The mainstream U.S. news media often laments the decline of objective journalism, pointing disapprovingly at the more subjective news that comes from the Internet or from ideological programming whether Fox News on the Right or some MSNBC hosts on the Left.
But one could argue that the U.S. mainstream press has inflicted the severest damage to the concept of objective journalism by routinely ignoring those principles, which demand that a reporter set aside personal prejudices (as best one can) and approach each story with a common standard of fairness.
The truth is that powerful mainstream news organizations have their own sacred cows and tend to hire journalists who intuitively take into account whose ox might get gored while doing a story. In other words, mainstream (or centrist) journalism has its own biases though they may be less noticeable because they often reflect the prevailing view of the national Establishment.
How that translates into daily coverage is that an American news outlet often will demand a much lower threshold of evidence about serious accusations against a perceived U.S. enemy than an ally.
For instance, during the 1980s, when I was with the Associated Press and Newsweek, I witnessed extraordinary demands for airtight evidence regarding the real problem of cocaine trafficking by the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contras, compared with easy acceptance of flimsy evidence about similar accusations against Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
After all, President Ronald Reagan had hailed the contras as "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers" and had denounced Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua as "a totalitarian dungeon." Truly objective U.S. journalism would have tossed out Reagan's characterizations and simply evaluated the cocaine-smuggling evidence, but that was not how it worked.
Even years later, in 1998 when the CIA's inspector general concluded that scores of contra figures and groups were implicated in cocaine smuggling, the mainstream U.S. news media ignored or downplayed those findings, while continuing to pummel journalist Gary Webb for flaws in his multi-part investigative series that had revived the contra-cocaine issue in 1996.
The journalistic blacklisting of Webb - carried out by the leading lights of U.S. newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times) - contributed to Webb's suicide in 2004. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "We All Failed Gary Webb."]
While the Webb tragedy may have been an extreme case of the mainstream news media tailoring its coverage of a controversial issue to fit acceptable political parameters, the constraints that applied to the contra-cocaine issue were part of a long-running pattern.
Indeed, several years after ganging up on Gary Webb - and protecting Reagan's beloved contras - many of the same newspapers got in line behind President George W. Bush's case for war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Claims about Hussein's supposed WMD stockpiles were trumpeted while contrary evidence was muted.
The Hariri Example
Even after Bush invaded Iraq and discovered no WMD, the U.S. news media didn't seem to learn much. In another case that has recently returned to the news - alleged Syrian complicity in the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - the double standards continued.
Because Syria was then on President Bush's hit list for "regime change," speculative evidence of Syrian guilt was widely accepted by the U.S. news media, which demonstrated very little skepticism toward a preliminary United Nations report implicating Syrian leaders and their Lebanese allies.
"There is probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services," declared the U.N.'s first interim report on Oct. 20, 2005.
Despite the curiously vague wording - "probable cause to believe" the killing "could not have been taken without the approval" and "without the collusion" - Bush immediately termed the findings "very disturbing" and called for the Security Council to take action against Syria.
The U.S. press joined the stampede in assuming Syrian guilt. On Oct. 25, 2005, a New York Times editorial said the U.N. investigation had been "tough and meticulous" in establishing "some deeply troubling facts" about Hariri's murderers. The Times demanded punishment of top Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies.
But the U.N. investigative report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis was anything but "meticulous." Indeed, it read more like a compilation of circumstantial evidence and conspiracy theories than a dispassionate pursuit of the truth.
As a wealthy businessman with close ties to the Saudi monarchy, Hariri had many enemies who might have wanted him dead for his business or political dealings. The Syrians were not alone in having a motive to eliminate Hariri.
Indeed, after the assassination, a videotape was delivered to al-Jazeera television on which a Lebanese youth, Ahmad Abu Adass, claimed to have carried out the suicide bombing on behalf of Islamic militants angered by Hariri's work for "the agent of the infidels" in Saudi Arabia.
However, the initial U.N. report relied on two witnesses - Zuhair Ibn Muhammad Said Saddik and Hussam Taher Hussam - to dismiss the videotape as part of a disinformation campaign designed to deflect suspicion from Syria.
Investigator Mehlis then spun a narrative of a Syrian conspiracy to kill Hariri. The findings meshed well with the Bush administration's goals and the desire of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians to isolate Syrian sympathizers and force a full withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanese territory.
Four pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials were jailed on suspicion of involvement in Hariri's murder. Everything was falling neatly into place.
As a new U.S. press hysteria built over another case of pure evil traced to the doorstep of an American adversary, the holes in the U.N. report were mostly ignored. At Consortiumnews.com, we produced one of the few critical examinations of what had the looks of another rush to judgment. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report."]
