Guns, Politics, and Freedom
December 16, 2005

When journalists start making news

By F. Paul Valone


The following column ran in The Charlotte Observer on December 16, 2005 under the title “Conflict steered by journalists turned advocates.”


To supporters, those who still consider Dan Rather’s downfall an anomaly, and others deluded into believing the national media lack an agenda, I present Marine Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey.


Endearing himself to his Waynesville, North Carolina neighbors by waging a one-man war protest, Massey was feted in the media for alleging American military atrocities in Iraq. From a 4-year-old shot in the head and civilians executed at checkpoints to truckloads of dead non-combatants putrefying into organic ooze, Massey told all…the only minor hitch being, apparently, that none of it actually happened.


Eager to fuel the fire, Arabic network al-Jazeera seized upon Massey’s fabrications, decrying “rampant” brutality and calling the U.S. campaign “genocide.” And one might forgive the French (as charitable souls forgive them most things military and governmental) for publishing Massey’s charmingly titled book, “Kill, Kill, Kill.”


But shouldn’t we expect better from America’s allegedly mainstream media? What about USA Today, whose “Recruiter-turned-peacenik” feature chronicled Massey’s metamorphosis from Jarhead to war criminal to protestor?


Or the Associated Press, which celebrated Massey’s book by recounting claims that his platoon killed unarmed civilians? As an afterthought, it mentioned a Marine Corps investigation finding his allegations “unsubstantiated.”


Or perhaps Vanity Fair, where former “60 Minutes II” producer Michael Bronner, unperturbed by Massey’s dubious credibility, highlighted him among allegations of Marine recruiting abuses?


We expect journalists to get facts right. Yet only recently did St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Ron Harris catalog Massey’s self-contradictions, concluding: “News organizations world-wide published or broadcast Massey’s claims without corroboration and in most cases without investigation”, apparently not even interviewing five reporters embedded with his battalion. (Kudos to the Observer for running Harris’ expose).


Weeks before the 2004 election, CBS’s Dan Rather, citing forged documents, depicted President Bush as AWOL from the Air National Guard. This miscue, his defenders insist, was an honest mistake or (enter menacing soundtrack) the product of conspiracy by The Evil Karl Rove.


Yet months later, Newsweek, citing anonymous sources, ran the infamous Guantanamo Bay Koran-toilet-flushing exaggeration, sparking Afghani riots that killed sixteen. Only under pressure did it recant with words tantamount to, “Oops. Sorry.”


Now we have a multi-media fantasy, presented as fact, which brands us war criminals.


Not only have offending organizations failed to offer retractions, Vanity Fair pressed forward with a rationalization for the Rather scandal by another “60 Minutes II” producer, Mary Mapes. (Forgeries? Heavens no. The fiasco was just “another part of the Bush supporters’ aggressive pattern of sliming anyone…who raised questions about the president.”)


If your Prius bears faded Kerry/Edwards bumper stickers, this is not a conspiracy theory (for that, see Michael Moore). Said Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS correspondent for Rather: “…we don’t sit around in dark corners [planning] strategies on how we’re going to slant the news. It comes naturally to most reporters.”


Intentional or not, reporters publish forgeries, anonymously-sourced exaggerations and fabrications about Bush and Iraq because many want them to be true. Surveying 547 journalists, the Pew Research Center found they labeled themselves liberal twice as often as the public and “conservative” only one fifth as often (a paltry 7%, to be exact), while 54% fancied themselves “moderate”—a popular sobriquet for journalists who, maintains Goldberg, are so comfortably leftist they don’t even know it.


The latest factoid being pounded into public consciousness recounts dwindling approval ratings for Bush and the war. Ignoring the fickleness of polls, ask yourself, “Why?”


Could it be lack of progress? Two new Middle Eastern democracies suggest otherwise.


Alienation of Arabs? Although USA Today hid it beneath earth-shattering news on the Baghdad zoo, Jordanians recently demonstrated against al-Qaeda, prompting terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s own family to denounce him.


Fears of terrorism? Since 9/11, the number of al-Qaeda attacks here is zero. Like it or not, the battlefield is Baghdad.


American casualties? Although 2,100 lives is a bitter price, it’s lower than in previous wars and, judging by 2,337 murdered on 9/11, proportionate to the risk.


The answer lies in what people read, watch and hear. The Pew Center found only 33% of journalists deemed success in Iraq probable, versus 56% of the public and 64% of the military. Reporters report what they believe, readers believe what they read. Little wonder we fret about “another Vietnam.”


Two conflicts defined twentieth century American experience: Fascism versus democracy and communism versus capitalism. The struggle between western secularism and the spread of radical Islamism—sometimes dubbed “Islamo-fascism”—will define the twenty-first.


Beyond whining about “media bias,” its time we assess the risks of having the conflict steered by journalist/advocates—neither elected nor accountable—who, no longer merely reporting news, have begun making it.