Chris's Rants

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

You can't handle the truth!

CJR Daily: Archives (emphasis mine):
But since the press has largely ceded control of the story to the White House, administration spinners have been able to twist it. Consider another central issue: whether Newsweek's premature report actually spurred the riots. Thanks to the White House spin, and the media's lazy reporting, the conventional wisdom is now that it did. But the reality is that it probably did not, at least in any significant sense. According to a statement last Thursday by General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, after hearing from commanders on the scene in Afghanistan, the 'rioting was related more to the ongoing political reconciliation process in Afghanistan than anything else.' As we've noted, that makes sense, based on the Taliban's past patterns and the fact that previous reports about Koran desecration at Guantanamo spurred no such riots. But the press has repeatedly failed to make that clear. (One conspicuous exception to this mass sin of omission has been New York Times reporter Katharine Q. Seelye, who for two days in a row now has taken pains to point out Myers' observation that his senior commander in Afghanistan 'thought [the rioting] was not at all tied to the article in the magazine.')

All this is particularly galling considering how much play the story is getting on the cable networks. It's not as if there isn't ample time to explain the facts to the viewers. Instead, Fox News, which we've had our eye on over the past couple days, has repeatedly stressed the fact that the White House feels that Newsweek's apology isn't enough, since, as White House press secretary Scott McClellan put it, 'The report had real consequences. People have lost their lives. Our image abroad has been damaged.'

It's easy to imagine why the White House is taking this approach. As a Newsweek journalist told the Los Angeles Times -- speaking, ironically, from a position of anonymity -- 'The issue of how prisoners are treated at Guantanamo has not gone away. Now they want to deflect that by talking about how irresponsible Newsweek magazine was.'

What's harder to explain is why reporters covering the story have swallowed this red herring. But let's try: Producers, it seems, would rather stir viewers' emotions that provide them with the truth. The story, in its oversimplified form, plays well into television news' longstanding bias towards conflict. It's Newsweek vs. the government, the liberal media vs. conservatives, and, for some, overeager advocacy journalists vs. America.

The reality is much muddier, of course, but also less likely to drive our emotions -- if viewers realize that the riots aren't necessarily Newsweek's fault, and that the desecration might actually have happened, it's harder for them to become fired up about the story. And producers fear that means lower ratings. So they keep the story simple, and they keep the story wrong. That is the reality of our journalistic environment today -- a serious examination of the truth simply isn't a priority for bottom-line oriented, unapologetic executives who would rather hook viewers via emotions than honest reports.

At least Newsweek has regrets.


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