Judith Miller, the mousy Bush Administration propaganda mouthpiece forced to retire from The New York Times last week, is hardly an anomaly. American journalism is contaminated by widespread institutional corruption. Yet coming on the heels of the same paper’s humiliation by phony Times reporter Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass’ reign of error at The New Republic, the Miller mess’ further contribution to the media’s ever-diminishing credibility—the Gallup poll finds that 49 percent of Americans consider the news mostly or completely unreliable—has prompted industry insiders to propose cures so toothless that they only expose the cluelessness of those proposing them.
Miller, who cut-and-pasted the White House’s Saddam-has-WMDs press releases into the Times to help build support for the invasion of Iraq, is being characterized as a rogue reporter by the same editors who encouraged and published her tripe. And the punditocracy is going along. She “should be promptly dismissed for crimes against journalism, and her own newspaper,” Greg Mitchell wrote in the industry trade journal Editor & Publisher. “And Bill Keller, executive editor, who let her get away with it, owes readers, at the minimum, an apology.” Slate.com media critic Jack Shafer, on the other hand, would settle for a mere “explanation.”
The sad fact is that Miller and Blair, rather than rare exceptions, reflect the endemic vices of elitism, unaccountability and star worship that afflict our journalistic institutions beginning with top management. It will take more than another pro forma mea culpa to rebuild their eroded credibility. Systemic changes are essential:
• Journalists shouldn’t get cozy with government officials. Shafer wrote in 2003: “[Judith] Miller grew incredibly close to numerous Iraqi sources, both named and anonymous, who gave her detailed interviews about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.” Like giant squid and sperm whales, politicians and reporters should be natural enemies. Press conferences produce lies, not news. What comes out of them should be treated as news only after it has been independently verified.
• They should be accessible. “Isolation impairs accountability,” says Philip Seib, author of a book on reporting in the cyber era. An Ivory Tower mentality keeps news away. It’s easier to track down Dick Cheney in his undisclosed location than to get your local news anchorperson on the phone. Every newspaper by-line should carry its writer’s direct phone number and email address, and they should be required to return their messages.
• Reveal biases, even in feature pieces. If media outlets host a grudge match, they ought to own up to it at the top of the piece so readers can take the relevant history into account. Better still, just don’t assign pieces where there’s a conflict of interest.
• Stop hiring out of J-School. Journalism school graduates are likelier to come from wealthy families, have less work experience in other fields and identify with powerful elites. J-Schools contribute to the lack of racial and class diversity in newsrooms, which remain 86 percent white—further separating them from their communities.
• Ban patriotism. While I was covering the war in Afghanistan in 2001, a colleague from a major U.S. paper informed me: “We’ve captured Kunduz!” We? CNN mimicked Fox News’ perpetually waving stars-and-stripes logo and TV anchors from Maine to Hawai’i sported flag lapel pins—a prop on state television in dictatorships. Even when the U.S. is at war, reporters should remain neutral. Skeptics make better journalists than patriots.
• Embedded reporters are whores. If Judy Miller got too close to Ahmed Chalabi, she had nothing on the hundreds of ersatz journalists who rode into Iraq in American tanks and armored personnel carriers. “When the only safety for a reporter is being embedded with the U.S. military, the reported stories tend to have a positive spin,” Steve Weissman dryly observed. Reporters under military control invariably become subject to the Stockholm Syndrome. Reporters playing soldier sacrifice the popular goodwill that comes from being perceived as unbiased and thus increase the risk of attacks—such as beheadings in Iraq—against their peers.
• Be suspicious of showboats. Lucky and well-connected reporters should always raise red flags. Stephen Glass’ editors loved him because he always turned in amazing stories—about a Wall Street shrine to Alan Greenspan or orgies of Young Republicans. The New York Times’ Jayson Blair always seemed to be at the right place at the right time when he was actually hanging out at his apartment. In the real world, lucky breaks and reliable sources are few and far between. As one of my first editors told my disconsolate self when I returned empty-handed from an assignment, “Write the truth. They refused to talk to you. So what? That’s a story too.” MTW