Assymetrical information warfare
Yesterday, for instance, CNN devoted an hour of prime-time programming to.... Larry King and Dr. Phil dissecting the Alec Baldwin voicemail brouhaha.
Today, though, the earth really shifted. I find myself agreeing -- in substance, if not in tone -- with the conservative whackjobs Little Green Footballs.
They wrote about a Harvard study examining the media's coverage of last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah.
The upshot: Hezbollah tightly controlled media access to its side of the conflict, and thus controlled how it was portrayed. The Israelis, on the other hand, allowed far more unfettered access, and were victimized by it -- in part by the sheer number of images showing Israelis shooting at things, and the paucity of images showing Hezbollah doing the same thing. The result: Israel looked like the aggressor, even though Hezbollah started the fight by kidnapping two Israelis and killing eight others.
At this point LGF and I part company, because they see it as proof positive of willing media cooperation with terrorists, and also wax obsessive about the infamous doctored photos from a Reuters photographer in Beirut -- ignoring some facts in the process, such as 1) the doctoring was amateurishly obvious, 2) All it did was add more smoke (and buildings!!) to a scene that already had plenty and 3) the photographer was quickly fired and all of his photos re-examined.
In addition, while Hezbollah did indeed start things, Israel's (IMO, justified) response was also an attack: invading Lebanon. So it's hardly bias to depict Israeli troops relentlessly attacking Hezbollah when that, in fact, was what they were doing.
But the Harvard study does point up some serious problems, notably the failure of many media outlets to recognize and account for the effect of the Hezbollah restrictions. The blame can be assigned freely: The journalists on the ground were too willing to accept them, their editors didn't do enough to highlight those restrictions as they passed stories and photos up the chain, and wire editors at many news organizations here in the States didn't make a point of adjusting their coverage to correct for the imbalance in access.
Bias? Perhaps. I'm more willing to suspect bias among the reporters on the ground, many of whom were local stringers (with local biases) hired by news agencies. But bias doesn't really explain the failings higher up the food chain. Editors at all levels should have known better, because it's their job to know better.
So what caused it? I'm inclined to believe several things:
1. Laziness. Journalists, like everyone else, are more apt to cover things that are easy to cover. If Hezbollah is willing to drive you to the scene of a bombing, are you going to refuse? Nope. You should balance that out by noting the restrictions and limitations and trying to find other sources of information, but that's hard to do in normal times, much less during a war. At some point you shrug and accept that it's just another dog-and-pony show, like the briefings put on for journalists in the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Further up, the stories and photos roll in as if by magic, each imbued with the authority of a wire service and a "just the facts" tone. Unless you have independent reason -- and the initiative -- to question whether what you're getting reflects the truth, you don't think much about it: you simply accept it and give your readers a representative sampling.
2. Excessive trust. As an editor, you're supposed to view things with a skeptical eye and ask a lot of questions. But you don't expect your reporters or photographers to keep important details from you. That trust may be misplaced when you're talking about local stringers (who can be expected to have their own political opinions) in the midst of a religious and ethnic war.
3. Lack of time. Employment in U.S. newsrooms has been steadily declining, as the Internet drains readership and an advertising slump cuts into traditionally fat profit margins. Newspapers are still cash cows, but they're not growing cash cows. Good journalism is expensive, and increasingly newspapers are unwilling to pay for it in any great numbers. So there's a lot less time for editors to look for not-so-obvious questions and angles, especially when it involves a story that is occurring overseas and they have no direct contact with.
Even on a good day, moreover, the fighting in Lebanon would have been just one of dozens of stories your typical wire editor handled on a given night. Most of those get no more than a few minutes' editorial attention: enough to get the gist of the story, assign a length and location and pick which wire piece to run. Then it's on to the next. Daily journalists work with the clock ticking remorselessly like a gun to their head: there would have to have been something about the Lebanon fighting that raised red flags in order for nonobvious problems to be noticed.
4. Lack of knowledge. A corollary to #3 is that knowledge and experience cost money, too. When newsrooms cut staff they often do it through buyouts, which disproportionately remove senior staff. This is great for the bottom line -- the most expensive warm bodies leave -- but it's not so good for journalism because you lose institutional memory, years of cultivated sources and life experience. It's intangibles such as those that often lead to the discovery of major mistakes because something just doesn't smell right, or the editor happened to visit the place in question 10 years ago.
If the above sound like excuses, they're not: they're laments. The media does not do the hard work often enough, or think about the big picture often enough, or communicate clearly to its readers the shortcomings in the data presented. And we all suffer for it, because democracy cannot survive without a free flow of quality information. So while I sympathize with the industry's troubles of late, there is no excuse for editorial timidity or laziness. The first question when covering something like the Lebanese war should be "how am I (and my organization) being manipulated by the various parties?" And then a plan developed for dealing with that -- even if the answer is simply to tell readers "here's how it is." Many outlets do that; too many do not.
It's a lesson the industry has learned before -- during Vietnam, and more recently with the often uncritical coverage of the Bush administration's WMD hype. Those lessons apparently didn't sink in in a lot of places, or else it's the kind of lesson that must be relearned by each individual reporter. But it's a lesson that will be even more important in the coming era of diminished resources. Perspective, hard work and a functioning BS meter can make up for a lot of missing dollars.
media, journalism, politics, midtopia