Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Michael Gordon's Stenographic Journalism

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Glenn Greenwald spotlights the reporting of Michael Gordon, who lately has been reprising his pre-Iraq war role of Official Government Stenographer:

In the lead-up to the Iraq War, Michael Gordon of The New York Times wrote one of the most discredited, journalistically irresponsible, and damaging articles of the last decade -- a September 8, 2002, front-page article, co-authored with Judy Miller, which, in the first sentence, "reported" that "Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today." The article continued: "In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes."
The Gordon/Miller article was singled out for criticism by the Times itself when, in 2004, it issued its infamous (and incomplete) "From the Editors" mea culpa criticizing its own war coverage. The "Editors" admitted that the assertions by the intelligence community on which the Gordon-Miller article was based "should have been presented more cautiously" and that the "hints" which undermined those assertions "were buried deep, 1,700 words into a 3,600-word article." ...
While much of the press, including Gordon's own paper, has claimed to recognize the mistakes it made in the run-up to the war in Iraq -- specifically, their excessively gullible conveyance of unproven assertions from anonymous Bush officials -- Gordon seems to have learned nothing. Quite the contrary, he is engaging in the same behavior while he "reports" on (and supports) the administration's efforts to inflame public sentiment towards Iran.

On Saturday, The New York Times published a front page story by Gordon which did nothing other than mindlessly convey highly provocative (and completely unproven) claims by anonymous Bush officials that "the most lethal weapon directed against American troops in Iran is an explosive-packed cylinder that United States intelligence asserts is being supplied by Iran." [Emphasis is Glenn's.]

As I documented on Saturday (as did Juan Cole and others), Gordon's article replicated every mistake made by the media which enabled the administration to deceive the country with respect to the "threat" posed by Iraq -- specifically, it granted anonymity to Bush officials to make highly dubious, war-inflaming claims, and then simply passed those claims along on the front page with no scrutiny or investigation, and without any mention of the ample evidence which undermines those claims.

You would think that Gordon would be a tad more humble after the public drubbing he and his paper received over the 2002 centrifuge story, but no:

... As a result of the attention which Saturday's article received in the blogosphere, many blog readers wrote to Gordon to criticize him for uncritically passing on government claims concerning Iran. One blog reader -- a young New York journalist -- wrote the following polite and substantive e-mail to Gordon on Saturday:

Your article today is a shameless reiteration of what may very [well] be administration propaganda. Please, in your next article, make an attempt to verify administration claims somewhere, anywhere else. As a young journalist, I find your work discouraging for the profession as a whole. I'm sure it's a great deal of work to get the administration to give you quotes off the record supporting their policy du jour, but can you please take the time to fact check it? Just a little bit please? For the sake of your paper's reputation, I hope you do. Cheers, [name withheld]

This was Gordon's petulant, patronizing, and wholly non-responsive reply:

I suggest you embed in Iraq for a few months, live with the troops, ride in their Humvees, learn about the risk of EFP attacks, then spend several months asking military and Western experts about the technology, the tactics for employing them and its origin. Let me know what you learn and we'll compare notes.


Gordon's reply, aside from being arrogant and rude, is a complete non sequitur. Mindlessly passing along anonymous government claims is shoddy journalism, particularly in light of the damage such journalism unleashed on the country prior to the Iraq invasion (and after). That is true whether or not a reporter has ridden in Humvees with troops. ...

