Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Another case study of the propaganda model

One tortured apology isn't good enough for Howie Kurtz, apparently. He's now written a rejoinder to criticism of the Washington Post's Iraq mea culpa from last week. In it, Kurtz argues that while Post reporters got some things right, the editors at the paper did a poor job balancing out stories that supported the administration's case for war with those that shed a skeptical light on their claims.

This is undoubtedly true, but not the crux of what Kurtz is trying to say. His main point is that the structural problems of journalism and the framing of the administration's case essentially preordained the fact that the press would fail.

Perhaps most amazingly, he seems to take solace in this since the Post's failures were thus due to the "limitations of journalism" rather than the paper's "political leanings." I find this much more disturbing, though. Kurtz is basically admitting that journalists could not develop a counternarrative to US government propaganda since they did not have enough "credible sources" saying something to contradict the government.

Well, maybe I've been absent for a few weeks, but isn't it the journalist's job to cultivate sources that enhance, contradict, or redefine whatever story he or she is working on? And if one source is dominating the framing of a certain story, isn't it also the journalist's job to seek out sources that could produce an alternative to the narrative being offered, or at least a different angle? Isn't that what a "free press" is supposed to do?

In theory, journalists are not supposed to be merely stenographers for the government or the powerful. With this revised admission, Kurtz is saying this was an impossibility in the Iraq case. In other words, the Post was so heavily dependent on government sources that it functioned as the propaganda arm of the state. Nevertheless, since the Post didn't succumb to ideologically tinted coverage, the paper should be absolved of most, but not all, blame.

The ramifications of this sort of logic are stunning. Chomsky and Herman must be smiling, somewhere.