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A confession obsession



The New York Times is on a roll, or in a role. Or maybe just rolling in it. Or eating it. Call it the daily's special--a mea culpa roll. If you're fond of the taste of crow, then you can try replicating this roll's recipe. It calls for a healthy dose of self-recrimination, followed by extensive airing--thousands and thousands of words.

If you want to try to chew it or just swallow it whole, that's fine. But it's not required. The New York Times has really been having a vain conversation with itself--first with the Wen Ho Lee spy case in 2000, then the Jayson Blair case last year, and now, most importantly, this past Wednesday with its strange little "From the Editors" apology for being a conduit for corrupt Iraqi defectors, neo-cons, and administration sources in the run-up to the war.

Media theorist James Carey at Columbia University describes such paroxysms as part of "the prescribed script of a ritual of atonement," dating back to when Janet Cooke fooled The Washington Post with her invented 8-year-old heroin addict, "Jimmy." Will it change reporting and editing methods? Probably not. The ritual of atonement, as Carey has noted, has deep roots, and pretty slippery ones. "This ritual of confession, absolution and penance inadvertently hides as much as it discloses," he writes. "The culture of journalism professes loyalty to truth, thoroughness, context and sobriety but actually rewards prominence, the unique take, standing out from the crowd and the riveting narrative."

Nonetheless, I do love a good ritual, even if it's just ink-letting. So I wouldn't mind watching all of mainstream media indulge in it over their shamefully uncritical coverage of the war in Iraq--and that includes The News & Observer, to say nothing of our local television stations, which have wrapped themselves in the flag so tightly they can't even breathe. But I'm not going to hold my breath. Thus far, the Times is on its own with its editorial confession session.

"It looks as if we, along with the Administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that to our readers," The New York Times editors wrote in a piece that was buried on A10 (www.nytimes.com/critique/), unteased from the front page. Other than the questionable appositive that the Administration was "taken in" by anything, I agree. And other than that it's unclear that running a piece buried deep in the paper truly constitutes "reporting to the readers," then I agree. So now we're all buried on the same page. Cool. Oh, except for more than 10,000 non-combatant civilians, countless Iraqi soldiers, along with hundreds of American soldiers and "contractors" who are dead. And that little problem we have with an international community that rightly despises us, a national debt that will bury our economy and an escalating membership in al-Qaeda, fomented by our little incursion into Iraq.

We can't lay all of that at the feet of The New York Times or its problematic WMD reporter Judith Miller; so many others in the mainstream media and the Bush administration contributed to the current mess that there's plenty of blame to go around.

On the other hand, give The New York Times a bit of credit. Maybe it's ritual confession, but it's more noble than what The N&O offered us. If you're not fond of sanctimony, I wouldn't recommend reading The News & Observer's little editor's note Thursday. Okay, this is a little convoluted, but bear with me: The N&O ran an Associated Press story on the New York Times apology, and then carefully listed the three stories it had credulously published off the NYT news service, two of them by Judith Miller. Bad, baaaad New York Times. The News & Observer tried its hardest, but while editors there "review these stories for their news value and completeness of sourcing," they couldn't catch all the reporting horrors that the NYT imposed on the poor N&O. But we can all feel good that just three stories of the entire lexicon of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" stories produced by news services and The News & Observer itself have had problems. That's a wonderful record. At least the Times apologized, sort of, for some of its problematic reporting--although it was about two and a half years too late.

Too bad none of this immediately evinced a like-minded self-reflection on the part of the N&O and its embedded, generally contextless and highly Pentagon-approved war coverage. Back in March 2003, when the military graciously invited the media along for the ride into Iraq, Executive Editor Melanie Sill wrote in her column, entitled, "One gung-ho effort": "...the military story is only part of the reporting. We are working with our sister papers from McClatchy, the company that owns The N&O, and with other news services to cover many facets: the debate, the allies, the civilian story in Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere in the region. If war begins, we'll use every resource we have to bring the story home as clearly and completely as we can. Like our counterparts who edited newspapers in previous times of war, we don't know what's ahead. We do know that it's important to keep striving to know as much as possible, and in that cause, we are truly gung-ho."

I've got nothing against embeds, but they should only constitute one small portion of war coverage. Independent journalists, or unilaterals, despite facing the hostility and even fire of the armed forces, have done a much better job covering the conflict. Then there's Seymour Hersh and his marvelous two-part series in The New Yorker about the torture that extends far beyond Abu Ghraib. Or even ABC News, which insisted on independent coverage to complement its embeds.

"By keeping 'unilateral' journalists out of Iraq, the Americans have succeeded in reducing independent reporting of the war, and I believe that was exactly their plan from the beginning," wrote Paul Workman with the Canadian Broadcast Company.

John Burnett, a National Public Radio reporter, wrote in the Texas Observer: "Many reporters have praised the embed system for giving them full-time, unfiltered access to front-line fighting units. But for me, embedding was a flawed experiment that served the purposes of the military more than it served the cause of balanced journalism. During my travels with the Marines, I couldn't shake the sense that we were cheerleaders on the team bus."

That's the problem with gung-ho. It's starting to look a bit shabby, and distinctly morning-after. While the war has dragged on and even worsened, N&O's no longer so gung-ho. "Every resource" was apparently a bit of a misnomer. Back in January, about the time the internal Army investigation from Abu Ghraib was moving slowly to completion, Sill wrote her "What's in Store for 2004" column. On the list? Home and Garden, high school sports, improved stock tables, expanded entertainment and arts, Summer Olympics, the ACC, and of course, John Edwards. You remember him? Not a single mention of the war. Not a single mention of the importance of a continuing focus on "our troops."

Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at University of Texas, wrote eloquently of the failure of journalists in Iraq: "The paradox of U.S. journalism is that a press which operates free of direct governmental control produces news that routinely reproduces the conventional wisdom of a narrow power elite. Coverage of the Iraq war highlights two of the key reasons. First, the majority of U.S. journalists are unable to transcend the limiting effects of the ideology of American exceptionalism--the notion that the United States is the ultimate embodiment of democracy and goes forward in the world as a benevolent champion of freedom, not as another great power looking to expand its influence around the world. Second, journalists are trapped by the routines of 'objective journalism,' the most central of which is the slavish reliance on 'official sources.'"

But there's a bit of a breeze kicking up nationally although it hasn't yet arrived in humid North Carolina. I do hope that it will. It's quite refreshing. Pew Research Center reported this month that 55 percent of the national press and 37 percent of the local press believe the media have been too easy on the Bush administration.

"Many journalists today feel that news media has lost its critical edge especially when it comes to coverage of the Bush administration," Pew reported in its "State of the News Media 2004." "Solid majorities of national print and TV journalists, as well as Internet journalists, say the media has not been critical enough in its coverage of the administration."

But I'm not really expecting to find any crow on the N&O's summer menu. Even though it is in season.

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