[Reader-list] The Press: The Enemy Within (New York Review of Books)

Ravi Sundaram ravis at sarai.net
Thu Dec 29 19:35:04 IST 2005

The continuing saga of the scandal of the US 
media. Our own media in India is probably worse, 
where the links between money, power and staged 
media events is more than ever before. What is 
common to the pre-war US media and its current 
Indian counterpart is a certain smugness and 
triumphalism. Some day the main new here will be 
the scandal of the media industry itself.

Volume 52, Number 20 · December 15, 2005

The Press: The Enemy Within
By Michael Massing

The past few months have witnessed a striking 
change in the fortunes of two well-known 
journalists: Anderson Cooper and Judith Miller. 
CNN's Cooper, the one-time host of the 
entertainment show The Mole, who was known mostly 
for his pin-up good looks, hip outfits, and showy 
sentimentality, suddenly emerged during Hurricane 
Katrina as a tribune for the dispossessed and a 
scourge of do-nothing officials. He sought out 
poor blacks who were stranded in New Orleans, 
expressed anger over bodies rotting in the 
street, and rudely interrupted Louisiana Senator 
Mary Landrieu when she began thanking federal 
officials for their efforts. When people "listen 
to politicians thanking one another and 
complimenting each other," he told her, "you 
know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of 
people here who are very upset, and very angry, 
and very frustrated." After receiving much 
praise, Cooper in early November was named to 
replace Aaron Brown as the host of CNN's NewsNight.

By then, Judith Miller was trying to salvage her 
reputation. After eighty-five days in jail for 
refusing to testify to the grand jury in the 
Valerie Plame leak case, she was greeted not with 
widespread appreciation for her sacrifice in 
protecting her source but with angry questions 
about her relations with Lewis Libby and her 
dealings with her editors, one of whom, Bill 
Keller, said he regretted he "had not sat her 
down for a thorough debriefing" after she was 
subpoenaed as a witness. The controversy revived 
the simmering resentment among her fellow 
reporters, and many Times readers, over her 
reporting on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. 
In the Times's account, published on October 16, 
Miller acknowledged for the first time that 
"WMD­I got it totally wrong." Bill Keller said 
that after becoming the paper's executive editor 
in 2003, he had told Miller that she could no 
longer cover Iraq and weapons issues, but that 
"she kept drifting on her own back into the 
national security realm." For her part, Miller 
insisted that she had "cooperated with editorial 
decisions" and expressed regret that she was not 
allowed to do follow-up reporting on why the 
intelligence on WMD had been so wrong; on 
November 8, she agreed to leave the Times after 
twenty-eight years at the paper.[1]

These contrasting tales suggest something about 
the changing state of American journalism. For 
many reporters, the bold coverage of the effects 
of the hurricane, and of the administration's 
glaring failure to respond effectively, has 
helped to begin making up for their timid 
reporting on the existence of WMD. Among some 
journalists I've spoken with, shame has given way 
to pride, and there is much talk about the need 
to get back to the basic responsibility of 
reporters, to expose wrongdoing and the failures 
of the political system. In recent weeks, 
journalists have been asking more pointed 
questions at press conferences, attempting to 
investigate cronyism and corruption in the White 
House and Congress, and doing more to document 
the plight of people without jobs or a place to live.

Will such changes prove lasting? In a previous 
article, I described many of the external 
pressures besetting journalists today, including 
a hostile White House, aggressive conservative 
critics, and greedy corporate owners.[2] Here, I 
will concentrate on the press's internal 
problems­not on its many ethical and professional 
lapses, which have been extensively discussed 
elsewhere, but rather on the structural problems 
that keep the press from fulfilling its 
responsibilities to serve as a witness to 
injustice and a watchdog over the powerful. To 
some extent, these problems consist of 
professional practices and proclivities that 
inhibit reporting ­a reliance on "access," an 
excessive striving for "balance," an uncritical 
fascination with celebrities. Equally important 
is the increasing isolation of much of the 
profession from disadvantaged Americans and the 
difficulties they face. Finally, and most 
significantly, there's the political climate in 
which journalists work. Today's political 
pressures too often breed in journalists a 
tendency toward self-censorship, toward shying 
away from the pursuit of truths that might prove 
unpopular, whether with official authorities or the public.


In late October 2004, Ken Silverstein, an 
investigative reporter in the Washington bureau 
of the Los Angeles Times, went to St. Louis to 
write about Democratic efforts to mobilize 
African-American voters. In 2000, the Justice 
Department later found, many of the city's black 
voters had been improperly turned away from the 
polls by Republican Party officials. Democrats 
were charging the Republicans with preparing to 
do the same in 2004, and Silverstein found 
evidence for their claim. Republican officials 
accused the Democrats of similar irregularities, 
but their case seemed flimsy by comparison, a 
point that even a local Republican official acknowledged to him.

