June 17, 2009

A Refreshing Call for Openness, But ...

SO TODAY I chanced across a column from Will Bunch, a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, in which he chides the Washington media for their inept war coverage prior to our invasion of Iraq. Since even the most ardent booster of the operation would have to admit things in Iraq have been problematic, Mr Bunch asks why not enough work was done to examine the policy aspects of the war beforehand.

But he really hits home when he accused the Washington media of being self-serving -- downright venal, really -- in their coverage. Mr Bunch, who here is citing the work of journalist Michael Hastings, writes:

But Hastings focuses on the reason that I find the most chilling: That Beltway journalists felt that staying with "the pack" -- avoiding what would be a contrarian, and thus uncool (my word) position -- was the safest way to climb the well-paying and prestigious career ladder ...

... Hastings correctly notes that there is safety in the pack, that journaliists who got it wrong had the comfort of knowing that so did everyone else -- and that you could always change your position with everyone else as events on the ground changed. The real-world consequences of being wrong...well, those were 11,000 miles away.

This is a well-considered point. With any given issue, there are at least two sides to consider, and when the issues are important matters related to them deserve heavy scrutiny. When we're dealing with a war -- a matter of the gravest importance -- the scrutiny should, if at all possible, be ultimate. Personally, I would not criticize the Washington media as much as Mr Bunch does, if only because journalists must rely on their sources; and if all one's sources are saying X even when one tries desperately to find someone to say Y, there's only so much one can do. Resources are not infinite; time is not infinite; even if one does one's best to look at an issue, things can still go awry.

Still, as I said, it's a fair point Mr Bunch made. Which leads me to my next question: had things been exactly reversed, would Mr Bunch have written such a stirring column?

Let's say, just for kicks, that back in 2003 the press believed the war would be an absolute disaster and we were entering into a ruinous quagmire. Let's further say that, in this alternate universe, the war was a complete success. Not only were we welcomed as liberators, Iraq soon became stable and prosperous and free, and everyone there got along, and the birds flew and the angels sighed. Would Mr Bunch ask why the press screwed up so badly in its initial assessment?

I'm just wondering, because if you ask me, there's a bit of a herd mentality when it comes to how a lot of things are covered these days. Global warming, the housing market, the economy, you name it -- there's often not much difference out there.

Why, I would venture to guess 80 percent of journalists thought, in 2006, the housing market would never relinquish its gains; that on March 6 of this year, 90 percent believed we were headed for financial Armageddon; and that 95 percent now believe global warming is not only certain, but is such a crisis that it requires spending hundreds of billions of dollars to try and stop it.

Were I a cynic -- and I am most certainly not -- I might even suggest that Mr Bunch benefits now from this herd mentality, as certainly no one popular thinks our endeavor in Iraq is going well, and it's a lot easier to castigate others when one has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Now, it may be Mr Bunch has been right all along, and railed against the effort prior to it being a gleam in Rumsfeld's eye; I am not familiar enough with his work to know. But if that's not the case, then I have to ask -- where was this column six years ago?

But I don't mean to take away from his main point. A journalist has to keep his eye on the truth, whether he likes it or not. I just hope this spirit of open-mindedness and intellectual rigor carries through to coverage of everything else.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at June 17, 2009 08:20 AM | TrackBack
Post a comment

Remember personal info?