How We Got Here,
The Culture of Spin,
What the Rest of the World Sees
excerpted from the book
The Decline of Reporting, the
Business of News, and the Danger to All of Us
by Tom Fenton
ReganBooks, 2005, hardcover
To some degree, Americans have always lived as though dissociated
from the world beyond. Virtually every other country on the globe
knows the horrors of being invaded and marauded by outsiders.
The last time such a thing happened to us was 1814. The threat
or memory of invasion has never much shaped our thoughts, informed
our songs or myths. Others have had to learn the hard lessons
of geography and history firsthand. We have never needed to. America
the safe haven and America the self-absorbed, even the self-righteous
America that assumes the right to impose enlightenment on foreign
nations: All of these are part of the same package. Foreign correspondents
coming home almost always feel that strange sensation Liebling
experienced, marveling at how much better attuned to world currents
are the people we meet around the world.
From the collapse of communism until the attacks of 9/11, the
networks showed little or no interest in the rest of the world-and
even 9/11, as we shall see, caused only a temporary halt in the
decline of foreign newsgathering. We are today still a long way
from the heyday of foreign news, even with the addition of the
CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC 24-hour news channels. The withdrawal
from foreign coverage has been felt across the board in the American
news media, but most noticeably in television.
Lawrence Grossman, president of NBC ... He explains how in October
1987, when the stock market plunged, "Brokaw was talking
about Black Monday and all of that. The next morning, I get a
call from Jack Welch, who said, 'What do you guys think you are
doing? You are killing this company. You are ruining our stock
price.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'You've
got to get those guys of yours to stop talking about Black Monday.'
I said, 'The fact is, it is the biggest drop since 1929.'
'But look what you are doing to the value
of this company. My job is to keep the stock price up.'
... debates over Iraq ... are aberrations. Most of the time, in
truth, most of the media take their cues from the government in
deciding which foreign stories to cover.
Cutbacks, bottom-line fever, and CEO-mandated
news-1 criteria actually reinforce groupthink in mainstream news
media in ways that can wildly distort the news. You can't get
a more striking example than the amazingly mistaken election day
exit polling by the networks in 2004, which initially indicated
pro-Kerry outcomes. Why were they so uniformly wrong? Because
they all got together and pooled their resources to cut costs,
sharing the same polling companies when a little competitive reporting
might have kept the networks themselves on their toes.
This kind of herd-like laziness has infected
the bloodstream of mainstream news organizations. It runs so deep,
they don't even know it's there. No one gets fired for saying
the obvious. Conventional wisdom dominates, and few news executives
question received truths.
Politicians spin the truth-that is what they do for a living.
The news media's job is supposed to be unscrambling that spin,
separating truth from lies. One of our most important jobs, actually.
But it's just not working anymore. The public simply doesn't know
what's going on much of the time. They don't know who to trust
and what to believe. The one thing the public does seem to agree
on more and more consistently, alas, is that the news media can't
be fully trusted. According to a Gallup survey conducted on September
13-15, 2004, as many as 39 percent of those surveyed said they
had "not very much" confidence in the media's accuracy
and fairness, and 16 percent had "none at all." So when
real facts do emerge, it's hard for people to recognize them as
impartial and true, and even harder to allow the truth to change
their own built-in biases.
... politicians and the media have conspired to infantilize, to
dumb down, the American public. At heart, politicians don't believe
that Americans can handle complex truths, and the news media,
especially television news, basically agrees.
... the public now believes the media to be utterly politicized
and partisan-caught up in its own spin, as it were. This is not
the first time in recent decades that the news media and public
opinion have been at odds.
From the Nixon through the Carter administrations,
the press had the upper hand. But all that changed with Ronald
Reagan, the Teflon president, who consistently out-communicated
the media, and grew in popularity the more he was criticized by
the press. Richard Nixon may have hated the press passionately,
but it was Reagan who first institutionalized scorn for journalists
by cherry-picking the correspondents he allowed into White House
briefings, or by simply not calling on those who dared ask provocative
questions. The news outlets, anxious to keep their seats at the
briefings, went along with it. It was this era that saw the birth
of the "exclusive" interview-the Barbara Walters-style
therapeutic talkathon in which the interviewee (often a politician)
agonized over one soft, fuzzy, cozy question after another. Interviews
of this kind signaled the triumph of chat show values over news
values and, more insidiously, the subliminal moment when star
network interviewers began to undermine their news colleagues
by turning politicians into icons.
