Monday, May 16, 2005

Three Cheers for the Ethical Media

Well. They did it again. Try to take a cheap shot at the Bush administration and/or the military, report an unsubstantiated claim that a soldier flushed a Koran down the toilet, and all hell breaks loose in Afghanistan. Nice job, Newsweek!

Anyone who has ever had any personal connection to a news story knows how badly they often botch it or sensationalize it. And this is probably the main benefit of the blogs - they have become the watchdog of the supposed watchdog. I remember when I was grad student, and the local TV news did an "expose" of the fact that undergrads (who at a state university get a college education very cheaply) are actually taught by graduate students! Oh, the horror. They even got occasional commenter Professor Pat B. (now of Duke) with some camera hidden in a notebook copping to the plea. Not three years later, Pat was teaching at Harvard! But his students were apparently ripped off, because they were paying two grand per quarter for the same material he taught at Harvard for 20 grand per semester. (Admittedley, if they had me for a teacher, they had a legitimate complaint).

Thirty some years ago journalism had its day - breaking the mighty Watergate case - a third rate burglary that in and of itself didn't amount to much, but the subsequent Nixon cover-up did. It has inspired a whole generation of journalists to be the next Woodward and Bernstein or, short of that, to make things up! Steven Glass (New Republic), Jayson Blair (NYT), Michael Isikoff (Newsweek), Dan Rather (CBS), the entire Baghdad bureau of CNN, the exploding SUV crew of NBC - the list goes on and is only getting longer. And when these guys respond to the threat to their little monopoly posed by the internet, they say you can't trust the bloggers cause they aint got ethics. That may be so, but in cases where we don't, we also lack the expertise to have an SUV explode on impact. We're like evil scientists without the money to buy a lab, whereas these guys have the run of MIT.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How could I not comment on this one. I really thought this story was bogus since even students at very expensive private schools have TA's leading sections like I was doing when "caught" on hidden camera. An interesting tidbit is that the producer of the story grew up not more than 10 miles from me.

Our friend John K has dealt with the media quite often as an economist at the Fed. He tells me that he is happy when their quotes totally distort his meaning.

Whenever I talk to a reporter (which is about once a month), I always think defensively based on my earlier experience. They are most likely to quote the most sensational thing that you say. I can't believe how little even business reporters at top places like CNN or Business Week know about economics.

Hope all is well with you Hatcher. I am in DC at the end of June- we should grab a beer.


6:18 AM  
Blogger Professor Vic said...

Well, I certainly can't defend every action of the press, and every profession has a wide range of practioners from the very good to the very bad.

I too have had pretty extensive dealings with the press, including interviews with such leading news sources as GolfWeek magazine and Starbroek News, the leading media outlet of Guyana. It has been my experience, like my esteemed colleague from NC, that the lack of economics knowledge of most reporters is pretty low, although occasionally some really surprise me.

It is also my impression, however, that the reporters really are trying to get the story right. True, they are also trying to sell papers and therefore need an interesting story, but they seem to generally be interested in what I have to say and quote me pretty accurately.

I would also add that I think Newsweek has gotten a bad rap on this one. A government source told them that he read in secret government documents about copies of the Koran being flushed down the toilet.

Newsweek then works on substantiating the claim by going to two further sources with the allegation. One source refused to comment on the story. Another source read the story and said that there were some errors in the story, but the errors he pointed out were not about the Koran issue.

So Newsweek runs the story and the initial source realizes that he read a passage about a inmate flushing the Koran in protest rather than a soldier doing it and retracts his initial comments.

I mean, what do you expect Newsweek to do? They had their source and got implicit verification. Now their source recants and the magazine very quickly and very publicly issues a retraction. That's how things are supposed to work. It's better not to get things wrong in the first place, but one can only do so much when dealing with people with fallible memories. It is truly unfortunate that a couple of dozen people died as a result of the error.

Going to war in Iraq, the Bush administration had their inaccurate sources about WMDs, didn't do a good job in getting verification, and for months continued on with the fiction that Iraq had WMDs. Not exactly the way things are supposed to work. It's better not to get things wrong in the first place, but I will grant the Bush administration a bit a leeway that one can only do so much when dealing with people with fallible memories. It is truly unfortunate that a couple of thousand coalition soliders died as a result of the error.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

Man that last paragraph was beyond the pale. In one case, you have a careless story run by a careless media that jeopardizes the significant gains achieved by the sacrifice of our soldiers in Afganistan. And for what purpose?

In the second case, you have an administration trying to defend the country and preempt the further strengthening of a clearly hostile regime. You may disagree with that policy, but it is what it is. If they were mistaken about WMDs, so was the entire Western world, and unlike the media they don't have the luxury of not "running with the story" when their proof is not ironclad. And its not like the soldiers fought for nothing, as the mass graves that have since been discovered prove out.

With comparisons like that, you should be writing for Newsweek, but you are probably not qualified for the leading media outlet of Guyana.

8:01 AM  
Anonymous the_giant said...

I like to take the Charles Barkley approach to dealing with reporters. This may be a reason I rarley get quoted in the press. It never ceased to amaze me how he could say the most outlandish things about anything and he would be all over the local and even national news. Charles, what do you think about the mayoral race? Charles, what do you think about the socio-economic repercussions of tariffs on Chinese imports and womens labor movements? Charles, what do you think about divorced homosexuals trying to adopt children?

