Ignatius on the Downside of the Inside Story

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius did us all a favor in Sunday’s Outlook section, with a critical look at embedding—a journalistic practice that’s become increasingly commonplace, and not just in the military.

Ignatius quickly fesses up to his own embedded adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he gets to the heart of his argument, and it’s a point that the press really needs to think through:

But embedding comes at a price. We are observing these wars from just one perspective, not seeing them whole. When you see my byline from Kandahar or Kabul or Basra, you should not think that I am out among ordinary people, asking questions of all sides. I am usually inside an American military bubble. That vantage point has value, but it is hardly a full picture.

I fear that an embedded media is becoming the norm, and not just when it comes to war. The chroniclers of political and cultural debates increasingly move in a caravan with one side or another, as well. This nonmilitary embedding may have a different rationale, but there’s a similar effect that comes with traveling under the canopy of a particular candidate, party or community. Journalists gain access to information and talkative sources, but also inherit the distortions and biases that come with being “on the bus” or “on the plane.”

The larger troubles of the news business are complicated, but this problem is simple: We can’t understand what we don’t see; we can’t explain a conflict if we hear from only one side.

Nicely put.

It’s too bad, though, that Ignatius didn’t use this piece—entitled “Why the Inside Story Isn’t Enough” and published the morning after the ultimate insider event, the White House Correspondents’ dinner—to draw a bit more attention to the way embedding has become a part of life in the political world. During the presidential campaign season, large news organizations now routinely place (mostly young) reporters and producers inside each candidate’s “bubble” for weeks at a time. They’re dependent on the campaigns they’re covering for transport, food and shelter (the bills paid by the office), and, I fear, getting a rigorous training in how to tell a story from just one perspective.

(For the record, I think the twitter hashtag gets it wrong. As John Chait wrote, Real Nerds Skip Nerdprom.)

Ignatius knows the military side of this story well, though, and as he traces the way embedding emerged after journalists (mostly) sat on the sidelines of the Persian Gulf War, he draws an interesting, though troubling, conclusion.

Indeed, I think one reason for the news media’s inadequate examination of the rationale for war in late 2002 and 2003 was that we knew President George W. Bush had already made his decision — the Army was lined up in the desert, after all — and most editors were focused on figuring out how best to report it.

For the press, though, the piece is most powerful when Ignatius connects the embedding trend with the changing media landscape. Foreign correspondents might like to think they “travel with an implicit ‘white flag’—a pledge of independence and neutrality that will be respected by everyone.” But that’s not the world we live in, he writes.

We live in an embedded world, in which journalists are often required to take sides, or to see things from only one side, as a condition of doing their job. In this world, it is hard to blame an Al-Jazeera viewer for thinking that Fox News cares about only one side of a war, or a Fox viewer for feeling the same way about Al-Jazeera. That is a poisonous and dangerous divide.

It is also an unprofessional one. Embedding may be necessary for war reporters, but it isn’t for most other journalists. Yet the culture of observing events from “inside” a community is becoming more prevalent. Partly it is a result of technologies and platforms (the Web, social media networks) that have carved mass audiences into particular niches. When the information landscape was dominated by three networks and a few major newspapers, journalists were trained to report for everyone. Now, niche audiences want more intimacy and connection — even if that means less old-school independence and objectivity.

I like how Ignatius describes coverage of Wall Street and its critics on Capitol Hill: “one side or the other is implicitly the home team, depending on what you watch or read.” It’s a good point. We seem to treat every stock market rally like it’s a good thing. Is it?

While cable news and the Web are “ideologically embedded,” Ignatius concedes that “traditional journalists” aren’t “free of implicit, unexamined biases.” But I’d quibble a bit with his assessment that, “In the name of non-ideological reporting,” mainstream journalism tends to converge toward the center, ignoring “what’s on the wings, right and left.”

Ignatius seems keen to critique himself this way.

In the name of open debate, we sometimes have the effect of narrowing it. My own implicit bias for the center is sometimes painfully obvious in my columns. It skews my judgment.

He knows best about that. But, more broadly, I don’t think that the wings are getting ignored. Rather, I think traditional journalism often over-covers them, but somehow tries to paint events on the edges of the political spectrum as cultural curiosities, making it easier to at least appear to leave one’s own politics aside.

Ignatius knows that this genie can’t entirely get put back in the bottle, and points to the traditional media’s embrace of blogs as a way to build that kind of insider connection with readers that, taken too far, becomes the kind of ideological embedding he laments.

One of The Post’s fresh young voices, blogger Ezra Klein, clearly has a point of view on the policy debates he covers. If he made a fetish of neutrality, he would be less interesting. But I wouldn’t want a news diet of all Ezra Kleins, all the time.

What does he prescribe for all the non-Ezras out there?

We need to restore the white flag; we need to reassure people everywhere that we have checked our baggage — national, ideological, cultural, political and religious — at the door when we become journalists.

That might sound like a tall order. Or an old-fashioned idea. But that kind of just-the-facts approach is a big advantage, especially for the kind of in-depth reporting and tough investigations that aren’t the usual domain of the niche media.

Big Chief Audit Dean Starkman asked former Dow Jones director Jim Ottaway about this a while back:

TA: The idea of an unbiased news source is laughed off these days. We have to ask if unbiased or objective reporting is not itself an anachronism.

JO: Philosophically, you can argue that it’s an impossibility. But in practice and in a modern democracy and in an information society, where success in business, investments, and politics eventually depends on some common understanding of reality—what is real, what actually happened or didn’t happen, or was said or not said —you can’t run a business, you can’t run an economy, you can’t run a nation if it doesn’t have some discourse and public debate based on some commonly accepted facts. I think that this is what’s the danger. It’s what defeated the Roman Empire. You can find all kind of historical parallels of what happens when a society has reduced all news to propaganda. You can’t a run republican democracy that way.
I dunno about that Roman Empire stuff. But I think Ignatius is right. It’s sure worth trying. The inside story isn’t enough.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.