While doing his research, however, Silverstein 
learned that the Los Angeles Times had sent 
reporters to several other states to report on 
charges of voter fraud, and, further, that his 
findings were going to be incorporated into a 
larger national story about how both parties in 
those states were accusing each other of fraud 
and intimidation. The resulting story, bearing 
the bland headline "Partisan Suspicions Run High in Swing States," described

     the extraordinarily rancorous and 
mistrustful atmosphere that pervades battleground 
states in the final days of the presidential 
campaign. In Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, 
Pennsylvania, Oregon and other key states, 
Democrats and Republicans seem convinced their 
opponents are bent on stealing the election.

The section on Missouri gave equal time to the 
claims of Democrats and Republicans.

Troubled by this outcome, Silverstein sent an 
editor a memo outlining his concerns. The paper's 
"insistence on 'balance' is totally misleading 
and leads to utterly spineless reporting with no 
edge," he wrote. In Missouri, there was "a real 
effort on the part of the GOP...to suppress 
pro-Dem constituencies." The GOP complaints, by 
contrast, "concern isolated cases that are not 
going to impact the outcome of the election." He went on:

     I am completely exasperated by this approach 
to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out 
to report but when it comes time to write we turn 
our brains off and repeat the spin from both 
sides. God forbid we should...attempt to fairly 
assess what we see with our own eyes. "Balanced" 
is not fair, it's just an easy way of avoiding 
real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.

This is not to deny that the best newspapers run 
many first-rate stories, Silverstein said, or 
that reporters working on long-term projects are 
often given leeway to "pile up evidence and 
demonstrate a case." During the last year, he has 
written articles on the ties between the CIA and 
the Sudanese intelligence service; on American 
oil companies' political and economic alliances 
with corrupt third-world regimes; and on 
conflicts of interest involving Pennsylvania 
Congressman John Murtha. When it comes to 
political coverage, though, Silverstein told me, 
newspapers are too often "afraid of being seen as 
having an opinion." They fear "provoking a 
reaction in which they'll be accused of bias, 
however unfounded the charge." The insistence on 
a "spurious balance," he says, is a widespread 
problem in how TV and print organizations cover news. "It's very stifling."

As Silverstein suggests, this fear of bias, and 
of appearing unbalanced, acts as a powerful 
sedative on American journalists­one whose effect 
has been magnified by the incessant attacks of 
conservative bloggers and radio talk-show 
hosts.[3] One reason journalists performed so 
poorly in the months before the Iraq war was that 
there were few Democrats willing to criticize the 
Bush administration on the record; without such 
cover, journalists feared they would be branded 
as hostile to the President and labeled as 
"liberal" by conservative commentators.

The Plame leak case has provided further insight 
into the relation between the journalistic and 
political establishments. It's now clear that 
Lewis Libby was an important figure in the White 
House and a key architect of the administration's 
push for war in Iraq. Many journalists seem to 
have spoken with him regularly, and to have been 
fully aware of his power, yet virtually none 
bothered to inform the public about him, much 
less scrutinize his actions on behalf of the 
vice-president. A search of major newspapers in 
the fifteen months before the war turned up 
exactly one substantial article about Libby­a 
breezy piece by Elisabeth Bumiller in the The New 
York Times about his novel The Apprentice.

In reporting on the government, the Los Angeles 
Times, like other papers, faces another serious 
constraint. As a result of budget cuts imposed by 
its corporate owner, The Tribune Company, the 
Times recently reduced its Washington staff from 
sixty-one to fifty-five (of whom thirty-nine are 
reporters). Doyle McManus, the bureau chief, says 
the paper is stretched very thin. Since September 
11, 2001, he has had to assign so many reporters 
(eight at the moment) to covering news about 
national security that many domestic issues have 
been neglected. The Times has only four daily 
reporters to cover everything from health care to 
labor to the regulatory agencies, and it has no 
regular reporter in Washington dealing with the 
problems of the environment. "It's nuts for a 
California paper to have its environmental job 
open this long," McManus says. The Chicago 
Tribune, he said, has a full-time agriculture 
writer whose beat includes agribusiness and its 
activities in Wash-ington. Despite the huge 
national political influence of agricultural 
interests, the Los Angeles Times, like most other 
big US papers, lacks the resources to report on them regularly.

The same is true of most of official Washington. 
At no time since before the New Deal, perhaps, 
has corporate America had so much power and so 
much influence in Washington. Between 1998 and 
2004, the amount of money spent on lobbying the 
federal government doubled to nearly $3 billion a 
year, according to the Center for Public 
Integrity, a watchdog group. The US Chamber of 
Commerce alone spent $53 million in 2004. During 
the last six years, General Motors has spent $48 
million and Ford $41 million. Before joining the 
Bush White House, chief of staff Andrew Card 
worked as a lobbyist for the big auto companies. 
To what extent have such payments and activities 
contributed to the virtual freeze on the 
fuel-efficiency standards that have long been in 
effect in the US and which have helped to produce 
the current oil crisis? More generally, how have 
corporations used their extraordinary wealth to 
win tax breaks, gain no-bid contracts, and bend 
administrative rules to their liking? On November 
10, The Wall Street Journal ran a probing 
front-page piece about how the textile industry, 
through intensive lobbying, won quotas on Chinese 
imports­an example of the type of analysis that 
far too rarely appears in our leading 
publications. "Wall Street's influence in 
Washington has been one of the most undercovered 
areas in journalism for decades," according to 
Charles Lewis, the former director of the Center for Public Integrity.

