Can You Believe the News?

The Edwards Lecture in Politics and History honors former Democratic Congressman Don Edwards, who represented San Jose for 32 years in the U.S. House of Representatives with uncommon commitment to civil rights, decency and the plight of the disadvantaged.

By Terence Smith

“Can you believe the news?” That’s our topic here tonight. There are two ways to read that title, of course, credulously and incredulously…as in …“Can you believe the news?”…and … “Can you believe the news?” Either way, it is a fair question.

It is a relevant and even vital question if you accept, as I do and I know Don Edwards does, that democracy functions best when its citizens know what government is doing in their name and with their tax dollars. If you accept that, and the notion that independent, fair-minded, professional news organizations are essential to keep people informed, then I would argue that we are in trouble.

We are in trouble, because of worrisome trends on two scores: what the government is doing…. And what the news business is doing to itself.

On the first score, in the wake of 9/11, government has been on a secrecy binge, drunk with the notion that in the presidentially-declared war on terrorism, more and more information must be kept from the public and the Congress. Bob Woodward of the Washington Post argued recently that government secrecy poses a greater threat to American liberties today than Al Qaida.

An exaggeration? Consider some recent headlines:

Item: In secret, without warrants and beyond the knowledge of all but a handful of members of Congress, the Bush administration has been using the national security agency to tap the phones and e-mail of American citizens. Despite all the outcry and demands for an investigation that followed this disclosure in the New York Times, this program continues.

Item: In secret and without explicit Congressional authorization, judicial review, or knowledge of the International Red Cross, the Central Intelligence Agency has been operating a network of so-called “black” prisons in foreign countries where they incarcerate third-country nationals without trial or recourse.

Item: In secret until it was recently revealed, the Bush administration has been reclassifying thousands of documents that previously had been declassified and publicly released by the State Department and other agencies. One example was a 1950 intelligence estimate, written 10 days before Chinese forces crossed into North Korea, stating that Chinese involvement was “not probable.” It was declassified years ago and published in the official State Department papers. Now it has been reclassified.

Is it embarrassing to intelligence agencies to have such a report out there? Yes. Is it a threat to our national security today? Hardly. Reclassifying such a document is the bureaucratic equivalent of trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. It would be funny, if it did not reflect a larger mentality at work in the government today.

Item: According to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the Bush administration spent $1.6 billion between 2003 and 2005 on pre-packaged “news.” It signed 343 contracts with public relations firms, advertising agencies, media organizations and individuals.

Some of these you may know about: Like the $186,000 paid to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the merits of the “No Child Left Behind” act…. Like the millions spent by the Lincoln Group to pay Iraqi editors and journalists to publish “good news” stories about the reconstruction of Iraq …Like the so-called video news releases applauding government programs that are routinely sent out free to local television stations around the country. These have been written about, but many more of these contracts never come to light.

Again, it would be funny, if it were not so pathetic. Do we really believe that we will convince ordinary Iraqis that the war is going well with pre-packaged news reports written by Army public relations officers? News reports about their own country? As the old saying goes: “What are you going to believe? What you see with your own eyes or what I tell you is going on?”

None of these items in themselves jeopardize our democracy (although they do threaten to make us a laughing stock abroad.) But they reflect a mindset that has taken hold in the Bush administration and in some quarters in Congress that says in effect:

– The war on terror justifies violating the Geneva Convention, signed and ratified treaties on the treatment of prisoners, prohibitions against domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens and the civil rights of persons brought before our courts of law
– Further, it justifies to the true believers, the establishment of extra-legal military tribunals, the so-called “rendition” or secret transferring of suspects to foreign countries where they may be subject to torture and, of course, harsh treatment of prisoners held by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

– Further it argues that the injury to our image abroad is acceptable collateral damage for the world’s sole remaining superpower.

– The Bush White House believes — genuinely believes — that the president can do whatever he considers necessary to protect the safety of the country and its citizens without prior approval from Congress or the courts.

– Just last week, the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, told your old committee, Don, the House Judiciary Committee, that he … “would not rule out” using secret, warrantless wiretaps to monitor phone calls and emails between American citizens within this country. Previously, of course, he said the NSA was only taping communications that originated abroad. Mr. Gonzales argued that the president has the right to expand that to calls and emails in this country. The age of Big Brother is truly here.

– What is dangerous here is the mindset, the absolute conviction in the White House that they know best. That is when important constitutional principles get set aside and vital civil liberties are abridged.

– Finally, in this atmosphere, there is a full court press underway against reporters who cover sensitive national security subjects. Prosecutors are increasingly inclined to subpoena, interrogate and, if necessary, jail reporters who resist demands to turn over their notes and identify their sources. According to the committee to protect journalists, there are currently more than two dozen reporters under subpoena or facing contempt citations around the country. The Valarie Plame and Wen Ho Lee cases are only the most notorious, the ones that get the most attention. Many others go on beneath the radar.

It was telling that the Bush administration’s first reaction to the NSA wiretapping story was to order an internal investigation into who leaked the information. Not to brief Congress, not to explain the program to the public, but to track down the leaker and then go after the leakee.