Most foreign news channels regard American reporting of foreign
affairs as deeply insular and self-serving, and with some reason:
American television, for example, almost never shows scenes of
Iraqi victims being killed by American troops, or blown up by
helicopters, a standard spectacle on Al Jazeera and various European
channels. Americans, in their current mood, would probably bridle
at such spectacles and deem them to be vulgar anti-Bush, antiwar,
even anti-American propaganda. So instead Americans get a partial
view of a partial view-and even that they often choose to discount.
So spin has triumphed in the worst possible way, by confusing
the public's very ability inclination to recognize the truth.
"The press is not an institution, it's an instrument."'
The public can see perfectly clearly that on many fronts, and
for many often hidden reasons, the press cannot or will not reveal
various faces of the truth. The glaring issue of corporate ownership
of news media, and the conflicts that come with it, get raised
often and just as often get dismissed.
The Saudis have ... acted for years as clandestine proxy financiers
for U.S. foreign policy objectives. In the 1980s, they helped
President Reagan dodge Congressional interference by supplying
funds directly to the Nicaraguan Contras. From the 1970s onward,
they helped the U.S. counter communist ideas by funding madrassas
around the Muslim world at a time when it made sense, when pro-Soviet
propaganda dominated the region-and that was even before the Afghans'
ideological gearing up against the Soviets. Remember the BCCI
bank scandal in the early 1990s? Gulf and Saudi money underpinned
the bank, which funneled funds to Islamic groups fighting the
Soviets, all of which was allowed to unravel once the Soviets
The Saudis certainly have powerful friends
in Washington, but nobody knows how much direct influence they
really exert over the media. Their form of influence turns into
a form of invisible spin as it filters down through protective
bureaucratic layers of "friends" on the payroll, who
run flak for them quietly. You will not see any news pundits,
politicians, or prominent citizens stand up proudly and declare,
as many do with Israel, that they are strong supporters of Saudi
Arabia. Yet neither will you see much on network news about the
influence of Saudi money in Washington-which is a real phenomenon
indeed. Various books published in the wake of 9/11 have detailed
Saudi clout in American corridors of power, from ex-CIA agent
Robert Baer's Sleeping with the Enemy to Craig Unger's House of
Bush, House of Saud (which claims that the Bush family made $1.4
billion from the Saudis over the years). Yet there's still a great
deal we don't know.
What we do know is that, since the 1990s,
Saudi Arabia has become the leading hotbed of anti-American Islamist
radicalism, with the help of some top Saudi royalty; that fifteen
of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia; and that
nearly three hundred elite Saudis flew out of American airspace
unhindered soon after 9/11, many with special permission, some
with apparent connections to al Qaeda. A great deal of the mystery
centers around private flights said to have operated through U.S.
airspace soon after 9/11, carrying top Saudis, at a time when
the entire nation's civilian aviation was mostly grounded-or so
the allegation goes. As Michael Moore's movie Fahrenheit 9/11
and Craig Unger's book (and his web site, www.houseofbush.com)
allege, one such flight consisted mainly of bin Laden family members.
In rebuttal, FBI officials and others have uniformly resorted
to spin, saying that no evidence exists of flights leaving the
United States during the flight ban. But they don't explain the
flights within the country. Nor do they explain why, if it was
all routine and legal, the exodus required permission from someone
very high up in the Bush administration. Thus far, only Richard
Clarke in the administration admits to giving his approval to
the flights, but he would hardly have dared make that decision
on his own. And here's where the spin comes in: Both the Saudis
and the Bush administration have gotten away with the fudging.
Despite the 9/11 Commission's (incompetent) probe into the matter,
despite the Bush backers' spinning attempts to saddle Richard
Clarke with the full responsibility, we still don't know who okayed
those flights, on whose authority, and why. And we don't know
why anyone should try to fudge the entire issue. We do know that
the Saudi royal family fears a Shi'ite-dominated democratic government
in Iraq based on the majority Shi'ite population: In the wake
of the American counterinsurgency operation against Sunni rebels
in Fallujah (November 2004), the Saudi rulers allowed twenty-six
prominent Saudi religious scholars to issue a call to arms urging
Iraqis to resist the U.S. occupation. The Bush administration
has said nothing on the matter, and the media has largely followed
As my [media] colleague notes, the ritual of press room briefings
is only part of the prickly relationship between reporters and
the White House. "The question of access to senior administration
officials and policymakers bedevils reporters in any administration,
because the only access to those decision makers is by phone.
They return the calls of reporters they know or like, or in whose
publications they want information to appear (usually sourced
to 'an administration official,' rather than by name)." Thus,
in any administration-even the current one, with its well-known
antipathy to the so-called liberal media elite-"it's easier
to get a call returned if you work for the New York Times or the
Washington Post than the Toledo Blade."
