The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Iraqi WMD coverage: again

A couple of pieces from Village Voice taking an unusual line:

On June 1, Richard Goldstein's treatment of the New York Times' infamous Editor's Note [1] suggests an explanation:
The media in general jumped to the government's jingo whip. That speaks to the force that really dominates our press: public opinion.

What made the invasion possible was the surge in popular support, which cowed the mainstream media, which then failed to highlight facts that could have turned the tide. Only recently, as opinion began to shift, did the fourth estate discover its courage.

What a jolly good theory! From the media's viewpoint, of course: far better be accused of cowardice than of being accessory to war crimes!

It does chime in with Dana Priest's comments in Michael Massing's famous New York Review of Books treatment of the subject (February 10):
Many readers...were intolerant of articles critical of the President. Whenever The Washington Post ran such pieces, reporter Dana Priest recalls, "We got tons of hate mail and threats, calling our patriotism into question."

Administration and voters in a pincer movement on the Filter! Von Schlieffen, eat your heart out!

Goldstein had a follow-up yesterday, prompted by his earlier exculpation of the Times as a cause of the war.

He rightly points out that relations between the media and its customers are complex and dynamic, and certainly don't all work in one direction:
...the media...create a space to challenge this consensus, and that space is one of the main arenas for social change...We ought to hold the Times responsible for abandoning this role - and for failing to report the facts - but not for the massive loss of life in Iraq. That blame should fall on the government, which became a medium unto itself by providing incendiary rhetoric and imagery that made most people feel like they were in the middle of a low-res hyper-real combat film.

Not only advertising revenue was at stake:
To the extent that a publication cares about being respected by its readers, it will trim its sails to please them.

The customer is always right.

A pleasingly cynical Realpolitik analysis, full of Ninth Beatitude thinking.

Except - what happens when the readers find out that they have been deceived? I can't recall seeing polling evidence of Times readers following the Editor's Note, as to how many intended to stop buying or subscribing as a result of the WMD reporting fiasco.

This would in turn depend on what expectations they had of the paper in the first place: worshippers at the Temple of Objective Journalism (and how many are they?) would no doubt have applauded the general stenographic bent to the coverage, and comfort themselves that the lies and deceptions were, at least, officially sanctioned lies and deceptions [2].

Simpler folk - such as your humble blogger, before his painful and barely commenced initiation into the arcana of the journo freemasonry - might have assumed that the foremost newspaper of the nation might have checked what went into its columns [3].

Others still might have assumed that journalists actually had some pride, and and that they would have rebelled against being spoon-fed junk by USG and friends under pain of losing contacts. (Even simpler folk, you might think.)

Was there a market for doubt on Iraq from the Times in the pre-war period? There were the marchers, of course. And the polling evidence showed persistent majorities who favoured war only with UN support, or with allies [4]. Are there publicly available polls of the Times readership asking similar questions in that period? I'd guess that the readership skews left compared with the population as a whole, and that the proportion of war doubters, and the intensity of their doubts, would be have been correspondingly larger.

So, all other things being equal, there might have been money to be made in taking a deliberately sceptical stance on USG's war propaganda. Was this even considered? If so, at what level, and when?

Perhaps, as Goldstein mentions, it was fear of a backlash from advertisers - who would not necessarily skew as left as their Times customers!

Or fear of a USG backlash: I'm not sure whether an complete boycott of a single paper has every been tried by an administration. One would suppose from reading Ken Auletta's famous New Yorker piece that this, if any, would be the administration to do it. More likely, USG would have worked something subtler - sand in the machine, unaccountable snafus, general harassment of Times-men.

Most likely, I suspect, it would have been the stenographic imperative that would have held it back: the paper's role as scribe to power, like medieval churchmen [5], trading autonomy for the illusion of indispensability.

Goldstein's final graf starts:
What conclusions do I draw from this? Mainly that focusing on the media distracts us from the really crucial task, which is changing public opinion. How can we do that in a world where power is so consolidated and so generous in its provision of spectacle? I don't know...

Since he has no answer [6], perhaps he'll forgive those of us who do when we continue, faute de mieux, to focus on the media.

  1. May 26 piece; umpteen more on the issue here - a search on miller should get most of them.

  2. This being the period before Ahmed Chalabi's Adamite fall!

  3. Miller 'checking' with intelligence (ha!) agencies whose 'source' was the same as hers hardly counts.

  4. has a whole heap of polling on Iraq - and many other topics beside. Not in date order, unfortunately; but this page has an NBC poll (search page on Dec. 7-9, 2002) which puts support for military action without UN support at 35% (to 55% with) and without allies at 35% (to 54% with).

  5. I believe that a good proportion of early medieval European kings were illiterate. Most of the lordly class was. Literacy was mostly the preserve of the Church - though much Latin written there was execrable. Alcuin in the court of Charlemagne is a good place to pick up the story.

  6. Isn't there scope for quantitative methods to assist here? The sort of work done by Susan Moeller and Devon Largio (discussed here, and both names eminently searchable!). The hypothesis that a newspaper's coverage is (to a substantial extent) determined by the opinion of its readers ought to be susceptible of testing: not necessarily in relation to Iraqi WMD coverage, of course.

    Bo Bo Man David Brooks is rightly hammered for his sweeping anthropological generalisations made without the least bit of quantitative evidence - same applies here, surely?

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