'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Brits vs. Yanks 

An interesting email debate appeared recently in the Columbia Journalism Review. The players are Leonard Doyle, the foreign editor at The Independent in London, and Michael Getler, the ombudsman at The Washington Post; the topic: who does journalism right, the US or the UK?

Personally I think the CJR is making a little too big a deal of the difference between the two styles of journalism. The CJR's introduction sketches the standard view of journalism as practiced on each side of the Atlantic: US papers strive for objectivity while British (and European) papers exhibit strong political leanings. To be honest, I haven't read enough European newspapers to know if this general position is true or false (I suspect it's true), but there's a more specific position, a position that seems to be implied by the content of the debate, that I think is false. If the argument is that there exist bigtime European newspapers that are left-leaning while major US newspapers toe the so-called moderate line, the argument is false because in order to make it true one must adopt too torturously convoluted of a definition of "left-leaning".

Being anti-Bush and being skeptical of the pragmatic and moral soundness of American foreign policy does not equal being leftist. The BBC is not farther to the left than the Washington Post because it is beholden to most of the same interests as the Washington Post, the interests of elite decision-makers, rather than those of the general population. John Pilger said as much when he wrote the following in his "Impartiality Of British Journalism":

During a debate on the coverage of the miners' strike at the Edinburgh Television Festival, the BBC's industrial editor at the time, Martin Adeney, described trucks bringing coal to a steelworks as having made a "successful run". As Ken Loach pointed out, it was a successful run only if you were on the side of the government, not if you were a striking miner. The assumption in Adeney's statement runs deep throughout liberal journalism, of which the BBC is the standard-bearer.

The only difference is that the major British newspapers aren't beholden to exactly the same interests as their American conterparts; they don't have to worry so much about staying on the good side of the current White House.

That said, though, I do rather like The Independent and it's run some stories that I was surprised to see in the mainstream press ... Here's a little of what Leonard Doyle had to say. He's responding to Getler's opinion about why the US coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war was so bad:

Mike Getler accepts that the press fell down on the job, that it was outflanked by the Bush administration. Surely it is now time for a fundamental reappraisal of the way the press operated. Because, like it or not, the media were co-conspirators in America’s rush into this illegal war.

How badly we needed before the war solid reporting that explained how a kitchen cabinet of neoconservatives and their bellicose friends were cooking up a war that has brought so much bloodshed to Iraq and danger to the world. Surely we need to reassess the whole concept of embedded reporting. Consider this conundrum: How could it be that Scott Ritter, the most famous U.S. inspector and the one person who got it right about Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of WMD, was treated with total suspicion? Meanwhile, dubious exiles with no inherent knowledge of WMD were treated with great respect by TV and newspapers.

One explanation may lie in the structure of U.S. print journalism, where big media organizations like the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washinton Post are lumbering beasts with no real competition breathing down their necks. The result is an overcautious press that has fantastic resources at its disposal, but frankly disappoints when it comes to exposing the administration to rigorous scrutiny.

It’s all very well being told by Mike Getler that there was a lot of good, tough reporting going on. I’m sure he is right. But as has been said many times before about his newspaper: You never know on which page of The Washinton Post you will find the page-one story.

It's nice to see the foreign editor of a major newspaper making the same argument regarding Ritter and Chalabi that I made a few posts back...

[edit: removed clause that implied the BBC has advertisers]

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