Critical Massing: The Press Critic's Press Critic On Iraq, The White House, And Why The New York Times Is — Gasp! — Doing A Good Job

critical-massing.jpgMichael Massing has one of those careers that journalists dream about. His articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, and Rolling Stone. He has been an executive editor at The Columbia Journalism Review (now a contributing editor), co-founded the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote a widely acclaimed book on America's "war on drugs," and, to top it all off, is a certified genius.

But for years now, Massing's unofficial home has been The New York Review of Books, that rarest of publications that gives its writers the space and resources to develop thorough and nuanced arguments. While The New York Review may not exactly be a circulation powerhouse (around 130,000), don't let that fool you. As The Nation noted not long ago, "[m]any of its readers reside in academia, but the paper has a devoted following in the upper reaches of media, politics and philanthropy, which gives it an influence vastly out of proportion to its circulation." Massing's essays have helped to demonstrate why. It was in the pages of The New York Review that Massing published "Now They Tell Us," the definitive critique of the media's performance during the run-up to the war in Iraq (and one that the editors at the Times seemed to have read closely). In addition to pieces ranging from topics as varied as drug policy, welfare, and AIPAC, Massing has written some of the sharpest media criticism around - pieces which recently have focused on why the press has been in such dire straits over the last few years and how it has come up short in covering the war in Iraq.

Massing recently sat down with us for a long chat early one morning near his apartment on the Upper West Side (predictably, he arrived with newspaper in tow), after which we followed up with him via e-mail. In the transcript that follows, see why he thinks the Times' handling of its NSA surveillance bombshell was "dismaying," how he thinks Katie Couric has been doing, why he thinks the press could easily revert to its "submissive" ways, and how his interests have led him all the way back to the Protestant Reformation (really).

In two essays for The New York Review last December, you laid out a number of reasons for the recent backlash against the press - from a hostile White House to conservative outlets railing against perceived liberal bias to the industry's own preoccupation with balance. Of the factors you talked about - both outside and inside the media - is there any single force you think is more significant than the others?

I think the political pressures on the press are variable, and the effects of that are changing. I think the financial pressures - the structural economic circumstances - in which particularly newspapers but the news media in general finds itself, are the great concern, and have people in the industry running very scared, because they have not yet seen the way out. The decline in readership, particularly at the hands of the internet, is something that continues to cause nightmares for people who run newspapers. Knight Ridder [had] to sell its papers because some of its shareholders were upset at the low stock price and felt that by doing this they could drive it up. And so it was sold, but the stock price has not improved.

The pressures from Wall Street on the press remain extraordinary and continue to have a very debilitating effect on the ability of journalists to do their job - that, I think, overwhelmingly is the main problem. And one has to keep in perspective the fact that most newspapers remain very profitable. By the standards of the Fortune 500, the average margins are double or more at most of the top newspapers, but Wall Street sees a dying industry. Circulation has been falling, and the profit margins are not seen as high enough because they're not as high as they have been historically, and so the pressure from Wall Street has remained constant and grinding.

Is there a way out for newspapers of this financial paradox - that they remain very profitable but are still being forced to cut jobs and trim resources?

[S]o much depends on whether newspapers can figure out ways to cash in on the internet. That could turn out to be either the golden cow or the call of the swan song. If newspapers can find a way to get more advertising revenue from the internet, and in turn reduce costs in terms of how they deliver the news, it could in fact prove to be a source of great revenue. But at this point they haven't yet figured out how to do that.

So, for the foreseeable future, I think the pressures will continue to be grave. One of the things that's interesting is that people are talking about new ownership structures. They realize that the situation is getting desperate, and that the pressure from Wall Street is so constant and insistent, that they're looking for new ways to structure ownership. One of the most interesting developments is at the LA Times, which of all papers has perhaps been under the most pressure, from the Tribune Company. There's a movement afoot among a number of very wealthy people - Eli Broad and David Geffen and others - to buy the paper, and for them it would be a very comfortable revenue stream, they would not have to answer to Wall Street, [and it] would provide them with a huge megaphone. Of course, private ownership potentially has its own problems, and people are looking to The Philadelphia Inquirer, with its new corporate owners, to see what happens there.

