The Journalists and Syria

30 August 2013 at 3:18 pm Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

Looks like we need a new subject category for the demise of the journalism sector. As discussed frequently on this blog, most journalists are little more than press agents for government officials (1, 2, 3). US news outlets typically take the perspective of the Washington insider, repeating solemn pronouncements from their confidential sources as if these were verifiable facts without questioning, challenging, even investigating. It’s a simple bargain: report what the official sources say in exchange for access to those sources, without which you lose status.

Conor Friedersdorf, writing in the Atlantic, provides this week’s illustration. [See also the Addendum below.] While the US public and the US Congress overwhelmingly oppose US military intervention in Syria, the mainstream news outlets write only about the “pressure” on President Obama to act — never bothering to describe this pressure or explore its source:

The citizenry wants us to stay out of this conflict. And there is no legislative majority pushing for intervention. A declaration of war against Syria would almost certainly fail in Congress. Yet the consensus in the press is that President Obama faces tremendous pressure to intervene. . . .

Where is this pressure coming from? Strangely, that question doesn’t even occur to a lot of news organizations. Take this CBS story. The very first sentence says, “The Obama administration faced new pressure Thursday to take action on Syria.” New pressure from whom? The story proceeds as if it doesn’t matter. How can readers judge how much weight the pressure should carry? Pressure from hundreds of thousands of citizens in the streets confers a certain degree of legitimacy. So does pressure from a just-passed House bill urging a certain course of action, or even unanimous pressure from all of the experts on a given subject.

What I’d like is if news accounts on pressure to intervene in Syria made it clear that the “growing calls … for forceful action” aren’t coming from the people, or Congressional majorities, or an expert consensus. The pressure is being applied by a tiny, insular elite that mostly lives in Washington, D.C., and isn’t bothered by the idea of committing America to military action that most Americans oppose.

Some reporters suffer from what Thomas Sowell called the vision of the anointed, and most live in a bubble surrounded by insiders and elites who share their outlook. But I suspect the main reason for this style of writing is the quid pro quo described above.

I can’t resist quoting a little more:

Consider a variation on the “pressure” story that isn’t written, though it would be accurate:

President Obama Faces Mounting Pressure to Stay Out of Syria

With his credibility seen increasingly on the line, President Barack Obama today faced growing calls at home and abroad to stay out of the conflict in Syria, despite the presence of chemical weapons and his former declarations that their use would be a red line.

Various Syria experts warned that intervention could touch off a regional conflict, do more to harm than help Syrian civilians, and draw the United States into a more costly, protracted war than anyone wants. Anti-war group Code Pink used their Facebook page to organize a rally against missile strikes. A subset of conservatives warned that intervening on the side of rebels could empower Islamist extremists. Deficit hawks argued that America can’t afford costly military strikes at this time in a conflict with little relation to our national interests, and Obama’s 2007 statements about the illegality of a president going to war without Congress absent an immediate threat to American security risks making him look like a hypocrite if he unilaterally intervenes. An inability to get UN approval would also arguably make the conflict illegal under international law. And Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize would seem to hem him in further.

A story like that would never be written. The political press unconsciously treats hawkish positions as if they’re more serious and legitimate, in part because they’ve thoughtlessly bought into the frame that experts can control geopolitics. This is a consequence of so many political journalists living inside a Washington subculture that attracts foreign-policy thinkers with an inflated sense of their own ability to understand and shape global events.

Read the whole thing.

Addendum: Here’s Margaret Sullivan making the same point about her own New York Times:

While The Times has offered deep and rich coverage from both Washington and the Syrian region, the tone cannot be described as consistently skeptical. I have noticed in recent weeks the ways that other major newspapers have signaled to their readers that they mean to question the government’s assertions. For example, although it may seem superficial, The Washington Post has sent a strong message when it has repeatedly used the word “alleged” in its main headlines to describe the chemical weapons attacks.

I have also found that The Times sometimes writes about the administration’s point of view in The Times’s own voice rather than providing distance through clear attribution. This is a subtle thing, and individual examples are bound to seem unimportant, but consider, for example, the second paragraph of Friday’s lead story. (The boldface emphasis is mine.)

The negative vote in Britain’s Parliament was a heavy blow to Prime Minister David Cameron, who had pledged his support to Mr. Obama and called on lawmakers to endorse Britain’s involvement in a brief operation to punish the government of President Bashar al-Assad for apparently launching a deadly chemical weapons attack last week that killed hundreds.

With the use of the word “apparently” – rather than directly attributing the administration, The Times seems to take the government’s position at face value. It’s a tiny example, of course, but in the aggregate it’s the kind of thing the readers I’ve quoted here are frustrated about.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Myths and Realities, Public Policy / Political Economy. Tags: .

David Landes Ronald Coase (1910-2013)

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