A few months ago, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of public attitudes about U.S. news coverage, asking people whether the media usually get the facts straight. In past polls, 55 percent have said the media usually gets it right, an outcome considered shockingly low at the time.
This time, 36 percent said that coverage of major stories is accurate. And this isn't an isolated finding. Explaining the survey, Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut added that various questions show "fewer people believing what they read, what they hear and what they see in the news media."
You can't blame them. The disconnect between "official" news and reality on the ground continues to grow. It doesn't help that the government openly pays journalists to plant stories and spin policy.
In that regard, the most recent revelation is the Agriculture Department's payment of a freelance writer to place stories about preservation of wetlands in hunting and fishing magazines. The writer, Dave Smith, received $9,375 for promoting the administration's line, a pittance compared to the $240,000 commentator Armstrong Williams was paid by the Education Department to promote the "no child left behind" program or the $40,000 two columnists received from the Health and Human Services Department for writing brochures and training its staff in how to manage the media.
But the problem goes even deeper. Sometimes the mainstream media simply ignore the news. Case in point: a British newspaper recently revealed clear evidence that U.S. intelligence was shaped to support the drive for war in Iraq. The evidence includes various documents, including the minutes of a July 23, 2002 meeting in the office of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, during which British support for the war was considered a given. "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided," the minutes state.
As a result, 88 members of the House of Representatives are demanding an investigation. But this so-called "smoking gun" memo and the congressional response it has sparked have received little attention in the U.S. media.
According to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a self-described progressive group offering criticism of media bias and censorship, the most widely circulated story came from the Knight-Ridder wire service, which mentioned a leaked memo that said "facts were being fixed around the policy." A columnist for the Cox News Service also mentioned the memos, as did Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler, who noted that Post readers were complaining about the lack of coverage. However, he didn't explain why the paper decided to ignore the story. The New York Times offered only a passing mention.
A CNN correspondent did report that the memos were receiving attention on various Web sites, where bloggers were "wondering why it's not getting more coverage in the U.S. Media" But that apparently didn't impress the network's gatekeepers. When CNN covered the complaints coming from Congress, it failed to explain the alleged manipulation of intelligence.
Another recent example of how the media carries water for the administration and its friends comes from The New York Times, which recently was drawn into some historical revision work. According to a May 7 article in the newspaper, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga wants an apology from Russia for the Soviet Union's decision in 1939 to join German forces in occupying Poland.
Vike-Freiberga's statement followed a letter sent by President George W. Bush to the presidents of several Baltic nations on the eve his trip to Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany's World War II defeat. In the letter, Bush called the end of the war the beginning of the unlawful Soviet annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Vike-Freiberga, a close U.S. ally, also told the Times about a "Soviet occupation" of the three Baltic nations. In 1940, however, after the German invasion of Poland, the three Baltic countries initially invited in Soviet troops for protection.
Soviet troops also never joined forces with Germany in attacking Poland. Rather, a week after Germany invaded, they moved into eastern regions of the country, taking back territory Poland had previously annexed from Soviet Ukraine.
Bush's letter provoked an angry response from Russia, which in turn prompted the Latvian president's retort. The Times printed the U.S.-Latvian version of history as if it was fact.
With coverage like this, it's no wonder people think the media often don't get it right. News consumers may be misinformed due to all the spin and omissions, but fortunately most aren't as gullible as the administration and its water-bearers in the national media corps think.Greg Guma edits the Vermont Guardian, a statewide weekly. Guma can be reached at Greg@vermontguardian.com.