And what we know about Iraq is already bad enough.
Properly, the politics of the War on Terror are distinct from the issues of editorial practice we are discuussing here. But readers may prefer to know the basic stance of anyone claiming to separate journalism from propaganda. To my mind, invading Afghanistan was a fitting response to Taliban complicity in 9/11. Risk was high, but the aim of a stable, even prospering Afghanistan seemed not impossible given long concentrated effort. Iraq was a reversal: the primary justifications—the bizarre weapons, the 9/11 involvement—were plainly spurious; the corollary—prompt replacement of dictatorship with democracy—utopian.
Many honest and varied views exist. But increasingly it’s common ground that Coalition actions have been built on group-illusion, and dressed in vain propaganda. And that news media, alarmingly, meekly retailed that stuff. Consequently, public anger and disarray run deep; a recent, detailed study on this topic by Professor W. Lance Bennett of the University of Washington, When The Press Fails, makes grim reading for any serious journalist.
But as Professor Bennett says, his team isn’t in principle describing a normal processes: rather, an anomalous episode, now in decline. Generally, American journalists have a record—if imperfect—of challenging power. To this News Corp. is a major exception: uncritical service to official propaganda is a Murdoch family tradition. (The Murdoch Archipelago traces this story across a hundred years.)
Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have apologized for disservice to their readers on the runnup to the Iraq war. But not News Corp., which far outdid them in fantasy. Its aim, said New York Post editor Col Allan was to avoid people being “confused.” Well, perhaps no Anglophone audience is more confused than News Corp.’s. Among Fox News users, 80% believe one or more of the war’s exploded myths (typically Saddam’s 9/11 involvement).
Initially, the Iraq project was propelled by a hot tide, flowing strongest in America, the target of the worst jihadist blow. But even then most major organizations—including the Pentagon—showed some independent thought. Exceptions were the White House—natural behavior in a political stronghold — and News Corp., displaying unanimity not remotely natural to a media group.
There are about 175 titles in the worldwide News Corp. system, and when Professor Roy Greenslade of City University London made a detailed survey in February 2003, he could not find one News Corp. paper that expressed doubt about the imminent war, or questioned Washington’s gung-ho prognosis. And this is something curious to see in democratic nations. Put a major issue to media professionals, and normally there will be disagreement, often strenuous—it is in fact their job. Not in News Corp. All Greenslade found within the company was a very slight muting of the ferocious tone of the company’s U.S. and British assets in Australia and New Zealand (where opposition to the war was as high as 75%, among people not poor in military virtue).
That so many editors should be of a mind astounded Greenslade, and he wanted to discuss it with them. But none of his calls were returned.
And Murdoch’s unanimous journalists saw little honor in anyone who wasn’t in full support of the war: such people were “wobblers,” “weasels,” “appeasers,” and “traitors.” One Times expert thought U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix was betraying the world, and, as the headline put it, he should “turn the smoking gun to his own head” when the weapons inevitably turned up.
News Corp.’s great sychronized display may be forgotten. But Murdoch’s spokesmen of serious journalism, such as Robert Thomson of The Times surely ought to explain the mechanism before The Wall Street Journal joins the system which produced it. We are told it’s not a system of censorship or interference. Can any paper that took part be described as editorially independent in any meaningful way? And perhaps the lawyers trying to produce a separate constitution for the Journal need help: how can they create safeguards against a collective process that hasn’t been explained? (To remind them: under democracy, the diversity of news media is no more a luxury than is academic freedom or rule of law itself.)