Can you talk a little about the political pressures that you briefly alluded to earlier?

My working hypothesis on all this, which I have mentioned in some of those articles, is that the more powerful the President, the more timid the press. There's an inverse relationship between the popularity of the President and the willingness of the press to challenge him. And right now, Bush's popularity is very low. I think we're seeing the press pushing back in a very strong way. If I were writing an article today about what's been happening, I would say more about how the press has been pushing back. And I think there's a big appetite for this among readers. The Bush administration is so beleaguered and has done so many things that have upset the public that the press sees an opening and has been moving to take advantage of it.

now-they-tell-us.jpgSo I've actually been encouraged by what's been happening. If you look at The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times - probably our three top newspapers - it's pretty extraordinary what they've been running. The New York Times has in some ways become the voice of the opposition in this country. Day after day, I've been looking at the Times and have been struck by how much they've been willing to run stories exposing incompetence and wrongdoing and documenting things that have been going wrong around the world.
And I should just add that TV always lags behind the press, so we're seeing much less pushing back there. I was encouraged when Katie Couric opened her first show on the CBS Evening News with a very strong piece by Lara Logan about the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the show soon gave way to the usual fluff and flaccid reporting. In her first week, Couric seemed to go out of her way to provide plugs for the Bush administration's war on terror.

Getting back to this idea - that you've been seeing pushback from the press - are you talking about the surveillance stories, specifically the NSA and banking stories?

I think the NSA story in The New York Times was a watershed type of story. The decision of the Times to run it was a very important development for them, because they knew that they were going to get attacked for it. And they were in fact attacked. Not only were they attacked, but the Bush administration used that story as part of a well-considered campaign to try to intimidate the Times and the press more generally, [with] talk of prosecution and even treason by some right-wing talk show types. I thought it was a very calculated effort to try to squash this type of journalism. Not only did The New York Times not back down but it has continued to expose things that have been going on, including Katrina and post-Katrina activities, the continued chaos in Iraq, and corporate malfeasance.

I still wish more were being done on the way money is converted into political influence, which in turn is used to shape the political system to benefit the wealthy. But even there, I think the Times has done a better job than in the past.

I feel a little funny speaking this way because I've been critical of the Times, but I have to give credit where it's due.

The decision to run the NSA story was rather controversial. We now know the Times had a draft of the story before the 2004 presidential election, but they decided to hold off. Does that give you pause?

Yes it does, especially after the revelations in the article that New York magazine recently ran about Bill Keller and the Times. It seems clear from Joe Hagan's reporting that the Times had the story before the 2004 election but sat on it because it feared being attacked for being too critical of Bush. Now, I think it's worth recalling that, in the run up to the election, the Times was very critical of the Bush administration. As a matter of fact, if you recall, less than two weeks before the massing-callout-1.jpgelection, it ran a front-page story about how the weapons bunkers in Iraq were not properly guarded, and how as a result huge amounts of high-explosive weaponry were available on the black market and were clearly being used by insurgents in attacks and car bombings and the rest. John Kerry picked this story up and used it to accuse the Bush administration of yet more incompetence in Iraq. A number of people at the time felt this was going to throw the election in Kerry's favor. Of course, it did not. As the New York magazine story reported, the Times came under a lot of fire for that story, and that contributed to their unwillingness to risk running yet another high-profile story that was critical of the administration. What's really dismaying is that the Times then sat on the story for months and months, and it was only after one of the authors, James Risen, was preparing to reveal the material in a book that the Times finally came around. Bill Keller is quoted in the story as saying that he was more comfortable running the story at that point than in the previous year because the Bush administration had lost much of its credibility by then. That's a startling admission that the Times was cowed by the political strength of the Bush White House - and a confirmation of my hypothesis that the stronger the President, the more timid the press.

Let me just say one more thing about the political dimensions of the pressure on the press. I've seen the press pushing back hard because of Bush's unpopularity. I still think it's possible that if Bush were somehow able to recover in his last two years, if the political environment changes once again, we could see the press pull back again.

