Listen to this story
On January 29, 2002, less than 15 minutes into George W. Bush’s first State of the Union address, the president fired the opening salvo of a yearlong campaign to take the United States to war. “Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror,” Bush told the country. “The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens…This is a regime that agreed to international inspections — then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.”
A Senate Intelligence Committee report would later reveal that U.S. intelligence agencies were deeply divided over the justifications for war in Iraq. But the narrative spun by the Bush administration — and reported uncritically by the news media — featured no such uncertainty.
Instead, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke matter-of-factly about Iraq’s “weapons of mass terror” and linked Iraq, without evidence, to the attacks on 9/11.
National security adviser Condoleeza Rice gravely warned that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” repeating a line drafted by the ad hoc White House Iraq Group and first published, without attribution, in the New York Times.
And President Bush assured the public there was “no doubt” that Saddam Hussein’s regime continued “to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” The country’s only remaining choice, these officials told a credulous press, was to invade Iraq.
The White House’s fervor for war should have planted suspicion in the minds of famously skeptical journalists. It should have raised questions about the administration’s ulterior motives in Iraq, about the defense contractors that stood to gain from an extended war, about the United States’ entanglement in foreign oil markets, about the credibility of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, and about the unintended consequences of war and the human toll of sending yet more troops into the Middle East. Indeed, had there been a sufficiently adversarial relationship between the press and the political establishment, these questions would have led every newscast and topped every front-page news feature.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, journalists succumbed to what Paul Krugman called “a definite culture of fear,” one in which “criticizing the push for war looked very much like a career killer.” Despite the stakes, this culture pervaded even the country’s most fiercely independent news outlets, including the New York Times, where Judith Miller and Michael Gordon published unverified claims about WMDs that were fed to them by unnamed government sources.
Years later, Miller would claim that she and Gordon were simply doing their jobs (“Were we not supposed to report what it was that had the intelligence community so nervous about Saddam? Were we supposed to keep that from the American people?” she asked the Daily Show host Jon Stewart in 2015). But her argument was as hollow as it was self-serving, and Stewart saw right through it. “[The Bush administration] gave that story to you,” he said. “A reporter’s job is to look at the context of it and find out what it is within that that is true and what is a manipulation.”
In fairness to Miller, a 2006 paper by Lee Becker, director of the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research, argued that the media did not manufacture the public’s support for war so much as reinforce it, citing evidence that a majority of Americans mistrusted Saddam Hussein well before the Bush administration’s PR campaign. But even if Americans were predisposed to support an invasion, that doesn’t let the news media off the hook. As watchdogs of government, journalists are meant to serve as a check on power, to question an administration’s claims and motives, to hold their public statements to scrutiny, and to dig beneath the rhetoric to separate fact from fiction. But in the run-up to the Iraq War, many reporters instead settled for a role as stenographers, idly transmitting sensational fodder that flowed from the White House Iraq Group to senior administration officials to unscrupulous journalists. The press became “passive recipients of news,” Brett Cunningham wrote in 2003, “rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.”
Unfortunately, this plague of journalistic impotence has only become more severe since the Iraq War. Consider that during the 2012 presidential campaign, political journalists routinely allowed the Obama and Romney teams to review and edit their own comments before publication, a policy that caused quotes to “come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language, and anything even mildly provocative,” according to the New York Times. Many journalists justified these agreements as the cost of doing business — a necessary concession to ensure valuable access to campaign staff. But critics rightly saw them as a breach of journalistic ethics and a sign that journalism’s fierce watchdogs were being replaced by cozy lapdogs, content to let political journalism be “contrived and distorted by the very people whom these media outlets purport to cover adversarially,” Glenn Greenwald wrote for Salon. “We would be far better off,” he continued, “without anonymous quotes from government officials repeating administration spin or sliming political opponents, and we would also be far better off without doctored quotes based on their veto power over what can be published — even if the price is that we do without their official statements.”
The controversy over journalism as stenography erupted anew in 2015, when CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and other cable news outlets regularly aired Donald Trump’s campaign speeches live, without editing or fact-checking. During the Republican primaries alone, this wall-to-wall coverage helped Donald Trump earn more than $4 billion in free media, according to MediaQuant, and it allowed the candidate to repeat outlandish claims without journalistic scrutiny.
This unfettered airtime undoubtedly helped Trump’s candidacy, but in a sign of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between media and politics, it also helped the networks and cable news outlets, which saw huge ratings whenever Trump made a controversial promise to build a wall or create a Muslim registry. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Les Moonves, the network’s chief executive officer, said candidly of the Trump campaign. Executives at CNN and Fox News may have been more restrained, but their entanglement with Trump’s star power was the same. As Brett Edkins wrote for Forbes, “Cable news is happy to court higher ratings by covering Trump’s latest tweet, and Trump is happy to oblige by stirring controversy.”
The coziness of journalism’s relationship with political elites became even more apparent after Trump’s election, when the president-elect invited a handful of TV executives and anchors to join him for an off-the-record “reset” meeting at Trump Tower. One by one, CNN president Jeff Zucker (who was a top executive at NBC during Trump’s rise to fame on The Apprentice), MSNBC president Phil Griffin, and on-air personalities Martha Raddatz, George Stephanopoulos, Lester Holt, and Chuck Todd, among others, dutifully filed into the building’s lobby, presumably fearing that failure to attend the meeting would cause them to lose access — and ratings — during the Trump presidency. Their calculation may have been correct, but agreeing to go off the record to appease the most powerful figure in American government was, as Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin wrote, “in opposition to the values journalists everywhere are supposed to embody” and a “disservice” to the American public.
Of course, plenty of important investigative journalism did take place during the campaign, from the incisive reporting on Trump’s charitable giving to the uncovering of archival video and audiotapes that helped inform voters’ judgement of the two candidates. This reporting lived up to the Fourth Estate’s proud reputation for watchdog journalism, and it helps explain the surge of donations and subscriptions received by investigative powerhouses like ProPublica and the Washington Post following Trump’s election.
The problem, however, as Dana Milbank explained in the Post, is that these “watchdogs of democracy, growling at falsehoods and barking at abuses in the system,” were the exception in 2016, not the rule. “In general,” Milbank wrote, watchdogs were outnumbered “by those who cover politics as horse race, praising the maneuvers of whichever candidate is ahead in the polls. This avowedly neutral approach — process journalism — is apolitical. But it’s also amoral — a he-said-she-said approach that in this case confused tactics for truth and what works for what’s right.”
If news organizations hope to regain the trust of the American public, they will need to rededicate themselves to public-interest journalism that puts the needs of citizens first. In part, this means rejecting “access journalism” and returning to a more adversarial relationship with power. But in an age of social media, fractured audiences, and democratized publishing, building trust will also require more fundamental changes to the profession and to the relationship between journalists and the “people formerly known as the audience,” in Jay Rosen’s apt words.
The good news is that these changes started to appear in newsrooms more than two decades ago. The bad news: You probably didn’t notice.
This article is an excerpt from Reimagining Journalism in a Post-Truth World: How Late-Night Comedians, Internet Trolls, and Savvy Reporters Are Transforming News, forthcoming from Praeger in January 2018. The next installment of this series will examine the fate of so-called public journalism and address its relevance to today’s “engaged journalism” reform movement.