Of course, corporations are extensively covered 
in the business sections of most newspapers. 
These began growing in size in the 1970s and 
1980s, and today The New York Times has about 
sixty reporters assigned to business. The Times, 
along with The Wall Street Journal, runs many 
stories raising questions about corporate 
behavior. For the most part, though, the business 
sections are addressed to members of the business 
world and are mainly concerned to provide them 
with information they can use to invest their 
money, manage their companies, and understand 
Wall Street trends. Reflecting this narrow focus, 
the business press in the 1980s largely missed 
the savings and loan scandal. In the 1990s, it 
published enthusiastic reports on the high-tech 
boom, then watched in bafflement as it collapsed. 
Of the hundreds of American business reporters, 
only one­Fortune's Bethany McLean­had the 
independence and courage to raise questions about 
the high valuation of Enron's stock. The criminal 
activities in recent years of not only Exxon but 
also WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, and other 
corporate malefactors have largely been exposed 
not by the business press but by public 
prosecutors; and the fate of the companies 
involved, and of those who were damaged by their 
lies, has been only fitfully followed up.

While business sections grow larger, the labor 
beat remains very solitary. In contrast to the 
many reporters covering business, the Times has 
only one, Steven Greenhouse, writing full-time 
about labor and workplace issues. (Several other 
Times reporters cover labor-related issues as 
part of their beats.) Greenhouse seems to be 
everywhere at once, reporting on union politics, 
low-wage workers, and corporate labor practices. 
More than any other big-city reporter, he has 
called attention to Wal-Mart's Dickensian working 
conditions. Yet he could surely use some help. 
When, for instance, General Motors recently 
announced that it was scaling back health 
benefits for its workforce, the story appeared on 
the Times's front page for a day, then settled 
back into the business section, where it was 
treated as another business story. As a result, 
the paper has largely overlooked the painful 
social effects that the retrenchments at GM, the 
auto-parts company Delphi, and other 
manufacturing concerns have had on the Midwest. 
More generally, the staffs of our top news 
organizations, who tend to be well-paid members 
of the upper middle class living mostly on the 
East and West Coasts, have limited contact with 
blue-collar America and so provide only sporadic coverage of its concerns.

This summer, Nancy Cleeland, after more than six 
years as the lone labor reporter at the Los 
Angeles Times, left her beat. She made the move 
"out of frustration," she told me. Her editors 
"really didn't want to have labor stories. They 
were always looking at labor from a management 
and business perspective­'how do we deal with 
these guys?'" In 2003, Cleeland was one of 
several reporters on a three-part series about 
Wal-Mart's labor practices that won the Times a 
Pulitzer Prize. That, she had hoped, would 
convince her editors of the value of covering 
labor, but in the end it didn't, she says. "They 
don't consider themselves hostile to 
working-class concerns, but they're all making 
too much money to relate to the problems that 
working-class people are facing," observed 
Cleeland, who is now writing about high school 
dropouts. Despite her strong urging, the paper 
has yet to name anyone to replace her. (Russ 
Stanton, the Los Angeles Times's business editor, 
says that the paper did value Cleeland's 
reporting, as shown by her many front-page 
stories. However, with his section recently 
losing six of its forty-eight reporters and 
facing more cuts, he said, her position is unlikely to be filled anytime soon.)

On August 30­the same day the waters of Lake 
Pontchartrain inundated New Orleans­the Census 
Bureau released its annual report on the nation's 
economic well-being. It showed that the poverty 
rate had increased to 12.7 percent in 2004 from 
12.5 percent in the previous year. In New York 
City, where so many national news organizations 
have their headquarters, the rate rose from 19 
percent in 2003 to 20.3 percent in 2004, meaning 
that one in every five New Yorkers is poor. On 
the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I­and 
many editors of The New York Times­live, the 
number of homeless people has visibly grown. Yet 
somehow they rarely appear in the pages of the press.

In 1998, Jason DeParle, after covering the debate 
in Washington over the 1996 Welfare Reform Act as 
well as its initial implementation, convinced his 
editors at The New York Times to let him live 
part-time in Milwaukee so that he could see 
Wisconsin's experimental approach up close. They 
agreed, and over the next year DeParle's 
reporting helped keep the welfare issue in the 
public eye. In 2000, he took a leave to write a 
book about the subject,[4] and the Times did not 
name anyone to replace him on the national 
poverty beat. And it still hasn't. Earlier this 
year, the Times ran a monumental series on class, 
and, in its day-to-day coverage of immigration, 
Med- icaid, and foster care, it does examine the 
problems of the poor, but certainly the stark 
deprivation afflicting the nation's urban cores 
deserves more systematic attention.

