.

Miller was embedded with a special US MET Alpha force just behind the front lines that expected to find the WMD. She was dressed in a military uniform and told the colonel leading the unit where to search. When he rejected her advice, she called a general friend who pressured the colonel to listen to her.

Which do you prefer: the openly avowed Italian communist slanting the news from her theoretical point of view or the “objective” American journalist?

Joe Lauria is a freelance correspondent covering the UN for the Boston Globe and Wall Street for The Business (London). He is also a freelance investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London. He can be reached at unjoe@aol.com.

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