Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly — and every January 1, the press feels compelled to compile lists of the most significant events from the past year. As 2005 slipped away, a fair amount of ink was spilled on what was supposedly a “bad year” for President Bush.
Somehow, members of the press managed to overlook the fact that it was an even worse year for them.
The speciously named “Plamegate” — a non-scandal about the not-illegal “leaking” of the name of a non-covert CIA agent — was supposed to be the President’s undoing. Instead, it was, in many ways, that of the media. Not least, it revealed them as hypocrites. Having called for an independent counsel to prosecute the supposed “leaker” of Valerie Plame’s identity, the press then filed briefs claiming that no crime had been committed, as soon as some of its own were subpoenaed to testify. But the reputational damage to the press didn’t end there.
The New York Times, still recovering from the Jayson Blair affair, was humiliated again by one of its own reporters, Judith Miller. Once known as the proudly self-proclaimed “Miss Run Amok,” she was fired from the paper after posing as a First Amendment martyr, spending time in prison for refusing to testify in the Valerie Plame matter, even though her “source,” Scooter Libby, had authorized her to do so more than a year earlier.
Washington Post star Bob Woodward likewise embarrassed his paper. Famed for his coverage of the Watergate cover up, it turned out that Woodward had himself withheld evidence material to the indictment of Scooter Libby for making false statements. Contrary to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s assertion, it turned out that Libby was not the first person to mention that Joe Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA — another source had told Bob Woodward first. But Fitzgerald didn’t have the information because Woodward hadn’t come forward with it. Apparently, he was busy working on a book and didn’t “want to be subpoenaed.”
Hurricane Katrina provided another bonanza for the press that ended in an inglorious fizzle. At first, reporters filled with righteous moral indignation milked the opportunity to denounce the federal government for failing in a role that has never been assigned to it: That of first-responder in a disaster. Not only did the story offer the always-welcome Bush-bashing angle, it allowed reporters to mull on poverty and race, while calling for more government action — a perfect trifecta from a liberal’s standpoint. Stories of rapes and killings in the Superdome filled the airwaves, along with dire predictions of as many as 10,000 deaths. Only as the hysterical coverage receded did the extent of state and local government incompetence become clear; the death toll, while tragic, stands at slightly over 1,000. And contrary to the overheated coverage that emanated from New Orleans at the time, recent reports indicate that Katrina’s victims were neither disproportionately poor nor disproportionately African American.
“Plamegate” and Katrina hardly covered the press with glory, but even so, its members concentrated on these two stories. Their narrow focus led them to overlook or underplay other events about which Americans deserved to know more.
Chief among them was the spread of freedom in the Middle East. For the first time, in 2005, there were elections in Iraq — and also in Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Egypt. Saudi Arabia allowed municipal elections, and Kuwait granted women the right to vote and run for public office. But the press made precious little of these landmark occurrences.
Perhaps that’s because doing so might have suggested, even so slightly, that President Bush’s strategy of seeking to bring freedom to the Middle East is working — if painfully and at great cost. Indeed, the story the press has mishandled most, perhaps, is that of America’s progress in Iraq. According to a Media Research Center analysis, by September of this year, only 7% of the Iraq stories covered by the nightly newscasts were positive. Even the inspiring story of the Iraqi people’s progress toward democracy was presented in a negative light, with a decisive majority of the stories focusing on infighting and political obstacles, and a full one-third of the positive stories appearing on just two nights in January. And this was despite the three democratic elections, a bullish stock market and hiring boom in Baghdad, improved public services and the spread of peace in once-dangerous areas.
As the year ended, The New York Times was fixated on the President’s decision to conduct warrantless surveillance of international phone calls linked to known terrorists. Within the paper, controversy centered on why the paper chose not to report the story before last year’s elections. The scope of the national security damage created by the reporting of classified information was, apparently, deemed worthy of minimal attention.
Certainly, these are challenging times for the press, not least because of emerging competition from the internet. But as the media bids farewell to 2005, perhaps the best its members can hope for is a clean slate in 2006 — and the opportunity to fill it with news that retains perspective, offers balance and focuses on what’s really important.