In March, Time magazine featured on its cover a 
story headlined "How to End Poverty," which was 
about poverty in the developing world. Concerning 
poverty in this country, the magazine ran very, 
very little in the first eight months of the 
year, before Hurricane Katrina. Here are some of 
the covers Time chose to run in that period: 
"Meet the Twixters: They Just Won't Grow Up"; 
"The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in 
America"; "The Right (and Wrong) Way to Treat 
Pain"; "Hail, Mary" (the Virgin Mary); "Ms. 
Right" (Anne Coulter); "The Last Star Wars"; "A 
Female Midlife Crisis?"; "Inside Bill's New 
X-Box" (Bill Gates's latest video game machine); 
"Lose That Spare Tire!" (weight-loss tips); 
"Being 13"; "The 25 Most Influential Hispanics in 
America"; "Hip Hop's Class Act"; and "How to Stop a Heart Attack."

The magazine's editors put special energy into 
their April 18 cover, "The Time 100." Now in its 
second year, this annual feature salutes the 
hundred "most influential" people in the world, 
including most recently NBA forward Lebron James, 
country singer Melissa Etheridge, filmmaker 
Quentin Tarantino, Ann Coulter (again!), 
journalist Malcolm Gladwell, and evangelical 
best-selling author Rick Warren. Time enlisted 
additional celebrities to write profiles of some 
of the chosen one hundred­Tom Brokaw on Jon 
Stewart, Bono on Jeffrey Sachs, Donald Trump on 
Martha Stewart, and Henry Kissinger on 
Condoleezza Rice (she's handling the challenges 
facing her "with panache and conviction" and is 
enjoying "a nearly unprecedented level of 
authority"). To celebrate, Time invited the 
influentials and their chroniclers to a black-tie 
gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time-Warner Building.

A staff member of Time's business department told 
me that the "100" issue is highly valued because 
of the amount of advertising it generates. In 
2004, for instance, when Hewlett-Packard CEO 
Carly Fiorina was named a "Builder and Titan," 
her company bought a two-page spread in the 
issue. Because Time's parent company, Time 
Warner, must post strong quarterly earnings to 
please Wall Street, the pressure to turn out such 
moneymakers remains intense. By contrast, there's 
little advertising to be had from writing about 
inner-city mothers, so the magazine seems 
unlikely to alter its coverage in any significant way.

Time's "100" gala is only one of the many glitzy 
events on the journalists' social calendar. The 
most popular is the White House Correspondents' 
Dinner. This year, hundreds of the nation's top 
journalists showed up at the Washington Hilton to 
mix with White House officials, military brass, 
Cabinet chiefs, diplomats, and actors. Laura 
Bush's naughty Desperate Housewives routine, in 
which she teased her husband for his early-to-bed 
habits and his attempt to milk a male horse, was 
shown over and over on the TV news; what wasn't 
shown was journalists jumping to their feet and 
applauding wildly. Afterward, many of the 
journalists and their guests went to the hot 
post-dinner party, hosted by Bloomberg News. On 
his blog, The Nation's David Corn described 
arriving with Newsweek's Mike Isikoff, New York 
Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and Times editor 
Jill Abramson. Seeing the long line, Corn feared 
he wouldn't get in, but suddenly Arianna 
Huffington showed up and "whisked me into her 
entourage." Huffington, he noted, asked everyone 
she encountered­Wesley Clark, John Podesta­if 
they'd like to participate in her new celebrity-rich mega-blog.

It was left to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show to 
imagine what the journalists and politicos at the 
dinner were saying to one another: "Deep down, 
we're both entrenched oligarchies with a stake in 
maintaining the status quo­enjoy your scrod."

A ruthlessly self-revealing look at journalists' 
obsession with celebrity was provided earlier 
this year by Bernard Weinraub. Writing in The New 
York Times about his experience covering 
Hollywood for the paper between 1991 and 2005, he 
told of becoming friendly with Jeffrey Katzenberg 
(when he was head of Walt Disney Studios), of 
being dazzled by the ranch-style house of 
producer Dawn Steel, of resenting the huge 
financial gulf between him and the people he was covering. He recalled:

     Waiting for a valet at the Bel-Air Hotel to 
bring my company-leased Ford, I once stood beside 
a journalist turned producer who said, "I used to 
drive a car like that." Though I'm ashamed to say 
it, I was soon hunting for parking spots near 
Orso or the Peninsula Hotel to avoid the 
discomfort of having a valet drive up my leased 
two-year-old Buick in front of some luncheon companion with a Mercedes.

During the 1990s, the Times reporters, Weinraub 
among them, breathlessly recorded every move of 
the agent Michael Ovitz. Today, it does the same 
for Harvey Weinstein. The paper's coverage of 
movies, TV, pop music, and video games 
concentrates heavily on ratings, box-office 
receipts, moguls, boardroom struggles, media 
strategists, power agents, who's up and who's 
down. The paper pays comparatively little 
attention to the social or political effects of 
pop culture, including how middle Americans 
regard the often sensational and violent 
entertainment that nightly invades their homes. 
As in the case of factory shutdowns, journalists 
at the elite papers are not in touch with such 
people and so rarely write about them.[5]


All of the problems affecting newspapers appear 
in even more acute form when it comes to TV. The 
loss of all three of the famous anchors of the 
broadcast networks has led to much anxiety about 
the future, and CBS's decision to name Sean 
McManus, the president of its sports division, as 
its new news chief has done little to allay it. 
Yet even under Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and 
Dan Rather, the network news divisions had become 
stale and predictable. After September 11, there 
was much talk about how the networks had to 
recover their traditional mission and educate 
Americans about the rest of the world, yet one 
need only watch the evening news for a night or 
two to see how absurd were such expectations. On 
November 4, for instance, CBS's Bob Schieffer 
spent a few fleeting moments commenting on some 
footage of the recent rioting by young Muslims in 
France before introducing a much longer segment 
on stolen cell phones and the anxiety they cause 
their owners. ABC's World News Tonight's most 
frequent feature, "Medicine on the Cutting Edge," 
seems directed mainly at offering tips to its 
aging viewers about how they might hold out for a 
few more years­and at providing the drug 
companies a regular ad platform. In 2004, the 
three networks together devoted 1,174 minutes 
­nearly twenty full hours­to missing women, all of them white.