I think that as much as you see a vigorous press at this time, news organizations are very susceptible to the political winds, and if there were a conservative resurgence, you'd see them pull back. I think the press hates to go against the grain of where the midpoint of the country is. From 9/11 until the Iraq invasion, and until things started going wrong there, there was a very submissive approach, and I think something like that could very easily happen again.

You've talked a lot about a network of conservative outlets - talk radio show hosts, cable news hosts, political pundits, bloggers - who have severely damaged the press's credibility by constantly tagging the press as liberal and out of touch with regular people. How should the press respond?

I think that the main way they have to deal with all that is to try to ignore it. I've sometimes thought, "Why doesn't The New York Times do more to, say, cover Fox News?" Here we're getting into an area that's been another bugaboo of mine, which is the media coverage by papers like The New York Times. The Times has more of it than ever, and some of it's quite useful, but it's also weak in a lot of ways. And one of the ways it's weak is [in] covering the actual programming and content of the news media. Their stories tend to be so business-oriented, whereas what's shown on Fox News provides an incredibly rich source of information about what's going on on the right, how they're presenting the world, how they're going after the media. And I think it would be great, in many ways, for The New York Times to write about that, or to write about the talk radio world.

For one of the articles that I did for The New York Review, I was like an anthropologist going out into a foreign land and listening in to those raving right-wing talk shows. It was extraordinary what I learned about how these shows worked, about what they're saying. You can see how the perceptions of many people in America are molded by them. So I think there should be much better coverage of that. That would be one way, in a sense, of documenting the excesses of what gets aired. I heard Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and Michael Savage say things that made my jaw drop, because of their ugliness, inaccuracy, or extremity. It would be great if the Times had a regular column or some reporter covering that world.

You talked a little bit about some of the liberal outlets that appear to be emerging as a response, though with varying degrees of success - Air America, Media Matters, and so on. Do you see those efforts as a good thing? Or is it just creating a different set of problems for the press?

I think it's both. I think that when I wrote my two articles in The New York Review, more or less a year ago, I had a very distinct feeling that the blogosphere was very much leaning to the right, and that right-wing bloggers were much more powerful and ultimately had an effect of creating pressure from one side. Since then, we see more of a presence from the left - DailyKos, Huffington Post, other places that are very aggressively going after the press. The NSA story and the complaints that The New York Times held that is a good example. And so, on that level, I like the idea that it's not just a one-way force dragging the press to the right.

I also think [having] more voices out there is a positive thing in its own right. Katie Couric [has] a "Free Speech" segment in which people are allowed to speak out. I don't know how that's going to work ultimately, and whether that's the best use of airtime, but it's an example of the mainstream media trying to adapt to the new environment and allowing more voices to be heard.

nybr.jpgAt the same time, I am troubled by the continued high volume and often ugly state of what goes on in the blogosphere, both left and right ... I think that inevitably you have both things going on: The more voices you get, the more there's a democratization, but you also get people trying to distinguish themselves over the crowd, speaking in a voice that does not always best promote the welfare of the country.

Today, I actually don't read the blogosphere that much. I still concentrate mainly on the mainstream media, because I feel that's where the guts of the reporting are. I like to suck in as much information as I can, as well as to get commentary from that source. The blogosphere still seems to be mostly commentary and to get most of its facts from the mainstream media.

It's often said that conservatives are out to decertify the press as unrepresentative of the public, while liberals just think that this institution is failing the public and want to see it do a better job. Is that a valid distinction?

I think that if you listen to Rush Limbaugh, if you listen to Bill O'Reilly, if you listen to Sean Hannity, they over and over and over are hammering away at the press, claiming they don't talk for anybody, that they represent a very narrow perspective of left-wing opinion in America, that their news is all slanted. I think it's a very calculated campaign on their behalf to discredit the press.