A Case Crumbles
Much like the Iraqi WMD evidence, the Hariri case soon began to crumble.
One witness, Saddik, was identified by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming "a millionaire" from his Hariri testimony. The other one, Hussam, recanted his testimony about Syrian involvement, saying he lied to the Mehlis investigation after being kidnapped, tortured and offered $1.3 million by Lebanese officials.
Mehlis soon stepped down, as even the New York Times acknowledged that the conflicting accusations had given the investigation the feel of "a fictional spy thriller." [NYT, Dec. 7, 2005]
Mehlis's replacements backed away from his Syrian accusations. The next chief investigator, Serge Brammertz of Belgium, began entertaining other investigative leads, examining a variety of possible motives and a number of potential perpetrators.
"Given the many different positions occupied by Mr. Hariri, and his wide range of public and private-sector activities, the [U.N.] commission was investigating a number of different motives, including political motivations, personal vendettas, financial circumstances and extremist ideologies, or any combination of those motivations," Brammertz's interim report said, according to a U.N. statement on June 14, 2006.
In other words, Brammertz had dumped Mehlis's single-minded theory that had pinned the blame on senior Syrian security officials. Though Syria's freewheeling intelligence services and their Lebanese cohorts remained on everyone's suspect list, Brammertz adopted a far less confrontational and accusatory tone toward Syria.
Syria had kind words for Brammertz's report, too. Fayssal Mekdad, Syria's Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, praised "its objectivity and professionalism" and said the investigators "had begun to uncover the truth" after Mehlis departed.
Still, the U.S. news media, which had played the initial Mehlis accusations against Syria as front-page news, barely mentioned the shift in the U.N. probe. Virtually nothing appeared in the U.S. news media that would alert the American people to the fact that the distinct impression they got in 2005 - that the Syrian government had engineered a terrorist bombing in Beirut - was now a whole lot fuzzier.
Instead, it remained common practice for the U.S. news media to continue citing the Mehlis report and referring to "Syrian officials implicated in Mr. Hariri's killing" - as the New York Times did - without providing more context.
Freeing the ‘Suspects'
Now, more than four years after the Hariri assassination, the U.N. tribunal handling his murder and other terrorist acts in Lebanon finally has acknowledged that it lacks evidence to indict the four security officials who have been held without formal charges since 2005.
That shift was foreshadowed in a Dec. 2, 2008, interim report to the U.N. Security Council, which lamented the complexity of the case.
"For every inch of progress there is a mile of effort," the report said. "Those responsible for the attacks were professional and took extensive measures to cover their tracks and hide their identity. Much of the Commission's activity at this point in the investigation focuses on piercing this smokescreen to get at the truth."
On Wednesday, Judge Daniel Fransen of a special international tribunal ordered the four imprisoned security officials released.
In a similar situation - say, one that involved a U.S. ally - the release would have been viewed as proof of innocence or at least the absence of significant evidence of guilt.
In this case, however, the New York Times refused to acknowledge the obvious fact that the case against Syrian complicity remains weak. Instead, the Times framed the development as underscoring "the legal pitfalls of a divisive international trial." [NYT, April 30, 2009]
The stubbornly one-sided approach can be explained by the fact that U.S. journalists fear that balanced reporting about a case involving an unpopular regime like Syria can have negative career consequences. That risk would rise dramatically if it were to turn out that the Syrian security officials were guilty after all, which remains a distinct possibility.
So slanting the story in an anti-Syrian direction makes all the career sense in the world, much as it did to buy into Bush's WMD claims about Iraq before the invasion. What do you think would have happened to a U.S. reporter's career if he or she had raised a lot of questions about the WMD and it turned out that Saddam Hussein was hiding secret stockpiles?
Career-minded reporters and editors judged that the smart strategy was to play up the anti-Iraq WMD claims - even though they came from dubious and self-interested sources - and to play down or ignore the counter-evidence.
Though the world has now seen the extraordinary cost in blood and treasure because of the failure of the U.S. news media to act professionally in the run-up to the Iraq War, there is little indication that the national press corps has learned lasting lessons from that catastrophe, as the Hariri case shows.
Another casualty of this behavior has been the discrediting of "objective journalism," which after all rests on the courage of reporters and editors to insist on fairness even when the pressure is intense to go with the flow. Objectivity means applying a single standard to friends - and to foes.
So, while the mainstream U.S. press can legitimately criticize news outlets that let ideology contaminate a commitment to the truth, is it really any better to let misguided patriotism - or fear of career retribution - distort the facts?