Decrying the decline of network news has long 
been a popular pastime. The movie Good Night, and 
Good Luck features a famous jeremiad that Edward 
R. Murrow delivered at a meeting of the Radio and 
TV News Directors Association in 1958, in which 
he assailed the broadcast industry for being 
"fat, comfortable, and complacent." In 1988, the 
journalist Peter Boyer published a book titled 
Who Killed CBS? (The answer: CBS News President 
Van Gordon Sauter.) Tom Fenton's more recent Bad 
News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of 
News, and the Danger to Us All, is especially 
revealing, drawing as it does on extensive 
firsthand experience. In 1970, when Fenton went 
to work for CBS, in Rome, the bureau there had 
three correspondents­part of a global network 
that included fourteen major foreign bureaus, ten 
mini-bureaus, and stringers in forty-four 
countries. Today, CBS has eight foreign 
correspondents and three bureaus. Four of the 
correspondents are based in London, where they 
are kept busy doing voice-overs for video feeds 
from the Associated Press and Reuters­the form 
that most international news on the networks now takes.

During his years at CBS, Fenton writes, he took 
pride in finding important stories:

     That was my job, my fun, my life­until the 
megacorporations that have taken over the major 
American television news companies squeezed the 
life out of foreign news reporting.

Of the many people in the business he spoke with 
while researching his book, he writes, "almost 
everyone" agreed that the networks "are doing an 
inadequate job reporting world news." Among the 
exceptions were Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather, 
none of whom, he writes, "seemed to share my 
intensity of concern at the lack of foreign news 
and context on their shows." Fenton writes 
angrily about the immense sums the anchors were 
pulling down while their bureaus were being 
shuttered. Noting Tom Brokaw's plans to retire as 
anchor and do more investigative reporting, he 
asks, "What was stopping him from sending his 
correspondents out to do that for the last 
fifteen years or so?" (The answer is hinted at in 
Fenton's brief acknowledgment that foreign 
stories cost twice as much to produce as domestic ones.)

In Fenton's view, the press has grown so lax that 
"anyone with the merest enterprise can have a 
field day cherry-picking gigantic unreported 
stories." He quotes Seymour Hersh as saying he 
couldn't believe all the overlooked stories he 
was able to report on simply because The New 
Yorker allowed him to write what he wanted. 
Fenton lists some major stories that remain 
neglected, including the influence of Saudi money 
on US policies toward the Middle East, the links 
between the big oil companies and the White 
House, and the largely ignored dark side of Kurdish activities in Iraq.

"Nowhere has the news media's ignorant 
performance been more egregious than in its 
handling of the Kurds," he writes, "a catalogue 
of sorry incompetence and dangerous 
misinformation that continues to this day." He 
mentions the murderous feuds between the two 
Kurdish strongmen Jalal Talabani and Massoud 
Barzani, and the "tribulations and suffering" of 
minorities like the Turcomans and Assyrian 
Christians living under the "strong arm of 
Kurdish rule." The Kurds have always been cast as 
good guys, and no American news organization, he 
writes, "wants to burden us with such complex and 
challenging details. You never know what might 
happen­viewers might switch to another channel."


Iraq remains by far the most important story for 
the US press, showing its strengths as well as 
its many weaknesses­especially the way in which 
political realities shape, define, and ultimately 
limit what Americans see and read. The nation's 
principal news organizations deserve praise for 
remaining committed to covering the war in the 
face of lethal risks, huge costs, and public 
apathy. Normally The Washington Post has four 
correspondents in the country, backed by more 
than two dozen Iraqis, as well as three armored 
cars costing $100,000. The New York Times bureau 
costs $1.5 million a year to maintain. And many 
excellent reports have resulted. In June, for 
instance, The Wall Street Journal ran a revealing 
front-page story by Farnaz Fassihi about how the 
violence between Muslim groups in Iraq had 
destroyed a longtime friendship between two 
Baghdad neighbors, one Sunni and the other 
Shiite. In October, in The Washington Post, 
Steven Fainaru described how Kurdish political 
parties were repatriating thousands of Kurds in 
the northern oil city of Kirkuk, setting off 
fighting between Kurdish settlers and local 
Arabs. And in The New York Times, Sabrina 
Tavernise described how the growing chaos in Iraq 
was eroding the living standards of middle-class 
Iraqis, turning their frustration "into hopelessness."