Now, if you go on the left side of the spectrum, I think you have a division. A lot of liberals get very disgruntled with what they see, especially when the press is not sharp and aggressive enough. They want it to do better. They want it to perform its function of exposing the powerful and comforting the afflicted. Then I think you have people on the left who also see the mainstream media as completely corrupt, completely co-opted by the establishment, and indistinguishable from the government. And they have a demolition-like approach to the media similar to that of the right; they feel it's so thoroughly corrupted that it has to be discredited.

Going back briefly to the state of newspapers. I was struck by something you wrote in one of your essays last December that echoed what a lot of people are saying these days. You take a look at the newspaper circulation numbers and are concerned that young people aren't going to become newspaper subscribers like their parents did before them. With so many different platforms offering up so much different information throughout the day, isn't the emphasis on newspaper consumption as a proxy for news consumption more generally a little bit outdated?

There are two elements to this question. One is whether young people are reading newspapers or buying newspapers or not, and the other is whether they are following the news or not. Now, we know that they aren't buying newspapers. The big question people have is, Does that mean they're going to the internet and getting their news there, or are they not really following news even on the internet? And when they do interact, is it the news media they're going to or other types of media, from music sites to interactive video sites to video game sites?

Unfortunately a lot of evidence, in surveys and anecdotally, points to the fact that young people aren't reading the news that much. So it's not just whether they buy newspapers or not. It's much broader. This is one reason people think we're having a crisis not only of the newspaper business but of democracy and citizenship and the rest....

Let's talk a bit about some of the internal critiques you've set out against the press, starting first with this fixation on balance - even in situations where the facts of a story suggest there's only one credible side. The issue seems starkest in political and science journalism. Is this emphasis on balance, from both reporters and editors, warranted? Or has the concept been so abused by political and business interests that it's worth focusing on something else?

I am not one of those people who goes so far as to say that balance is outmoded and [needs to be] gotten rid of. I feel that the people who want to throw out the idea of balance are making a mistake. Newspapers play a very valuable role in trying to get facts from different sides and coming to some sort of conclusion.

But instead of balance, we should talk about fairness. Fairness means that you are trying to find out what different sides say and then come to some sort of conclusion about it, giving all the different massing-callout-3.jpgparties their voice, but still willing to make some strong statements about what the overall mix adds up to. Too often, the press is not willing to do that, so they get into he-said, she-said. Instead of balanced journalism, I would like the press to use a standard of fair journalism. That way, the press can be both open to hearing all parties and yet willing to state what the facts say. Too often, they don't tell us what the facts seem to say.

And I should say that there is an area that needs to be looked at much more - the power of industry and Wall Street, and their representatives and think tanks, to affect the coverage by their experts and spokesmen, whom news organizations rely on so much. The press has to do a much better job of being sensitive to that, of offsetting it by looking for other types of sources and exposing the way that industry affects the public debate. In his movie, Al Gore shows the extraordinary extent to which spokesmen for industry get cited on environmental issues. The press itself should be sensitive to that and do more to expose it.

A shift to fairness would demand more of reporters than doing false equivalence "balance" stories. Is it perhaps too much to ask to have reporters both reporting these complicated stories (usually in areas where they lack expertise) and to further have them check out the factual veracity of competing claims?

That is what a good reporter does; that comes with the territory. I don't think anybody in journalism today would stand up and say straightforwardly that one should just go out and get one side and the other. I think it happens a lot, but I think that today we're sophisticated enough to realize that that's not good reporting, and you've got to go out and get to the bottom of things. It should be every journalist's job to do that; it's not too much to ask.

As to whether or not people are actually saying this, Liz Cox Barrett put that question to Jim Lehrer on CJR Daily, and he said it's the job of journalists to lay out both sides and not necessarily to adjudicate the truth of the claims. He said that if the President said it rained one day, and the weather service said it didn't, it's not his position to say who's telling the truth. The weather service may be lying.

If he said that, I stand corrected. I think that if you go to the Columbia Journalism School, or other top journalism schools, you'll find that they make a point of saying that your job is not simply to gather facts from different sides but also to make sense of it for the reader.

The Newshour has carved out its own particular niche, which is to give - to their credit - much more serious and in-depth discussion of major issues in a way that your average TV show will not. So it provides a very useful function there. But the idea of having everything be completely balanced leaves a lot to be desired.