... despite the access to infinite sources of information, we
are surely witnessing the consistent triumph of spin over reality
in our own country and elsewhere. It turns out the self-evident
truth we believed in all along, that free societies get better
information-or that plentiful information frees societies-isn't
so simply axiomatic after all. The real world appears to work
a lot more subtly than that.
Our old faith would suggest that truth
triumphs over fiction in an open society because the public knows
the difference. But what if, in an apparently competitive media
system, the public still only gets inadequate or broadly slanted
news? Is that even possible? If not, how does one explain the
enormous divergence between European and American reporting on
Iraq-a matter of not just opposing beliefs, but starkly opposed
"factual" reporting? How to explain, for that matter,
the reporting of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya? Either they are biased
or we are.
But they can't be making everything up.
Take the case of Iraq: all the wounded children, the accidentally
killed mothers, the homeless, the workless, the understaffed hospitals,
the bad water, the sheer rage and hopelessness of many caught
in the crossfire. We don't see much of that on the news here in
America. But everyone else in the world does. It turns out that
we're as resistant to certain kinds of truth as totalitarian countries-we
who pride ourselves on our free flow of information!
... the United States gets a more positive view of the war than
the rest of the world-including the United Kingdom, our ally.
Most of the world's media outlets differ from us in the picture
they present. Why doesn't that picture get into our sitting rooms?
Here is part of an email sent around to colleagues in September
2004 by Wall Street journal correspondent Farnaz Fassihi in Iraq.
It was a more personal opinion than correspondents generally choose
to publish in the paper-perhaps too personal-but Fassihi seemed
bent on conveying to readers what it was really like:
Iraqis like to call this mess "the
situation." When asked "how are things?" they reply:
"the situation is very bad." What they mean by "situation"
is this: the Iraqi government doesn't control most Iraqi cities,
there are several car bombs going off each day around the country
killing and injuring scores of innocent people, the country's
roads are becoming impassable and littered by hundreds of landmines
and explosive devices aimed to kill American soldiers, there are
assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings. The situation, basically,
means a raging barbaric guerilla war.
The freer flow of information, apparently, does not lead all societies
toward the same values. Given the freedom to do so, we don't even
perceive the same things. The truth gets fractured, everybody
takes sides, no one knows what's going on, so people watch the
news that confirms their views.
In our country, the Fox News Channel illustrates
this precisely. Uncomfortable facts simply get ignored, or quickly
forgotten by their commentators and the people who applaud them.
... commercial exigency, rather than the old state-imposed variety,
dictates that news channels don't tell viewers what viewers don't
want to hear. The reason is simple: Now more than ever-anywhere
in the world-viewers can simply switch to another channel, to
an alternative view that makes them feel more comfortable. The
profit motive can distort the news as surely as state control
does. In the brave new world of media, information flows more
freely, but certainly not more impartially or accurately. Around
the world, more choice has meant more polarization of views, and
easier manipulation of news. We, in America, who pride ourselves
on our open society-the basis of our triumph over the Soviets-pioneered
this system. Yet, like others, we are locked into our delusions.
We are no more hearing the world than they us.
... today's regimes - such as China or the Arab countries, or
indeed most halfway-developed countries manipulate their public
more effectively, using lessons they learned from America. Since
they can no longer stop it, these nations now allow TV news competition.
On one hand, it gives the illusion of variety; on the other, it
generates bottom-line fever-which in turn leads to more entertainment,
more gossip and scandal, and less real news. In that thin intellectual
atmosphere, television news barely has the will or wherewithal
to resist spin, to make a complex case for or against anything-and
certainly not against strident patriotism or religion. News independence
gets especially weak if corporate owners have higher business
agendas. Indeed, these days governments deliberately allow corporate
owners of news channels to prosper in other businesses.
All over Eastern Europe, oligarchs who
own large chunks of national industries also own television channels,
and many of these power brokers are cozy with politicians. State,
commerce, and news work together to enrich rival elites and to
spin the news for each. And ultimately the more conglomerate-owned
channels there are, the more uniform the headlines become, as
everyone fights for the mainstream advertising dollars. Does any
of this sound familiar? Surely I'm not suggesting that this applies
to the United States? Well, yes, I am. After all, the owners of
Big Media now occupy more and more of the public airwaves, with
less and less obligation to serve anything other than their bottom
line. The state actively colludes in the process through its regulatory
body, the FCC, by constantly giving away public rights to broadcasters
almost unconditionally-they don't even pay a fee, as they do in,
say, the United Kingdom. All of which puts the state firmly in
bed with Big Media, and means that profit wins over hard news.