Just a few months before, at the start of the 
year, however, the tone of the coverage was very 
different. President Bush, fresh from his 
reelection, was enjoying broad public support, 
and he was making the most of Iraq's January 30 
election, which was widely proclaimed a success. 
The anti-Syria demonstrations in Lebanon and the 
election of Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the 
Palestinian Authority only added to the 
impression of the growing success of Bush's 
foreign policy. Journalists rushed to praise his 
leadership and sagacity. "What Bush Got Right," 
Newsweek declared on its March 14 cover. Recent 
developments in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere in 
the Middle East had "vindicated" the President, 
the magazine declared. "Across New York, Los 
Angeles and Chicago­and probably Europe and Asia 
as well­people are nervously asking themselves a 
question: 'Could he possibly have been right?' 
The short answer is yes." Another article, 
headlined "Condi's Clout Offensive," hailed the 
new secretary of state, noting how she "has 
rushed onto the world stage with force and style, 
and with the fair wind of the Arab Democratic 
Spring at her back." Rounding out the package was 
"To the Front," a look at US soldiers who, having 
lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, "are doing 
the unthinkable: Going back into battle."

On CNN, Wolf Blitzer was daily celebrating Iraq's 
strides toward democracy. On April 6, for 
instance, after the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani 
was selected as Iraq's new president, Blitzer 
asked Robin Wright of The Washington Post and 
Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution 
about him and his two deputies. Blitzer, 
addressing Wright, said, "They're all pretty 
moderate and they're pretty pro-American, is that fair?"

"Absolutely," said Wright. "These are people who 
have been educated in the West, have had contacts 
with Western countries, particularly in the United States...."

     Blitzer: Your sense is this is about as 
good, Ken Pollack, as the US, as the Bush 
administration, as the American public could have 
hoped for, at least as a start for this new Iraqi democracy.

     Pollack: Absolutely. I think the Bush 
administration has to be pleased with the personnel.

Such leading questions provide a good example of 
Blitzer's interviewing style, which seems 
designed to make sure his guests say nothing 
remotely spontaneous; the exchange also makes 
clear the deference that CNN, and the press as a 
whole, showed President Bush just after his 
reelection, during the first months of the year. 
Throughout this period, violence continued to 
plague Iraq, but stories about it were mostly 
consigned to the inside pages. US soldiers 
continued to die, but this news was mostly 
relegated to the "crawl" along the bottom of the cable news shows.

Then, in April, insurgent attacks began to 
increase, and Bush's popularity began to slide. 
As oil prices rose and the Plame leak 
investigation got more attention, political space 
for tougher reporting began to open up. The 
stories about assassinations and ambushes that 
had earlier been buried began appearing on the 
front page, and Wolf Blitzer, newly emboldened, 
began questioning his guests about US exit strategies.

By late October, when the two-thousandth US 
serviceman died, the news was splashed across the 
nation's front pages. "2,000 Dead: As Iraq Tours 
Stretch On, a Grim Mark," declared The New York 
Times. As the Times's Katharine Seelye pointed 
out a few days later, this milestone received far 
more press attention than had the earlier one of one thousand, in April 2004.


Still, there remained firm limits on what could 
be reported out of Iraq. Especially taboo were 
frank accounts of the actions of US troops in the 
field ­particularly when those actions resulted 
in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

On the same day The Times ran its front-page 
story about the two thousand war dead, for 
instance, it ran another piece on page A12 about 
the rising toll of Iraqi civilians. Since the US 
military does not issue figures on this subject, 
Sabrina Tavernise relied on Iraq Body Count, a 
nonprofit Web site that keeps a record of 
casualty figures from news accounts. The site, 
she wrote, placed the number of dead civilians 
since the start of the US invasion at between 
26,690 and 30,051. (Even the higher number was 
probably too low, the article noted, since many 
deaths do not find their way into news reports.) 
The Times deserves credit simply for running this 
story­for acknowledging that, as high a price as 
American soldiers have paid in the war, the one 
paid by Iraqi civilians has been much higher. 
Remarkably, though, in discussing the cause of 
those deaths, the article mentioned only 
insurgents. Not once did it raise the possibility 
that some of those deaths might have come at the hands of the "Coalition."

This is typical. A survey of the Times's coverage 
of Iraq in the month of October shows that, while 
regularly reporting civilian deaths caused by the 
insurgents, it rarely mentioned those inflicted 
by Americans; when it did, it was usually deep 
inside the paper, and heavily qualified. Thus, on 
October 18 the Times ran a brief article at the 
bottom of page A11 headlined "Scores Are Killed 
by American Airstrikes in Sunni Insurgent 
Stronghold West of Baghdad." Citing military 
sources, the article noted in its lead that the 
air strikes had been launched "against 
insurgents" in the embattled city of Ramadi, 
"killing as many as 70 people." A US Army colonel 
was cited as saying that a group of insurgents in 
four cars had been spotted "trying to roll 
artillery shells into a large crater in eastern 
Ramadi that had been caused when a roadside bomb 
exploded the day before, killing five US and two 
Iraqi soldiers." At that point, according to the 
Times, "an F-15 fighter plane dropped a guided 
bomb on the area, killing all 20 men on the 
ground." The Times went on to report the 
colonel's claim that "no civilians had been 
killed in the strikes." In one sentence, the 
article noted that Reuters, "citing hospital 
officials in Ramadi," had reported "that 
civilians had been killed." It did not elaborate. 
Instead, it went on to mention other incidents in 
Ramadi in which US helicopters and fighter planes had killed "insurgents."

