Scott McClellan's claims in his new book -- that the mainstream media were "complicit enablers" in the run-up to the Iraq war -- have been met with denials from past and present TV news anchors such as Tom Brokaw, Charles Gibson and Brian Williams (with Katie Couric admitting some failures). But Dan Rather, who was CBS anchor in 2003, offered a strong critique of the journalists' performance in his speech to the National Conference for Media Reform yesterday.
Rather opened by admitting that, referring to McClellan, " Whatever his motives for saying these things, he's right," but he also recalled that some reporters did ask tough questions: "So how do we reconcile these competing reactions? Well, we need to pull back for what we in television call the wide shot."
Rather then explored the big picture, starting with:
In the wake of 9/11 and in the run-up to Iraq, these news organizations made a decision -- consciously or unconsciously, but unquestionably in a climate of fear -- to accept the overall narrative frame given them by the White House, a narrative that went like this: Saddam Hussein, brutal dictator, harbored weapons of mass destruction and, because of his supposed links to al Qaeda, this could not be tolerated in a post-9/11 world....
Now, cut back to your evening news, or your daily newspaper... where that White House Correspondent dutifully repeats the question he asked of the president or his press secretary, and dutifully relates the answer he was given -- the same non-answer we've already heard dozens of times, which amounts to a pitch for the administration's point of view, whether or not the answer had anything to do with the actual question that was asked. And then: 'Thank you Jack. In other news today... '
And we're off on a whole new story.
Here's how Rather explained further:
In our news media, in our press, those who wield power were, in the lead-up to Iraq, given the opportunity to present their views as a coherent whole, to connect the dots, as they saw the dots and the connections... no matter how much these views may have flown in the face of precedent, established practice -- or, indeed, the facts (as we are reminded, yet again, by the just-released Senate report on the administration's use of pre-war intelligence). The powerful are given this opportunity still, in ways big and small, despite what you may hear about the "post-Katrina" press.
But when a tough question is asked and not answered, when reputable people come before the public and say, "wait a minute, something's not right here," the press has treated them like voices crying in the wilderness. These views, though they might be given air time, become lone dots -- dots that journalists don't dare connect, even if the connections are obvious, even if people on the Internet and in the independent press are making these very same connections. The mainstream press doesn't connect these dots because someone might then accuse them of editorializing, or of being the, quote, 'liberal media.'
But connecting these dots -- making disparate facts make sense -- is a big part of the real work of journalism.
So how does this happen? Why does this happen?
Let me say, by way of answering, that quality news of integrity starts with an owner who has guts.
In a news organization with an owner who has guts, there is an incentive to ask the tough questions, and there is an incentive to pull together the facts -- to connect the dots -- in a way that makes coherent sense to the news audience.
But it is rare, now, to find a major news organization owned by an individual, someone who can say, in effect, "The buck stops here." The more likely motto now is: "The news stops... with making bucks."
America's biggest, most important news organizations have, over the past 25 years, fallen prey to merger after merger, acquisition after acquisition... to the point where they are, now, tiny parts of immeasurably larger corporate entities -- entities whose primary business often has nothing to do with news. Entities that may, at any given time, have literally hundreds of regulatory issues before multiple arms of the government concerning a vast array of business interests.
These are entities that, as publicly held and traded corporations, have as their overall, reigning mandate: Provide a return on shareholder value. Increase profits. And not over time, not over the long haul, but quarterly.
He concluded: "I could continue for hours, cataloging journalistic sins of which I know you are all too aware. But, as the time grows late, let me say that almost all of these failings come down to this: In the current model of corporate news ownership, the incentive to produce good and valuable news is simply not there....
"The stakes could not possibly be higher. Scott McClellan's book serves as a reminder, and the current election season, not to mention the gathering clouds of conflict with Iran, will both serve as tests of whether lessons have truly been learned from past experience. Ensuring that a free press remains free will require vigilance, and it will require work."
Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. He is editor of Editor & Publisher.