July 2, 2010

Demonstrating Pro-Government Bias in the Media

Two weeks ago, Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings published a lengthy piece entitled "The Runaway General" that provided an unguarded portrait of General Stanley McChyrstal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.  The portrait was so unguarded, in fact, that General McChrystal was recalled to Washington to explain contemptuous and insulting remarks he and his staff made about various civilian leaders, including President Obama and Vice President Biden.  A day later, General McChrystal resigned, and was replaced by General David Petraeus.

In the days that have followed, there was shock and angry criticism among establishment journalists about Mr. Hastings' coverage.  Numerous outlets wondered how a pop culture publication like Rolling Stone had managed to get such access to General McChrystal, and even the usually excellent Lara Logan - chief foreign correspondent for CBS News - raged at the disruption to the established order:
What I find is the most telling thing about what Michael Hastings said in your interview is that he talked about his manner as pretending to build an illusion of trust and, you know, he's laid out there what his game is… That is exactly the kind of damaging type of attitude that makes it difficult for reporters who are genuine about what they do, who don't - I don't go around in my personal life pretending to be one thing and then being something else. I mean, I find it egregious that anyone would do that in their professional life."
Despite Ms. Logan's opinion, however, the real most telling moment came when The Politico revealed a little too much in its coverage of the journalistic uproar in an article that has since had the intensely damning final sentences of the following passage expunged [emphasis mine]:
McChrystal, an expert on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, has long been thought to be uniquely qualified to lead in Afghanistan. But he is not known for being media savvy. Hastings, who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two years, according to the magazine, is not well-known within the Defense Department. And as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.
The widely-held view of "The Runaway General" among establishment journalists was that it was not only written by someone who hadn't earned the access to power so coveted by the political press, but that it violated unwritten rules about protecting highly-placed government sources from themselves. 

Jon Stewart rightly pointed out that what was really wrong here was not Mr. Hastings' story, but the fact that, with all of their existing access, reporters for major media organizations hadn't produced anything of even vaguely similar depth and incisiveness in nearly a decade of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Worse, almost none of the reporting on General McChrystal in the wake of the Rolling Stone article even bothered to mention his role in the egregious treatment of Pat Tillman's family in the wake of the military's use of the latter's death for propaganda purposes.

If there was any doubt remaining - and for a number of us, there hasn't been for some time - that the national political press corps is more enamored of access to power than hard-hitting journalism, it was quickly put to rest by a recent study (PDF) from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University that suddenly seemed extremely relevant.  Released in April, it documents empirically the supportive role the mainstream media plays in furthering questionable - and even illegal - government policy:
The current debate over waterboarding has spawned hundreds of newspaper articles in the last two years alone. However, waterboarding has been the subject of press attention for over a century. Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding.

From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture:
The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In
The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.
Accusations of media bias have been pervasive in American politics for years - if not decades - but the reaction of establishment journalists to Michael Hastings' article on General McChrystal brings into sharp relief an aspect of the issue not often discussed in today's hyper-polarized political landscape.  It, along with the Harvard study, confirms that not only do consumers of news need to be alert to political favortism, but that press corps affinity for access to the powerful is a demonstrably pervasive problem among the corporate media.

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