There’s Nothing Glorious About Today’s Journalism

The movie Good Night, and Good Luck has been playing to what appears to be mostly empty movie houses around the country.

As the movie concerns events inside CBS leading up to the airing of an April 1954 TV program in which Edward R. Murrow attacked Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (he of McCarthyism), it may be a hard slog for people under the age of 60. Though it’s an entertaining film, Americans know little of their political history.

Their ignorance makes it easier for the movie to impose upon its viewers. They will see it as a recounting of the brave acts of a small band of newspersons who brought down the villain McCarthy when everyone else was too scared to speak out. In fact, McCarthy’s political eclipse began years before with an act of defiance, and a brave one indeed, by a fellow Republican, Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine.

Four years before, on June 1, 1950, Smith rose in the Senate to give a speech that has gone into the history books as the Declaration of Conscience. Looking McCarthy in the face, she said, “The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as ‘Communists’ or ‘Fascists’ by their opponents. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.” She went on to say something that present-day members of her party might do well to heed: “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

It doesn’t matter that a movie took the credit and honor that will always belong to Smith and gave it to Murrow. He was in truth an outstanding journalist and would not have accepted a distinction that he had not earned. Movies, even those based on real events, cannot avoid being a form of fiction, and thus the moviemakers are entitled to do what they wish.

At the same time, whether or not the moviemakers intended it, they have glorified an industry and occupation which is in deep doo-doo. Bob Woodward has become the latest journalistic stink bomb to smell up Washington with the revelation that he has been concealing the fact that a government official had told him about Valerie Plame’s C.I.A. employment. Ms. Plame, you may recall, is the center of the leak case which sent ex– New York Times reporter Judith Miller to jail and resulted in Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s alter ego, being indicted for obstruction of justice. At this juncture, the last thing American journalism deserves is praise it is not entitled to.

The Woodward affair is a small, if odoriferous, incident exemplifying the conflicted interests, questionable relationships, doubtful practices and ethical confusions that characterize an industry more adept at self-celebration than self-analysis.

Apparently, Mr. Woodward—once one of the heroes of Watergate but long since become a kiss-ass to the powerful—came on this information while wearing his book-writer hat, not his reporter cape. The book writer, for good and sufficient commercial reasons, kept whatever it was he learned (and from whomever he learned it) a secret from his newspaper boss. Mr. Woodward has been quoted as saying he came by this nugget having lunch or something with an unnamed government figure and didn’t think it was too important. In the grand summation of things, it probably will not matter much, so there is little reason to dial up a full head of indignation—but it does give us a quick peek into the Washington world of crosshatched relationships and cozy understandings.

So the famous Bob Woodward joins the famous Judith Miller in having secret sources whom they don’t want to talk about and who gave them information which, years after the fact, they have yet to use in an article or a story. This might only raise an eyebrow or two if their information concerned kickbacks in government contracts, but this involves war. The topic in question is of the highest urgency. It not only involved war, but it involves what led to the war.

Dick Cheney and George W. Bush look like they’re going to choke when the lead-up to the war is discussed; the Veep with the crooked smile calls mention of the subject “revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety.”

The news business doesn’t call mention of it anything: Generally, it ignores the subject while occasionally taking careful pokes at it. Journalism and journalists are more at ease talking about leaks of classified information. Who leaked Valerie Plame’s secret status and why? Should reporters be forced to tell? They like those topics.

The answers to these questions may be interesting, but what everybody keeps coming back to is: Did the administration mislead Congress and the public? Did it lie? Did it distort? Did it withhold information casting doubt on just how big a threat Saddam Hussein actually was?

The whole responsibility is thrown on the government. Democrats in Congress, suffering from warmaker’s remorse and being pounded by Republicans chanting “You voted for it!”, are claiming that they would not have done so if the administration had told them about the doubts and uncertainties concerning Saddam’s lethal capabilities. Likely story. They go whither the public-opinion polls blow.

Where is American journalism in this? The answer is that we were misled, too. Journalists misled? Isn’t their job to make their way through the miasma of misdirection and put their collective finger on what’s going on?

Instead, journalists and journalism are sounding like politicians who voted for the war then and are sorry now. They are giving off the identical-sounding boo-hoos that politicians make, and little is more unbecoming to a journalist than complaining that the government lied. That is what governments do.

If journalism is behaving like a complicitous politician, it has reason to do so. Without the newspapers and the television shows beating the war drums, the United States would not have invaded Iraq. With unquestioning jingoism, the mass media drummed up support for the war, propagating every untruth and every evil fairy tale to come out of the White House and Pentagon until the country was seething in frothy fear.

It wasn’t only Ms. Miller’s fabrications in The New York Times that manipulated public opinion into supporting this disastrous conflict. It was also the editors who put Ms. Miller’s stuff in their newspaper, and the other editors and executives in the other news organizations who did the same. The Times may have played the part of the Hearst press in the 1898 run-up to the Spanish-American War, but every TV network leaped and danced behind.

American journalism cannot plead itself out by claiming to be duped by government lies or manipulations or mistakes. Any person capable of thinking for himself or herself had no need of C.I.A. memos questioning the reliability of what passed for evidence of Saddam’s military might. No inside-poopery was required to know that he had no weapons of mass destruction worth anyone worrying about.

Many Americans, and many more foreigners without access to inside information, recognized that what Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell were saying was hooey. In this case, the more insider information, the more confidential sources, the more leaks, the more gullible American journalism became. (Though bear in mind the difference between lower-level whistleblowers, who often do have valuable information to give, and high-level confidential-source leakers peddling buncombe.)

Had Washington journalism dined out less, it might have known more. One of the abiding weaknesses of the news business is identifying with the people that a reporter is assigned to cover. To a distressing extent, status in the news business comes from the status of the person you cover. Watch the way White House reporters stride around with their ID tags flapping in the breeze. They are easy marks for the people with the real money and power. Editors and higher-up news executives should know better, but they don’t: They also live to be recognized by political grandees.

However it came about, American journalism must take some of the blame for this accursed war. Some of the blood is on the hands of the reporters and editors who sold this war. This is one time when they cannot defend themselves by telling us not to kill the messenger. In this tragedy, American journalism didn’t act as the messenger but as co-instigators, co-propagandists, co-warmongers. Instead of being the messenger, they were the message.

No occupation is more addicted to conferences on its ethics, to seminars of self-examination than journalism. Thus it would be fitting for the industry to begin to sponsor a few “truth and reconciliation” meetings à la South Africa, in which reporters and editors confess what they have done and ask forgiveness of the families of the dead, of the people with ruined lives, and of the thousands of men and women in uniform who were put through this hell for vainglory, pride and the ambition of others. Good night, and good luck.