The New York Times has publicly acknowledged errors in its reporting on Iraq. Less an apology and more an attempt to cover journalistic humiliation, the editors confess: "Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge."
While one wants to celebrate the historically momentous occasion of the "newspaper of record" admitting its lack of rigor and careful scrutiny of sources, for many this "apology" feels empty and hollow. Too little, too late. Too many people dead. Too many hungry. Too many orphans and too many mass graves. Too much ink wasted and airtime purchased to ensure the Bush administration's horrific and never justified invasion of Iraq.
Belated apologies carry a unique dissatisfaction that is semi-paralyzing and functions to silence further those to whom the apology is overdue. If one isn't grateful, one is bitter and resentful. Yet forgiveness seems impossible.
It is not unlike the classic gendered story: The secretary of the CEO suggests a good idea at a meeting and no one responds. A few moments later, a man in the meeting suggests the same thing and everyone applauds his great idea. Thousands of us have had the brilliant idea that the N.Y. Times, among other news sources, was failing its journalistic responsibility, but now the editors get to claim this lauded notion.
For those of us who have questioned the coverage all along, who are part of that unpatriotic "minority" who questioned the invasion of Iraq and even Afghanistan, who read international and independent news, we are left with the haunting sense of living in a twilight zone. A twilight zone, because we have been calling and writing letters not just to the Times but to NPR (National Public Radio), FOX and CNN since Sept. 11 to demand that a greater diversity of sources and experts be allowed to speak. Even without FAIR's (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) latest survey that shows that 64 per cent of NPR's sources are "elite" — conservative and Republican spokespersons of the administration and corporations — we have demanded that media examine their systematic misinformation.
The N.Y. Times and dozens of other media underreported the millions of anti-war protesters in the U.S. and internationally who took to the streets month after month to oppose this invasion. In fact, NPR and the N.Y. Times corrected their numbers on the count of war protesters in 2002. Meanwhile, they did correctly report President George Bush stating that he doesn't attend to these protesters because that would be like basing "public policy on a focus group."
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, Newsweek ran a story questioning WMD. A veteran CBC reporter recently confessed to a public audience his deep concern that reporters have adopted a herd mentality, unquestioningly following the easy story. He confessed that reporters ignored Newsweek and instead fed the public Colin Powell's photo op with the small vial "proving" that Saddam Hussein had WMD.
The "easy" story means parroting White House briefings and feeding those as objective news. Even international newspapers generally critical of U.S. foreign policy are guilty of spoon-feeding live feed from the Pentagon when they elect to run AP and other mass media stories.
At the HotDocs film festival in Toronto last month, there were three excellent documentaries regarding the unseen aspects of war reporting. These films included The Control Room (Jehane Noujaim) on Al Jazeera; War Feels Like War (Esteban Uyarra) on unilateral reporters' experience in Iraq; and Michael MacLear's Vietnam: Ghosts of War that details how little the media and the military alike know about the actual justifications of war.
Where is the wool coming from, and exactly whose eyes is it being pulled over? To blame reporters for poor reporting is misleading. More important is to identify the less visible editorial and production — and even stockholders'— influence on when, how and what gets reported.
The N.Y. Times admission cannot help but smell like last-minute political jockeying to distance itself from an increasingly unpopular Bush administration.
Meanwhile, though one might like to celebrate the N.Y. Times admission of error as a positive historical turning point in the management of media institutions, it is almost impossible to swallow this "apology" and not sniff something rotten. What really tipped the balance, and will we ever know? How can one not suspect that the prison abuse scandal, the call for Donald Rumsfeld to be fired, and Bush's plummeting public favor aren't reason for the Times to jockey into a new political liaison? To gain face and realign with new elite sources come the next presidency — corruption and cowardice with a different but gaunter face.
What goes on behind the media's closed doors, where the media embed with the highest military officials, which newspapers are in whose pockets — these are the stories apparently not "sensational" enough for our public eyes to see.
Megan Boler is associate professor in Theory and Policy Studies at OISE/University of Toronto.
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