In another time and with another leadership, the Congress would be investigating these developments, to say nothing of the use and abuse of intelligence prior to the Iraq war. Independent commissions would be empanelled. Reports would be delivered and made public. Names would be named

If Don Edwards were in Congress today, or if people like him chaired the relevant committees, our system of checks and balances might actually check and balance. But when one party controls the White House and Capitol Hill, it is a different story.


Now to the second worrisome trend, namely, what news organizations are doing to themselves. Back in the 1960s when “swinging London” was the home of the Beatles and ever-shorter mini-skirts, it was said that Britain was going “giggling into the sea.”

I fear something similar is happening in the news business today. Serious news is being shortchanged and crowded out by the frivolous and downright silly. More and more news broadcasts provide what is cynically known as “infotainment.”

Why? The reason has to do with dollars and cents. Newspapers, network news divisions, cable news networks, even the news magazines are being buffeted by a perfect storm of economic pressure, consolidation of ownership, fragmentation of audience and self-inflicted ethical crises. A new study by the project for excellence in journalism describes what it calls “a seismic transformation” taking place in the media landscape.

A few statistics make the case: Newspapers around the country are closing, being sold off and cutting editorial staff. A total of 2,100 newspaper jobs were eliminated in 2005 alone, 3,500 since the year 2000. Circulation is declining, advertising is being lost to the Internet and shareholders, used to sky-high returns, are demanding a greater reward for their investment.

The best example of that, of course, is here in San Jose, where the Knight-Ridder management decided it had no choice but to sell itself to the highest bidder. So the Mercury News and the 31 other papers in the chain went on the block, were snapped up by McClatchy, which is turning around and selling off a dozen piecemeal, including the Merc. Did Tony Ridder have the ability to resist when the largest shareholders insisted he sell? He says he did not.

Moreover, this is a national phenomenon, despite the fact that publicly-held newspaper companies returned 20.5 cents on the dollar in 2004, compared with 11.4 cents on the dollar for the 500 companies in the Standard & Poor’s index. Twenty percent profit apparently is not enough.

The net result is a nationwide reduction in news-gathering. We may have more news outlets than ever, with thousands of Internet sites and millions of bloggers, but we have fewer and fewer reporters on the street, less and less actual digging into the affairs of government and business.

An especially threatened species is the major, big city newspaper. In Philadelphia, for example, another Knight Ridder town, the number of working reporters out gathering the news on any given day has declined from 500 to 220 in the last 25 years. The two major papers are both on the block.

Print is not the only sector that is hurting. Network evening news ratings declined six percent in the last year and the number of network correspondents is a third lower than it was in the mid-1980s, when I first went to CBS News. The major broadcast network news divisions are no longer worldwide news-gathering organizations. They are news-packaging organizations. Increasingly, they take in footage from a variety of sources and package it for 30-minute evening news broadcasts that include about 20 minutes of actual news content. Very often the correspondent narrating the piece is miles or countries or even a continent away from the scene of the story.

Incidentally, Katie Couric is a fine addition to CBS News in my view, and I expect her to succeed as the first solo woman in the male-dominated world of network anchors. But it is not reasonable to expect her to single-handedly reverse an industry-wide trend.

The median prime-time audience for cable news is up four percent over the last year, according to the project on excellence in journalism report. But most of that is attributable to the increase in Fox News. The project study faults cable for focusing relentlessly on a handful of breaking stories, creating what it called “an odd hyperbole in which anchors endeavor to create a sense of urgency over small things.”

Natalee Hollaway is an example. She is a pretty young woman who disappeared on vacation in Aruba. But she is only one of thousands of missing-persons cases in this country at any given point. Cable news, in its hunger for audience and its desperation to fill 24-hours-a-day, elevates her sad story to national crisis status.

Another recent and worrisome development, in my view, is the growth of “pseudo-news,” which is to say made-up news, or opinion masquerading as news. Bill O’Reilly is the chief practitioner and profiteer in this field, but he is not alone.

O’Reilly and others offer a kind of advocacy programming, a journalism of assertion in the guise of news that is designed to reinforce peoples’ biases. More and more today Americans seek out and watch news that reflects their preconceptions. They favor that which confirms and conforms to what they already believe.

Is it really surprising that surveys show that a significant percentage of Fox viewers believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks on 9/11? They absorb that from the innuendo that is implicit in the comments of national leaders and presented as straight news by Fox.

What else is the implication of the oft-repeated suggestion about the war in Iraq that “we are fighting them there so we won’t have to fight them here?” It plays on peoples’ worst fears and sense of insecurity.

Beyond the cutbacks and the pseudo-news, media organizations have suffered in recent years from self-inflicted wounds, from the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal at the New York Times to Jack Kelly making up stories in USA Today to Judy Miller’s deeply erroneous articles about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. There has been no shortage of ethical and professional failures in the media.

The bottom line of these worrisome trends, of the government’s aggressive attitude on secrecy and the internal problems of news organizations themselves is that the public’s flow of reliable information is jeopardized. You are right when you wonder whether you are being told the truth. You are right when you wonder whether the truth is being manipulated for political advantage. I know that concerns Don Edwards and I think it should concern us all.

So what is the answer to the question we started with: Can you believe the news? Yes –some of the time. But don’t take it for granted.

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