Feast or famine?

Jack Shafer defends the press pre-Iraq
By ADAM REILLY  |  March 21, 2007

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It’s hard these days to find anyone who’ll stick up for the press’s pre–Iraq War performance — but Slate media critic Jack Shafer is willing to do exactly that. “We’ve got to be careful, when we criticize press coverage, to differentiate between what the press actually reported and what we remember they reported,” argues Shafer. “I was extremely critical of Judith Miller once she reported that she had discovered the precursor chemicals for WMD; then, with the help of some very knowledgeable readers, I was able to go back and look at years of really credulous reporting by her. But in reviewing my own clips, I gave the Times a shout-out on November 2002 for their ‘aggressive coverage of the coming war with Iraq, especially the stories that illustrate the bloody downside of intervention.’

Shafer cites the outstanding pre-war reporting of Knight Ridder — which Michael Massing discussed at length in the New York Review of Books — as more evidence that the media shouldn’t be cast, en masse, as pro–Bush administration lapdogs. And he argues that the existential (my word, not his) perspective of the press after 9/11 needs to be remembered as well. “When anybody reports a story you start out with a whole set of assumptions — and the day after 9/11, what were the assumptions that you as a reporter could hold on to and that could firmly ground you? The day before 9/11, you didn’t think any such thing could happen in the US. The day after 9/11, you were worried about every covered bridge in New England being taken out by some Al Qaeda cell.”

Contrast Shafer’s relatively sympathetic take with the assessment of Danny Schechter, author of the News Dissector blog, who sees the press’s pre–Iraq War quietism as just one manifestation of a fatally compromised journalistic culture. “There seems to be some sort of radar in most people working in Washington, basically indicating how far you can go and which areas are verboten,” Schechter says. “You have one eye on the blogs, one eye on what your colleagues are writing; you’re trying to cultivate sources, and in the course of doing that you go through the dance of trading information for access — which often leaves you feeling like you’re getting somewhere, and leaves them feeling like they’re co-opting you.”

  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Judith Miller, Jack Shafer, Al Qaeda,  More more >
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