The media’s coverage and advocacy of the Iraq war remains one of the most vexing problems in our politics. While many now agree that the traditional press overstated the case for war, underplayed opposition and tapped a decidedly unrepresentative and often biased punditocracy to debate our foreign policy, there’s little consensus about how to fix the problems. And while the Internet has increased the political and business pressures on the traditional press, we don’t know yet if new media will improve or further fracture our foreign policy debates. To tackle these questions, the Netroots Nation conference is convening an unusual panel this Saturday, which I’m moderating, with some important experts (and critics) on foreign policy, human rights and the media. So feel free to post comments and questions for:
Pulitzer-prize winning author and Harvard professor Samantha Power, who just published Chasing the Flame; Emmy-award winningNew Yorker writer and Berkeley journalism professor Mark Danner, author of The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History (and vigorous debater of Iraq hawks from Kristol to Hitchens); Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, award-winning columnist and author of So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits–and the President–Failed on Iraq; and Joan McCarter, a front page blogger for DailyKos and former aide to Sen. Ron Wyden.
I hope the discussion will help pinpoint media failures in refereeing foreign policy debates and brainstorm specific ways to improve democratic discourse. That should be easy, in theory. For Iraq coverage, the liberal/netroots critique actually overlaps with the traditional media’s stated goals of accuracy and balance. By relying too heavily on government sources from one party, most pre-war coverage misstated the threat and drastically underplayed opposition to the war among experts, political elites and the general public. According to one recent academic study:
Network TV stories in the eight months before the war quoted Bush administration officials for 29 percent of sources, while quoting Democratic officials for three percent of sources. The war pundits were shockingly unrepresentative of political reality. And grassroots antiwar groups "comprised just 1% of all quotes, making such dissent a drop in the bucket."
So even when activists build large movements–some of the Iraq war protest broke world records–media malpractice can limit their impact. And the virtual media blackout of Democratic opposition to the war, even as most Democratic congresspersons voted against it, exacerbated tensions between the progressive base and incumbents with a misleading narrative. Joan adds:
When the few dissident voices that were heard on a national stage rose up, they were easily dismissed. …And when it became increasingly clear that [the press], along with our Congress and the rest of the nation who lived inside the Beltway or voted Republican, was duped into going into war, it became increasingly important to not admit that. Which, I believe, is one of the reasons that the bombshell New York Times expose on the military/media propaganda machine was greeted by the rest of the media (and The Villagers) with nothing more than a resounding yawn. [It] should have been a game-changing revelation…
So how can activists make the media live up to its own mission and report reality in foreign policy debates? How can the public influence who is anointed to shape our nation’s war punditry? And will the general public’s antipathy towards the media ever translate into greater media accountability in this area?
Those are some of the questions, and we welcome more questions, ideas and comments from readers before Saturday. This is an open source panel, of course. (Post below or email me at amelber-at-hotmail.com.) Let’s get to work.