Opinion » Ted Rall

It's the skepticism, stupid

How the media can restore credibility


NEW YORK--Judith Miller, the mousy Bush administration propaganda mouthpiece forced to retire from The New York Times last week, is hardly an anomaly. American journalism is contaminated by widespread institutional corruption. Yet coming on the heels of the same paper's humiliation by phony reporter Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass' reign of error at The New Republic, the Miller mess's further contribution to the media's ever-diminishing credibility--the Gallup poll finds that 49 percent of Americans consider the news mostly or completely unreliable--has prompted industry insiders to propose cures so toothless that they only expose the cluelessness of those proposing them.

Miller, who cut-and-pasted the White House's Saddam-has-WMDs press releases into the Times to help build support for the invasion of Iraq, is being characterized as a rogue reporter by the same editors who encouraged and published her tripe. And the punditocracy is going along. She "should be promptly dismissed for crimes against journalism, and her own newspaper," Greg Mitchell wrote in the industry trade journal Editor & Publisher. "And Bill Keller, executive editor, who let her get away with it, owes readers, at the minimum, an apology." Slate.com media critic Jack Shafer, on the other hand, would settle for a mere "explanation."

The sad fact is that Miller and Blair, rather than rare exceptions, reflect the endemic vices of elitism, unaccountability and star worship that afflict our journalistic institutions beginning with top management. It will take more than another pro forma mea culpa to rebuild their eroded credibility. Systemic changes are essential.

Journalists shouldn't get cozy with government officials. Shafer wrote in 2003: "[Judith] Miller grew incredibly close to numerous Iraqi sources, both named and anonymous, who gave her detailed interviews about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction." A reporter's job is to discover and tell the truth. A politician's job is to lie. Like giant squid and sperm whales, politicians and reporters are natural enemies. With the exception of talking to whistleblowers, editors and producers ought to ban reporters from associating with high-ranking government and corporate officials outside the confines of a press conference or a formal interview situation. Press conferences produce lies, not news. What comes out of them should be treated as news only after it has been independently verified.

They should be accessible. "Isolation impairs accountability," says Philip Seib, author of a book on reporting in the cyber era. An Ivory Tower mentality keeps news away. It's easier to track down Dick Cheney in his undisclosed location than to get your local news anchorperson on the phone. Too few newspapers and almost no broadcast outlets make it easy for their readers, listeners and viewers to contact their employees, whether to correct an error or suggest a story idea. Some newspaper Web sites don't even list their main phone number! Every newspaper by-line should carry its writer's direct phone number and e-mail address, and they should be required to return their messages.

Reveal biases, even in feature pieces. The New York Times Book Review frequently assigns reviews to writers with a personal, philosophical and political axe to grind against a the review's subject. Movie and music reviewers are similarly afflicted. Readers feel betrayed when they discover these biases elsewhere. If media outlets host a grudge match, they ought to own up to it at the top of the piece so readers can take the relevant history into account. Better still, don't assign pieces where there's a conflict of interest.

Stop hiring out of J-School. Only 10 percent of working print journalists hold a graduate degree in journalism but this expensive diploma makes it easier for them to land a job at influential outfits like the Times. Journalism school graduates are likelier to come from wealthy families, have less work experience in other fields and identify with powerful elites. J-Schools contribute to the lack of racial and class diversity in newsrooms, which remain 86 percent white--further separating them from their communities.

Ban patriotism. While I was covering the war in Afghanistan in 2001, a colleague from a major U.S. paper informed me: "We've captured Kunduz!" We? Never mind editorial independence--she identified with the Northern Alliance because they were backed by the United States. CNN mimicked Fox News' perpetually waving stars-and-stripes logo and TV anchors from Maine to Hawaii sported flag lapel pins--a prop on state television in dictatorships. Even when the United States is at war, reporters should remain neutral. Skeptics make better journalists than patriots.

Embedded reporters are whores. If Judy Miller got too close to Ahmed Chalabi, she had nothing on the hundreds of ersatz journalists who rode into Iraq in American tanks and armored personnel carriers. "When the only safety for a reporter is being embedded with the U.S. military, the reported stories tend to have a positive spin," Steve Weissman dryly observed. Reporters under military control invariably become subject to the Stockholm Syndrome. Reporters playing soldier sacrifice the popular goodwill that comes from being perceived as unbiased and thus increase the risk of attacks--such as beheadings in Iraq--against their peers. When I couldn't find a media outlet willing to send me to the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an independent, I refused to go. Correspondents who participate in a story--a war, say--deserve to be fired.

Be suspicious of showboats. Lucky and well-connected reporters should always raise red flags. Stephen Glass' editors loved him because he always turned in amazing stories--about a Wall Street shrine to Alan Greenspan, for example, or orgies of Young Republicans. Jayson Blair always seemed to be at the right place at the right time when he was actually hanging out at his apartment; Judith Miller ingratiated herself to her bosses with her high-level contacts (liars) in the White House. In the real world, lucky breaks and reliable sources are few and far between. As one of my first editors told my disconsolate self when I returned empty-handed from an assignment, "Write the truth. They refused to talk to you. So what? That's a story, too."