Does the state, therefore, control American
news in any way? It's a hard one to answer. The best answer is
that it doesn't need to for all the reasons we've seen ... fewer
news resources, groupthink, powerful spin. The news doesn't much
get in the way, these days, if the White House spin machine is
firing on all cylinders.
With the cooperation of former Bush White House Treasury Secretary
Paul O'Neill, Ron Suskind wrote the highly critical book The Price
of Loyalty. Suskind then wrote a celebrated article in the October
17 issue of the New York Times Magazine titled "Without a
Doubt," in which he reports conversing with an aide to the
The aide said that guys like me were "in
what we call the reality-based community," which he defined
as "people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious
study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something
about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off.
"That's not the way the world really works anymore,"
he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create
our own reality. And while you're studying that reality-judiciously,
as you will-we'll act again, creating other new realities, which
you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're
history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just
study what we do."
from a November 2004 London Spectator book review by Jonathan
Mirsky: In August 2002, Mr. Bush said, 'I'm the Commander-see,
I don't need to explain. That's the interesting thing about being
President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say
something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."
ABC News on October 2, 2004, Peter Jennings announced the release
of Simona Pan and Simona,Torretti, two Italian aid workers, kidnapped
on September 7 and widely reported to have been beheaded. When
they returned home, Italy's press received them as heroines. Most
of America's press celebrated, too.
But there was virtually no follow up in
the United States when the public mood in Italy turned against
the two women. In a press conference soon after their return,
the "two Simonas," as they were dubbed, gave their backing
to the Iraqi insurgents opposing the allied forces. "If you
ask me about terrorism, I'll tell you that there is terrorism
and there is resistance. The resistance struggle of people against
an occupying force is guaranteed by international law," Simona
According to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian on
April 25, an estimated one to two thousand tons of DU [depleted
uranium] had been dropped on Iraq since the start of the Iraq
war-roughly three to six times the amount dropped in the 1991
Gulf War. On September 7, 2004, Al Jazeera claimed that the use
of these "weapons of mass destruction" had caused Iraqis
in the southeast of the country to have record levels of cancer
and babies born with horrific birth defects.
Throughout the late 1990s Internet boom, Thomas L. Friedman, the
New York Times columnist, told us repeatedly that all totalitarian
states were about to disappear, overwhelmed by too much truth
from outside. In a September 24, 2004, opinion column in the Wall
Street Journal, Daniel Henninger predicts that the old Big Media
control of "content and context" in the United States
is about to disappear due to the rise of Internet blogs. So Garrick
Utley's forecast still has many adherents. The reality? In fact,
increasingly, we all tend voluntarily to shut out each other's
truths, both at home and abroad. Likewise, in many countries governments
still exercise state control over their media to one degree or
another, without repercussions from their public. The Russians
and Chinese openly control their many channels, but the phenomenon
isn't limited to communist (or former communist) states: after
all, Italy's Prime Minister Berlusconi simply owns much of Italian
television. Most Arab countries have state-controlled media, and
the competition from satellite channels such as Al Jazeera, Al
Arabiya, and the U.S.-funded Al Hura, has not changed that. Indeed,
if anything, the proliferation of channels has taken the pressure
off state-controlled channels to make any internal change. And
America's claim to the banner of free speech is not entirely pure:
the United States openly closed down the Al Jazeera office in
Iraq for being too negative.
... the Fox News Channel has its own way of ensuring loyalty to
company and country. According to one inside source, Roger Ailes
had taken to interviewing even the lowest of job applicants to
his company himself, and asking them point blank if they believed
that Fox was indeed "fair and balanced." Since the Fox
News doctrine boiled down so evidently to pro-Bush, pro-war, pro-patriotism
sentiments, Ailes's question also boils down to a test of national
loyalty. In other words, does the prospective employee believe
that Fox News was "fair and balanced" in supporting
the White House war? You don't think so? You don't get the job.
... the system of self-monitoring media,
as pioneered after the Cold War in the United States, has massive
flaws. The forces of spin distort the already thin news content
in ways both invisible and undeniable. It's a prospect the Romans
might have recognized: The populace is distracted by spectacle
on television while commercial pressures hobble the news. As Ralph
Nader never tires of telling us, the free market would be fine
if it were truly free. Instead, corporate influences effectively
curb the market in a thousand ways, whether through quiet deals
inside Washington or by arrangements the conglomerates make with
other governments. Who criticizes Rupert Murdoch for going easy
on China in return for satellite broadcast deals there?
... In France, the leading conservative daily, Le Figaro, has
been taken over by Serge Dassault, the dominant French arms manufacturer.
Another conglomerate, Lagardere, which makes missiles as well,
presides over a large number of popular French periodicals. Together,
Dassault and Lagardere own more than 70 percent of the French