PatB - - you must think offensively! Remember, defense wins championships but offense wins All-Star games and graps headlines! Simple as that. You will likely be misquoted anyway, so you might as well do your best to be over-the-top.

Note: Oil is going to $250 per barrel and gold will be $800 an ounce! Now put me on MSNBC.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Incredible Dirigible said...

I believe the media must be extremely careful when they report on alleged prisoner abuses, since they clearly have repercussions throughout the world that are ultimately tragic. The media is in such a hurry to discredit the US, and the Bush administration, that they are even willing to weaken the war on terror to achieve their goals.

I don't condone the prisoner abuses such as the ones at Abu Graib (sp?), but honestly, I'm not that "outraged" by them either. (Sorry, but I'm not.) 1) They appeared to be more along the lines of "humiliation" and "intimidation" than "torture". 2) The prisoners are TERRORISTS like those who crashed the planes on 9/11. 3) Media outlets such as the New York Times, which ran over 50 front-page stories about Abu Graib, seem more outraged about that than they do about civilian beheadings in the region. Come on! Reporting on abuses is expected. Emphasizing them, exaggerating them, or reporting allegations as Fact hurts our troops & our country.

8:23 AM  
Blogger pbryon said...

Dare I suggest that Hatcher and friends read Olbermann's blog today?

1:57 PM  
Blogger Professor Vic said...

All I am trying to say in my concluding paragraph that Hatch gets so upset about is that it is while it is of some concern that the media gets its facts right, it is far, far more important that government gets its facts right.

When CBS screwed up the faked Bush memos last fall, several of the very most important people at the company lost their jobs.

When the people giving the President all sorts of information about Iraq screwed up, information that, in comparison, really matters, they got Congressional Medals of Honor or promotions.

It's a bit of a quibble, but I would also note that while Bush and company may have been trying to "defend the country and preempt the further strengthening of a clearly hostile regime," the case they made to the public was that we were going to war because Iraq had WMDs. In fact, Bush said if Saddam got rid of his WMDs to our satisfaction, we wouldn't invade, so Bush himself says that Saddam filling mass graves with his own people wasn't a justifcation for war.

Finally, we did have the luxury of "not running with the story." We could have not simply invaded Iraq. True that millions of Iraqis would still be under the thumb of the oppressive thugs who are bombing them today, but we didn't "need" to invade Iraq any more than we "need" to invade the Sudan today to end the genocide there.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Incredible Dirigible said...

The only problem with your last paragraph, Professor Vic, is that if we DIDN'T invade Iraq, and they DID have WMDs as all (!) the intelligence indicated, all hell could have broken loose.

In early 2002, the media started pummelling President Bush, saying, if you had info that Osama bin Ladin was dangerous, why didn't you act on it and prevent 9/11? Clearly, they had the opposite attitude towards Saddam Hussein.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Professor Vic said...

I can't argue with Dirigible's last comment as it is a completely fair one.

One last thing I would note, however, is that I think it is a pretty depressing commentary on America (as well as Europe and the rest of world, I realize), that Bush can only get the country behind him to liberate the people of Iraq by (in retrospect, falsely) claiming Saddam is about to nuke us rather than by making the case that Saddam is a genocidal butcher.

There's no reason for us to go save hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Sudan, because at least the killers are unlikely to be able to project their brutality on us.

I guess the lesson is that if you are member of a violently oppressed minority, you had better hope your oppressors are packing more than just machetes and guns. The guns will kill you either way, but at least if the dictator has some hidden WMDs, you've got a bit of hope of getting help from the U.S.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

Actually Vic, you have to be lucky enough to be at the right point in your dictator's development of weapons. If they are killing people with sticks, you're screwed. If they're gunning them down sitting atop a pile of nuclear warheads, you're also screwed. It's when we think that they are about to go from sticks to nukes that these people have a chance.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those in power know mainstream media was a dying cause for years now. Now that those behind the mainstream media orgs are losing their prime soapbox, they're more dangerous than ever. Now they need to penetrate orgs like the defense community directly since they won't otherwise have their voice in mainstream media to induce those imperialistic missions they desire. What we need to do is to make politics less important. Place complete unimportance on politics and make the hair stand on the backs of politicians when they try to do _anything_. Bitch, moan, and complain. Lets fire all politicans today and have but only a handful of departments. D.C. should be the size of Oaklyn. Politics are useless. The free market is everything.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Incredible Dirigible said...

I agree with the Hatcher about "going from sticks to nukes".

Whenever I see any kind of documentary about the Holocaust, there is always a sort of theme that 'this must never be allowed to happen again'. But tragically, and infuriatingly, it DOES happen again--the genocide in Cambodia & Rwanda, the mass graves & rape rooms in Iraq, the slavery in the Sudan.

So without trying to sound like a warmonger, I pose the questions to the anti-war activists: how many micro-Holocausts are we willing to tolerate before "going at it alone" or taking "pre-emptive action"? If we can't stop All the genocides, should we still stop the ones we can?

9:49 AM  

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