The public’s esteem for the press and the media continues to fall along with the ratings of the presidency and Congress. This is a strange phenomenon, somewhat akin to the frog and the scorpion going down together. But several recent episodes illustrate why this is happening.
On last Sunday’s Meet the Press, Tim Russert interrogated Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of Defense, about whether he had made a mistake in his assessment of the number of troops that would be necessary to bring order to Iraq after the cessation of formal hostilities. Wolfowitz resisted admitting this, obviously thinking of the gotcha headline “Deputy Defense Secretary Admits Underestimating Need for Troops.” One might wonder whether the better strategy would not have been to admit a fairly obvious point — since Wolfowitz had just finished explaining that in war plans change constantly as new challenges develop — but the real issue is why the question was asked in the first place.
Is it news that the deputy secretary of Defense was wrong about the number of troops necessary to pacify Iraq? Well, yes, in a limited sense. It would be a headline — much like the one quoted above — but in what way does it advance the American public’s knowledge of what we are facing in Iraq? Would it not more informative for Russert to have asked what Wolfowitz thought about the need for troops in the future, how long it would take before an Iraqi force was able to take over responsibility for such things as guarding hospitals and schools, or what obstacles are preventing the delivery of electricity and gasoline to Baghdad in amounts equal to prewar levels? The Russert style of interviewing — which requires his interviewees to confront their past statements — has received much praise in the media. To be sure, it can embarrass the victim, but does it have any other function?
As American soldiers are attacked and in some cases killed in Iraq, the reports from all media sources have assumed the same structure. “Two American soldiers were killed in Iraq today,” the report begins, “the 44th and 45th combat death since the president declared the end of major combat activities on May 1.” What is the point of tabulating the number of deaths since the president’s speech declaring that the airmen and sailors aboard the Abraham Lincoln had accomplished their mission? Like every other American, I cringe when I hear that another soldier has died, but I am angered when that loss is linked to what is obviously political point-scoring on the president.
In April, Newt Gingrich delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington in which he denounced the Near East division of the State Department for failing in both its policies and its public diplomacy. Since the United States is obviously unpopular in the Arab world, and our policies over the years have seemed only to make things worse, Gingrich was clearly making an important point about a portion of the U.S. government that is responsible for this problem. It seemed a worthwhile thing to do, and any healthy media community should have seized on it as an issue that deserved exploration.
Unfortunately, that’s not how the Washington media saw things. To this group, the Gingrich statement was an attack on Colin Powell, the secretary of State, even though Powell was never mentioned in the speech. What’s more, Gingrich was portrayed as acting as a proxy for the secretary of Defense in some kind of high level cat fight. So a perfectly sensible effort to raise an issue of importance to the country was covered and trivialized as a lowly personal vendetta between two of the president’s top advisers. Since Gingrich’s April speech, no one has heard a whisper of complaint about the State Department’s Near East division, which goes its merry way implementing American Mideast policy without significant public oversight or concern.
The behavior of reporters in all these episodes are so familiar to us that we don’t normally even stop to think about their implications. Yet their implications are profound, and apparently not been lost on the American people. In each case, reporting of news has been subordinated to another goal — always self-referential to the standards of the media itself. In the case of the deputy secretary of Defense, it was the desire to score debating points on the question of how many troops are now necessary in Iraq. In the case of the continuing casualties in Iraq, it is to make political points against the president. And in the Gingrich case, it was to view a perfectly legitimate policy question as a nothing more than elitist gossip.
In all three cases, the American people were deprived of information which they should have received from a healthy media system. It’s no wonder that they hold the media in low regard, even as the media’s trivialization of issues drags the government down with it. America has always been a revolutionary society, constantly changing in response to self-examination — much of it the consequence of media scrutiny. The media serves society and justifies its constitutional protection when it addresses real issues. When it fails to do this job, it deserves scrutiny itself.
— Peter J. Wallison is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was White House Counsel in the second Reagan administration, and author of Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency.