In Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, James Fallows cites Homer Bigart, the doyen of the Vietnam War press corps, who “used to tell younger reporters that their first task was to drop the assumption that they understood a story before they reported it”—sage advice that has gone largely unheeded. Indeed, today the media game has changed dramatically. Reporters and news writers not only assume that they understand a story before it unfolds, they approach events with a cookie-cutter mentality, a prefabricated plot line. They come equipped with an entrenched political perspective that enables them to shape the news according to prior specification, a practice that has come to be known as “agenda journalism.”
For example, former head of India’s counter-terrorism agency Bahukutumbi Raman, writing for the South East Asia Analysis group, refers to “agenda and motivated journalism.” Jonathan Tobin writing in Commentary deplores the “agenda journalism” at The New York Times, which has “graduated into agitprop style distortions of the truth,” and Simon Plosker at Honest Reporting skewers the “Guardian’s agenda journalism.” More recently, Tom Blumer at PJ Media takes issue with the Associated Press’ promotion of something called “The New Distinctiveness” or “Journalism with Voice” which, as Blumer shows, quoting several salient examples, “has nothing to do with facts and everything to do with spin.” In short, “Journalism with Voice” is merely a fancy term for “agenda journalism.”
Blumer renames the Associated Press as the Administration’s Press since its chief purpose appears not to report the news fairly and accurately but to re-elect the Obama administration. But AP is only one division in the president’s army. It is no secret that Barack Obama rode to electoral victory in the armor-plated limousine provided by the mainstream media. The propaganda vehicle successfully deflected every salient criticism along with the hail of biographical data that would have put his campaign in serious jeopardy.
Similarly, the controversy over the now-defunct Journolist group does not cloud the fact that a number of its members were clearly playing partisan politics, attacking Republicans and suppressing unsavory facts about Obama. Jonathan Chait in The New Republic considered the rumpus exaggerated, but Mark Fitzgibbons writing in American Thinker and Roger Simon at Politico reveal the “malice” (Fitzgibbon’s word) and discernibly left-wing bias that governed the listserve’s procedures. One recalls, too, the forced resignations of CBS anchor Dan Rather and CNN executive vice president Eason Jordan, implicated in their respective scandals. And who can forget Newsweek’s mutilation of the truth in its Koran-flushing perjury? (The editors were obviously unfamiliar with H.J. Simson’s classic 1937 study, British Rule, and Rebellion, where he discusses the Koran-shredding ploy used by the Arabs to incriminate British officers during the Palestinian rebellion of 1936—though Newsweek was plainly, so to speak, on the same Palestinian page.) None of this should surprise us. In today’s media consortium in the West—the European media are guilty of the same kind of yellow journalism—it is obvious that a basic trust has been broken. The Fourth Estate has become the Fifth Column.
Naturally, journalism was always to some extent agenda driven. Every shade of the political spectrum boasted its particular newspaper, patronized by its targeted readership. The agenda was pretty well explicit. The difference today is threefold: the mantle of principled objectivity in which our journalists conspicuously garb themselves; the fact that the agenda is often undeclared, allowing the media to sail under false colors; and the expansion of global coverage into the visual, electronic and digital dimensions which purport to be mere aggregate news gatherers transposing the world directly and without deviation to the airwaves and the screen. In this way, the media is able to caramelize its product and, as a result, the underlying cookery generally goes undetected.
Robert Kaplan has justly written in Policy Review for December 2004 that “the ongoing centralization of major media outlets, the magnification of the media’s influence through various electronic means and satellite printing…has created new realms of authority akin to the emergence of a superpower with similarly profound geopolitical consequences.” This “superpower” has, for the most part, invaded the public mind with an army of reporters, columnists, think-tankers and editors engaged in the diffusion of fables and distortions. For what we used to call “journalistic integrity” is a rara avis and news reporting has come increasingly to reflect editorial policy—even the headline will often flaunt a compressed editorial opinion—making it difficult for the interested reader or viewer to arrive at a reasonable approximation of the truth, so far as it can be reliably determined.
As I mused in The Big Lie, when even so sedate a commentator as William Watson refers in passing in a National Post column to that “demonic moron” George W. Bush, we know we are no longer in the world of accountable journalism, a world shrinking at a vertiginous rate. Another example of such a betrayal of responsibility is Charles Brooker’s now-infamous column in The Guardian for October 23, 2004 in which he called for the assassination of President Bush: “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr.—where are you now that we need you.” Such jaundiced sentiment masking as informed opinion shows how corrupt our press has become and explains how Aidan White, general secretary of the International Association of Journalists, can describe Hezbollah’s propaganda tool, the Al-Manar television network, as a “free press.” Like to like.
Foreign correspondence features the same decadent symptoms as the national brand of specious advocacy and cultivated ignorance. The Western media today is terminally infected by the lazy incompetence of journalists who are generally unfamiliar with the areas and issues they report upon, have little or no knowledge of the languages of the regions to which they have been posted, rely on “fixers” and second-hand or biased sources of information, arrive on the job with their own set of prejudices, and are, for the most part, profoundly uneducated in politics and history. The general modus operandi is simple: jump to premature conclusions, accept orchestrated events as veridical and interpretation as fact, ignore confuting or problematic data, and suppress or damp down countervailing intel when the truth eventually emerges. There is now little that may serve to distinguish our notable news organs from, let us say, the Palestinian daily Al-Hayat al-Jadida or the Arabic television channel Al Jazeera.