The AP told a very different story. The "group of 
insurgents" that the military claimed had been 
hit by the F-15 was actually "a group of around 
two dozen Iraqis gathered around the wreckage of 
the US military vehicle" that had been attacked 
the previous day, the AP reported.

     The military said in a statement that the 
crowd was setting another roadside bomb in the 
location of the blast that killed the Americans. 
F-15 warplanes hit them with a precision-guided 
bomb, killing 20 people, described by the statement as "terrorists."

     But several witnesses and one local leader 
said the people were civilians who had gathered 
to gawk at the wreckage of the US vehicle or pick 
pieces off of it­as often occurs after an American vehicle is hit.

     The airstrike hit the crowd, killing 25 
people, said Chiad Saad, a tribal leader, and 
several witnesses who refused to give their names....

Readers of the Times learned none of these details.

This is not an isolated case. Regularly reading 
the paper's Iraq coverage during the last few 
months, I have found very little mention of 
civilians dying at the hands of US forces. No 
doubt the violence on Iraq's streets keeps 
reporters from going to these sites to interview 
witnesses, but Times stories seldom notify 
readers that its reporters were unable to 
question witnesses to civilian casualties because 
of the danger they would face in going to the 
site of the attack. Yet the paper regularly 
publishes official military claims about dead 
insurgents without any independent confirmation. 
After both General Tommy Franks and Donald 
Rumsfeld declared in 2003 that "we don't do body 
counts," the US military has quietly begun doing 
just that. And the Times generally relays those 
counts without questioning them.

In any discussion of civilian casualties, it is 
important to distinguish between the insurgents, 
who deliberately target civilians, and the US 
military, which does not­which, in fact, goes out 
of its way to avoid them.[6] Nonetheless, all 
indications point to a very high toll at the 
hands of the US. As seems to have been the case 
in Ramadi, many of the deaths have resulted from 
aerial bombardment. Since the start of the 
invasion, the United States has dropped 50,000 
bombs on Iraq.[7] About 30,000 were dropped 
during the five weeks of the war proper. Though 
most of the 50,000 bombs have been aimed at 
military targets, they have undoubtedly caused 
much "collateral damage," and claimed an untold number of civilian lives.

But according to Marc Garlasco of Human Rights 
Watch, the toll from ground actions is probably 
much higher. Garlasco speaks with special 
authority; before he joined Human Rights Watch, 
in mid-April 2003, he worked for the Pentagon, 
helping to select targets for the air war in 
Iraq. During the ground war, he says, the 
military's use of cluster bombs was especially 
lethal. In just a few days of fighting in the 
city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, Human Rights 
Watch found that cluster bombs killed or injured 
more than five hundred civilians.

Since the end of the ground war, Garlasco says, 
many civilians have been killed in crossfire 
between US and insurgent forces. Others have been 
shot by US military convoys; soldiers in Humvees, 
seeking to avoid being hit by suicide bombers, 
not infrequently fire on cars that get too close, 
and many turn out to have civilians inside. 
According to Garlasco, private security 
contractors kill many civilians; they tend to be 
"loosey-goosey" in their approach, he says, 
"opening fire if people don't get out of the way quickly enough."

Probably the biggest source of civilian 
casualties, though, is Coalition checkpoints. 
These can go up anywhere at any time, and though 
they are supposed to be well marked, they are in 
practice often hard to detect, especially at 
night, and US soldiers­understandably wary of 
suicide bombers ­often shoot first and ask 
questions later. Many innocent Iraqis have died in the process.[8]

Such killings came into public view in March, 
when the car carrying Italian journalist Giuliana 
Sgrena, rushing to the Baghdad airport after her 
release from captivity, was fired on by US 
troops; she was badly wounded and the Italian 
intelligence officer accompanying her was killed. 
Three days after the incident, The New York Times 
ran a revealing front-page story headlined "US 
Checkpoints Raise Ire in Iraq." Next to the 
prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, John Burns wrote,

     no other aspect of the American military 
presence in Iraq has caused such widespread 
dismay and anger among Iraqis, judging by their 
frequent outbursts on the subject. Daily reports 
compiled by Western security companies chronicle 
many incidents in which Iraqis with no apparent 
connection to the insurgency are killed or 
wounded by American troops who have opened fire 
on suspicion that the Iraqis were engaged in a terrorist attack.

US and Iraqi officials said they had no figures 
on such casualties, Burns reported,

     but any Westerner working in Iraq comes 
across numerous accounts of apparently innocent 
deaths and injuries among drivers and passengers 
who drew American fire, often in circumstances 
that have left the Iraqis puzzled, wondering what, if anything, they did wrong.

Many, he said, "tell of being fired on with little or no warning."