When I was doing research on the press coverage of weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq], somebody at The Washington Post pointed out to me that the Post used to have a practice called "truth-squadding." When the President gave a speech, you ran an article that was straightforward about the President's speech, but you had an accompanying column looking at the veracity of what he said, and you made an assessment - Did he get his facts right? Did he leave this out or that out? .... I think it was under Reagan that doing that produced so much negative comment from readers - "How dare you question what our President is saying?" - that they stopped it. And I think from 9/11 to the Iraq war, that's what was going on in this country. I think newspapers were squeamish about running things that were questioning a powerful President at a time when our nation was under attack. At papers like The Washington Post, you now see a reinstatement of that type of tradition.

A lot of your critique of the press, in an interesting way, converges with the conservative critique, which is that reporters and editors are not socioeconomically representative of the public at large and that this influences how issues are covered. You focused, in part, on labor and poverty. We just celebrated Labor Day. The Census Bureau also just released statistics a couple weeks ago about, among other things, the national median income and median hourly wage. How is the press doing?

As part of the press pushing back, you see that pocketbook issues have become front and center now in the political debate. The Washington Post [recently] ran a massing-callout-2.jpgpiece about "mortgage moms." The stress on families - the way that wages and salaries have stagnated - has become a big political issue, so now the press is jumping on it, and in fact our top newspapers are doing a better job.
The poverty issue is another issue that I still feel is not getting the attention that it should. Katrina was a moment when the press stood collectively and said, "My God, we have ignored this issue in ways that are really an indictment of ourselves, and so we have to do better." In Katrina, you see a lot of continued coverage, but the broader issues? If you go out where we're sitting, on Broadway, and walk up and down the street, the number of homeless men is shocking, and my own sense tells me it's growing. Many New York Times people live in this neighborhood. Why isn't this something that's on the front page more often? It's not really a political issue at this point, and so I think that's part of the reason we're not seeing the coverage.

We just passed the ten-year anniversary of the welfare reform law. You wrote specifically about welfare policy in an essay during the debate about reform, as well as several years after the law passed, in a piece for which you traveled to Wisconsin to see how it was working up close. With few exceptions, most people - from Bill Clinton in the Times to the editors of National Review - declared the law a pretty substantial success. Did you see any reporting that cast a critical eye on how welfare reform has worked?

I think most of the coverage was very positive about welfare reform, and there are aspects of welfare reform that have been good. I think it was a necessary thing, but the fact that it has left such a large group of, first, women mired in poverty did not get the attention it deserved. Second, all of the debates about whether welfare reform worked or not have ignored the whole question of men, who were not covered by the act. Welfare was just about single women. Jason DeParle, a journalist who's written about welfare more than almost anyone else, [concluded] that welfare reform addressed part of the problem of women but totally ignored male poverty. We see that problem in the streets of our neighborhoods - particularly here, black men, block after block, who have fallen through the cracks and dropped out of the system. As far as I can tell, almost nothing is being done to address that.

I think the coverage of welfare reform was very superficial and is symptomatic of a continued, broader neglect of this horrendous social problem that is right there in front of us but which no one seems willing to look at.

Almost as if to fill up the space that these stories are leaving, you have lamented the rise of what people would call fluff - stories about the X-Box and tweens, which make the cover of Time. Yet people seem to like this stuff. This is an old problem, but to what extent should news outlets be out to satisfy the demands of their customers, as opposed to trying to give them something they may not want or trying to change their demands?

That is the age-old question. Readers often are the irreducible problem from the standpoint of those who do not like fluff and want to see stories about poverty on the front pages of the papers. Newspaper editors have all these people on the business side saying that they've got to run more stories about celebrities, more stories to make people feel good, more local stories about prominent people doing this and that, because that's the way they're going to get more circulation and advertising.

And I see it as the duty of those of us on the outside looking in to talk about how it's the responsibility of the press to serve the public's need for information and to play an important role in informing the public in a democracy. That pressure is needed as well, and I think news organizations are always going to be subject to both of these pressures.

