Tuned In

Watching the Not-Watchdogs

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I’m not generally in the habit of taking requests at Tuned In. But then again, I’m not generally in the habit of getting requests at Tuned In. Paul Lukasiak (hardest-workin’ poster in the time.com comments sections) asked in the Comments what I thought of last night’s Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, “Buying the War,” about the press’ failure to challenge the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq.

I didn’t get a screener of the show, but I Tivoed it out of interest, and if you care about the war or the media today, it’s well worth watching. (It’s rerunning through the week on PBS stations and it streams online here.)

Most of the information Moyers covers has been in the press before. There are the spectacularly wrong Judith Miller stories in the New York Times. There’s the overreliance of the elite press on Ahmed Chalabi, who in turn fed stories to the administration, which would then confirm the stories to reporters (a single source essentially masquerading as two sources). The post-9/11 worries about the “patriotism police.” The embarrassingly acquiescent press conference with Bush on the eve of the war. And–one of the few success stories of the coverage, in retrospect–the Knight-Ridder reporters who ran skeptical stories about the WMD claims by talking to lower-level military and intelligence sources, rather than relying on the same top-level sources.

Those stories are familiar to me, though, because I follow this sort of thing. The Moyers reports synthesizes all this information better than anything I’ve seen on TV (as opposed to, say, print reports like Michael Massing’s). And there were a few admissions that were startling even to me: for instance, former CNN chief (and my former boss) Walter Isaacson talking frankly about how their Afghanistan coverage was skewed in a more “patriotic” direction by advertiser complaints. And while MSNBC’s firing of Phil Donahue–as too liberal for wartime–has been reported, it was eye-opening to hear him say that the brass ordered his reporters to have two conservative guests for every one liberal. “I was counted as two liberals,” he says. Actually, it seems like he was counted as one, plus his liberal guest, but regardless, it hardly seems like Joe Scarborough gets the opposite request.

Moyers is bringing a lot of threads together here, and there are angles I would have liked to see more of. The report focuses a lot, for instance, on the influence of post-9/11 patriotism and journalists relying too much on a close, clubby circle of sources. But he could have followed the money more, giving more of the financial context that, unfortunately, has so much to do with how reporting is done.

After 9/11, the country was in recession, and media was practically in a depression–advertising plummeted, layoffs spread and the business has never really recovered. In that environment, media institutions are under ever more pressure to ingratiate themselves with their advertisers and audiences. Look at MSNBC, which canned Donahue, but loves Keith Olbermann now that the political winds have shifted. (Moyers does make some good points about how cutbacks have led TV and print to rely more on pundits over expensive reporting.) And the report sometimes conflates Washington hard-news reporters with Washington pundits. (Neocon pundits may have been tremendously wrong on the war, but it’s not unusual that they would have views reflected by a conservative administration.)

Still, the report is a strong overview about how the press mishandled one of the biggest stories of our time. And some of the most striking details are some of the smallest: like William Kristol (now a Time contributor) making the case for war on cable while “…anthrax…” crawls by on the zipper below his head. And the vast roll call of names of pundits, and their bosses, who declined to be interviewed.

A lot of the coverage of Moyers’ shows tends to focus on his politics and how or if they influence his work. Moyers is an advocacy journalist: I don’t think he makes any bones about it, nor is he particularly trying to hide anything. When a guy begins his report by saying the White House “took leave of reality” in deciding to go to war, you pretty much know where he stands. But viewers of different beliefs can still take a lot from “Buying the War” on how the press works today–and, more important, how it doesn’t.

PS To anticipate a question: No, I’m not going to assess Time’s role in the coverage (or lack thereof). First, I’m not Time’s ombudsman–besides all the expected conflict issues, I don’t think anyone can trust anyone to credibly media-critique the publication he’s employed by. But more important, writing for Time’s Arts section, I’m not exactly close to the beating heart of our national and world-news coverage decisions. To anticipate a second question: No, I can’t force the people at Swampland to weigh in. But you can always try.