Burns's account showed that it was possible to 
write such stories despite the pervasive 
violence, and despite the lack of official 
figures. While few such stories have appeared in 
this country, they are common abroad. "If you go 
to the Middle East, that's all you hear about­the 
US killing civilians," Marc Garlasco observes. "It's on the news all the time."

In this country, one can catch glimpses of this 
reality in documentaries like the recently 
released Occupation: Dreamland, in which 
directors Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, drawing on 
the six weeks they spent with an Army unit 
stationed outside Fallujah, show how the 
best-intentioned soldiers, faced with a hostile 
population speaking a strange language and 
worshiping an alien God, can routinely resort to 
actions designed to intimidate and humiliate. One 
can also find glimpses in The New York Times 
Magazine, which has been much bolder than the 
daily New York Times. In May, Peter Maass, 
writing in the Times Magazine, described how 
Iraqi commando units, trained by US 
counterinsurgency experts, are fighting a "dirty 
war" in which beatings, torture, and even 
executions are routine. And in October, Dexter 
Filkins, also in the Times Magazine, described 
the sobering case of Lieutenant Colonel Nathan 
Sassaman, a West Point graduate who, under 
constant attacks in a volatile Sunni area, 
approved rough tactics against the local 
population, including forcing local Iraqi men to 
jump into a canal as punishment. One died as a result.

Only by reading and watching such accounts is it 
possible to fathom the depths of Iraqi hatred for 
the United States. It's not the simple fact of 
occupation that's at work, but the way that 
occupation is being carried out, and the daily 
indignities, humiliations, and deaths that 
accompany it. If reports of such actions appeared 
more frequently in the press, they could help 
raise questions about the strategy the US is 
pursuing in Iraq and encourage discussion of 
whether there's a better way to deploy US troops.

Why are such reports so rare? The simple lack of 
language skills is one reason. Captain Zachary 
Miller, who commanded a company of US troops in 
eastern Baghdad in 2004 and who is now studying 
at the Kennedy School of Government, told me that 
of the fifty or so Western journalists who went 
out on patrol with his troops, hardly any spoke 
Arabic, and few bothered to bring interpreters. 
As a result, they were totally dependent on 
Miller and his fellow soldiers. "Normally, the 
reporters didn't ask questions of the Iraqis," he said. "They asked me."

In addition, many US journalists feel queasy 
about quoting eyewitnesses who offer information 
that runs counter to statements put out by the US 
military. Journalists don't like writing stories 
in which an Iraqi civilian's word is pitted 
against that of a US officer, regardless of how 
much evidence there is to back up the civilian's 
claims. The many tough pieces in the press about 
abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and secret 
detention facilities usually have official US 
sources and so are less open to challenge.

Even more important, though, I believe, are 
political realities. The abuses that US troops 
routinely commit in the field, and their 
responsibility for the deaths of many thousands 
of innocent Iraqis, are viewed by the American 
press as too sensitive for most Americans to see 
or read about. When NBC cameraman Kevin Sites 
filmed a US soldier fatally shooting a wounded 
Iraqi man in Fallujah, he was harassed, denounced 
as an antiwar activist, and sent death threats. 
Such incidents feed the deep-seated fear that 
many US journalists have of being accused of 
being anti-American, of not supporting the troops 
in the field. These subjects remain off-limits.

Of course, if the situation in Iraq were further 
to unravel, or if President Bush were to become 
more unpopular, the boundaries of the acceptable 
might expand further, and subjects such as these 
might begin appearing on our front pages. It's 
regrettable, though, that editors and reporters 
have to wait for such developments. Of all the 
internal problems confronting the press, the 
reluctance to venture into politically sensitive 
matters, to report disturbing truths that might 
unsettle and provoke, remains by far the most troubling.

On November 8, I turned on CNN's Anderson Cooper 
360 to see how the host was doing in his new job. 
It was Election Day, and I was hoping to find 
some analysis of the results. Instead, I found 
Cooper leading a discussion on a new sex survey 
conducted by Men's Fitness and Shape magazines. I 
learned that 82 percent of men think they're good 
or excellent in bed, and that New Yorkers report 
they have more sex than the residents of any 
other state. At that moment, New Orleans and 
Katrina seemed to be in a galaxy far, far away.

­November 16, 2005

­This is the second of two articles.

[1] Her comments on her case are available at JudithMiller.org.

[2] See "The End of News?," The New York Review, December 1, 2005.

[3] See the discussion of conservative new commentators in "The End of News?"

[4] American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a 
Nation's Drive to End Welfare (Viking, 2004); see 
the review by Christopher Jencks in this issue of The New York Review.

[5] For more on this subject, see my article "Off 
Course," Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 2005.

[6] See, for example, Human Rights Watch, "A Face 
and a Name: Civilian Victims of Insurgent Groups in Iraq," October 3, 2005.

[7] See the NPR show This American Life, "What's 
in a Number?" October 28, 2005.

[8] Human Rights Watch has issued many reports 
about the civilian victims of US military 
actions, including "Civilian Deaths/Checkpoints," 
October 2003, in which it observed that "the 
individual cases of civilian deaths documented in 
this report reveal a pattern by US forces of 
over-aggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting 
in residential areas and a quick reliance on lethal force."

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