Reporting as stenography 

It's gotten worse, but it certainly isn't new

I studied journalism during the Watergate era. It was an exciting time. Besides the stress on investigative reporting -- the type that brought Nixon down -- there was a lot of questioning about the ethics of reporting, particularly the matter of objectivity.

The rule had always been that the reporter should not interject his opinion into an article. When the subject was controversial, objectivity required that you report both sides of the issue. This did not mean the reporter didn't endeavor to establish the facts.

This was also the time of the so-called "new journalism." According to its proponents, such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, objectivity was a myth. In one way or another – if only by omission of facts – the reporter always tells a slanted story, they argued, so it is best to be up-front about one's bias. Indeed, Wolfe and Thompson became characters in their own stories. But the idea was still to uncover the facts, not to disguise them.

This kind of journalism was mainly practiced in the time's new "alternative press." The original alternative newspaper in Atlanta was the Great Speckled Bird. I wrote a feature story about the Bird for one of my classes.

My professor liked it so much, he decided to present it to his former employer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for publication. I was surprised, since, in my research, I'd learned the AJC had never printed a word about the Bird. To my mind, ignoring the Bird, which often rightly questioned the AJC, was part of their own lapse in journalistic integrity.

"They probably won't print it, but they should," my professor told me.

And of course he was right. They didn't.

In some ways, I think I was lucky to get such an early education in the closed minds that run the mainstream corporate media. In my 20 years of journalism, no more than five of them were spent in that world. I was under contract to the AJC's Sunday magazine for a couple of years, but when they hired me as a regular staffer, I lasted less than two weeks.

Journalism has headed steadily downhill in the years since I studied it. Much of its loss of credibility has resulted from its adoption of an idiotic definition of objectivity that turns reporting into stenography. By now, it's well known that even the New York Times shirked its responsibility in its reporting of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The paper, like most others, did not bother to corroborate sources. Judith Miller, the very biased Times reporter, filed one alarmist story after another about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, rarely depending on more than one notoriously dishonest source.

The Times admitted its error, but most did not. Incredibly, most in mainstream media have dutifully continued to print whatever the Bush administration says without questioning. Last week, the National Intelligence Estimate confirmed that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons, contrary to Bush's pronouncements, which had, maddeningly, gone unchallenged by most in the media. With the NIE report, Bush started his usual spinning to cover his lies. And most of the media even reported the spinning without question.

The function of objectivity is to learn the truth. Its function is not to let people express an opinion or write a news article that clearly disregards the facts. If George Bush misrepresents the facts, the reporter should say so. This is not political partisanship. It is objective reporting.

Several other media breakdowns occurred last week. Time magazine published a column by Joe Klein in which he completely misrepresented the facts about congressional Democrats' stand on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. When the facts were pointed out, Klein wrote a series of "clarifications" that only further muddied the waters. The magazine itself refused to publish letters from the leadership.

Meanwhile, National Review reporter Thomas Smith turns out to have fabricated his saber-rattling report that 4,000 Hezbollah gunmen descended upon Christian areas of Beirut. When the magazine was confronted with the facts, it issued a statement that praises Smith more than it corrects him. Smith himself, as Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com reports, wrote a noncorrection: "If I mistakenly conveyed that impression to my readers, I apologize."

Of course, when a New Republic reporter turned out to be likely fabricating his Baghdad articles, the National Review went on a rampage of righteous indignation.

The only way the average citizen can learn the truth these days is by reading blogs and independent news sites. Were they not around to question the corporate media, I doubt we'd see even the mealy mouthed corrections they do issue.

Watergate-style journalism is dead almost everywhere but on the Net.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com,

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