Just to add to Glenn's point here, riding in Humvees with troops can actually impede journalists' freedom, or even incentive, to verify government claims. Much has been written about the journalistically dubious -- and relatively new -- practice of reporters "embedding" with the military in order to get stories. Although it seems to almost be taken for granted now, "embedding" was the U.S. military's response to press criticism of restrictions placed on the media's reporting during the Persian Gulf War -- which itself was part of the military's effort, during the latter conflict, to "manage" war coverage as part of its "lessons learned" post-Vietnam strategy:

"When I first went to Vietnam, I just wandered around by myself. I didn't ask anybody's permission," said syndicated columnist Robert Scheer, who covered the Vietnam War for Ramparts magazine in the mid '60s and then worked for the Los Angeles Times for 27 years. "A lot of journalists, they just checked into a hotel in Saigon and they went off to look for their own stories.... They gave you a sense of the madness of it, of the contradictions." Since then, he said, "they learned how to make these wars appear antiseptic. War has been turned into a video game.... They've managed to make war palatable. They've cleaned it up."

Sydney Schanberg, a veteran war correspondent whose coverage of the war in Cambodia formed the basis of the Oscar-winning movie The Killing Fields, explained how the change happened. "After Vietnam," he told us, "there were two rehearsals on how to deal with the press: Grenada and Panama." It was during those military campaigns, Schanberg said, that the Pentagon began creating elaborate rules of engagement for reporters, limiting access in the field.

Those rules were toughened during the first Gulf War and in the Afghanistan conflict. On Oct. 7, 2001 – the day the United States began dropping bombs on that faraway nation – the U.S. military prevented the media from obtaining footage of the campaign by purchasing exclusive rights to private satellite imagery of Afghanistan, although its own satellites provided better resolution. At one point, "Marines quarantined reporters and photographers in a warehouse to prevent them from viewing American troops killed or injured by a stray bomb near Kandahar," according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's "Homefront Confidential" report. Not until March 4, 2003, did the Pentagon allow reporters to accompany U.S. soldiers into the field.

Distressed by the lack of access during Gulf War I and, more recently, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, major media outlets began lobbying for more openness. As a result, the Pentagon recently issued a set of rules for war coverage in the looming campaign against Iraq that call for the "embedding" of approximately 500 reporters with U.S. troops. Immediately, the new regulations were hailed as a victory by mainstream media. But when you look at what the rules really say, the picture isn't so pretty.

"On paper it looks like a considerable improvement," Schanberg said. "For example, there's no auto review of copy by the military." On closer inspection, however, Schanberg found reasons for concern. All reporters "embedded" with U.S. troops must sign a contract agreeing to the Pentagon's rules governing coverage. Included in the document is a clause dictating what kinds of information reporters can and cannot detail. Journalists can be precluded from reporting certain "sensitive" information according to the military commander's discretion.

What's more, "all conversations [with the troops] must be on the record," Schanberg said. That's a big problem: In the Vietnam era, much of the most damning information came from military sources who would talk to reporters if their names were not used.

The Pentagon can revoke a reporter's credentials at any time, for any reason.

Schanberg, who now writes for the Village Voice, argues that ultimately there should be as many reporters – if not more – working on the ground in Iraq independently of the U.S. military as there are stationed with the troops. Also, some worry that placing reporters with U.S. troops – indeed, having them undergo similar training and wear similar gear – creates a heightened identification with the soldiers that could slant coverage of the war.

"Embedding is bullshit," Scheer insisted. "You're just getting swept up into a big, mass machinery. They're just giving you photo ops. It's when you get away from the crowds, stick around and talk to people that you get the real stories. Otherwise, you're just being led around by the nose."

1 comment:

Chief said...

I watched part of a show on one of the Discovery channels this morning. It was about the B-29 bomber aircraft used in the latter part of WWII. I was surprised to learn that a young general (38 years old) Curtis LeMay, used firebombing on at least a half dozen Japanese cities as early as Spring 1945. One raid alone destroyed about 250,000 buildings in Tokyo. Some raids had over 900, yes nine hundred bombers on the mission from Tinian to the target in Japan. It would take over 3 hours to launch all the aircraft. And this went on for months, on a daily basis.

It should make one wonder how much resistance there was left in the Japanese populace on the morning of 6 august as the Enola Gay was taking off.

Wouldn’t that kind of attack today be called “TERRORISM” ? ?