In one of the two articles I wrote for The New York Review, I thought it was important to comment on the argument that if the press runs more foreign news and more stories exposing the influence of money on the political system, then the public is just going to flock to those news organizations and buy newspapers and tune into TV news shows. I think that equation does not hold. I do not think that doing the type of good, tough reporting that people like me, and many others, would like to see them do is going to translate into hard numbers. That's part of the dilemma.

Let's turn to Iraq. We're three years in to the Iraq war, and a lot of the criticisms you've levied have been fairly consistent - reporters and editors being too credulous of the military's claims, as well as an unwillingness to really take the Iraqis' perspective and to report on civilian casualties. Do you still see any gaps in the coverage? Any mistakes that are being made?

Let me say right out that the press has done a lot of good, courageous reporting, and that it's largely thanks to them that we know what a disaster the invasion and occupation have become. But there do remain some major holes. One is how the US occupation looks to Iraqis. Unfortunately, it's really extremely hard - if not impossible - to do that type of reporting at this point, because of the extreme violence in the country. But I feel that because of a variety of factors - including a lack of language, a lack of ability to move within the local population, the fact that the embedding process has inevitably had the effect of helping reporters see Iraq through the eyes of the occupier rather than the eyes of the occupied - Americans are still somehow left in the dark about the nature of military occupation and what it does to a military force. I still think a lot of the abuses are seen as isolated incidents, as opposed to a more pervasive pattern that, again, reflects the terrible things that an army has to do in this type of situation.

Another missing part of the coverage is, What strategy is the US pursuing? We face this huge dilemma right now, because on the one hand nothing we do there seems able to change the situation - it seems inevitably headed toward increasing violence. On the other, many of use are scared to death of what would happen with a total withdrawal. Would the country become even more of a vortex in that region, with all kinds of horrible consequences? Is there any way out from this dilemma? It's ultimately an unanswerable question, but I would like to see more reporting - both in Washington and in Iraq - that would at least pose the question more sharply and try to provide us various assessments and options.

It seems that with so much time having passed, we're coming up against a bit of a new problem with the coverage - which is fatigue. That problem is likely to get worse if, as the President says, we're going to be in Iraq for years to come. Is there any way for the press to make the news out of Iraq - which is tragically consistent from day to day; the story line hasn't changed that much - to make it, for lack of a better word, fresh for people?

First of all, the story where there's really been fatigue is Afghanistan. That war has been forgotten. We're seeing more about it now appearing in the press because things are getting so bad there, and it's interesting that one of the reasons many people opposed the war in Iraq was that it would distract attention from the real source of the problem, which is Afghanistan. And boy, that has really come to fruition. That is a story that needs more attention.

On Iraq, one way to boost the story would be to do more to connect Iraq to other events in the region. Iran is an urgent story that needs more imaginative coverage. You see many stories about whether Iran has a nuclear program or not. We need much better coverage of the broader strategic issues involving that country as well as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinians, and the rest of the Middle East. I feel that the US role in the region has been increasingly shown to be disastrous, but we need more imaginative coverage to connect all these dots and show how they're all related.

Finally, you're working on a book right now about the 16th century. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about that?

I feel that as a journalist I've headed off in a new direction. Instead of flying off to a new country I don't know about and having to get up to speed quickly, I'm going back in time to another era. I'm exploring what to me is a very unfamiliar story--the Protestant Reformation. In particular, I'm writing about the rivalry between Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther. They were contemporaries who were competing to see who could lead the reform party of the Catholic Church. It's a great story of the moderate, pragmatic, rationalist, humanist Erasmus and the radical, evangelical, theologically-oriented Luther. And this debate - between the humanists on the one hand and the evangelicals on the other - has so many echoes of what's going on today.

Right now, I'm writing about Erasmus's attack on the Christian doctrine of the just war, which was used to justify virtually every war that every king and prince wanted to wage. There are so many echoes of this right now, with just war theory routinely used to justify going to war today. So my book has given me a wonderful and refreshing opportunity to look at our world from an entirely different perspective and to examine the distant roots of our current predicament.