Sunday, January 02, 2005

Breaking Out of Lockstep

To those of us who follow the media, one of the most discouraging facts of life is that so much of daily reporting seems to be a game of "follow the leader". Whether that leader is The New York Times, or the Washington Post, or, increasingly and depressingly, Fox News, we see and hear a story from one source only to find that everyone in the media soon is playing it in the same way, with an indistinguishable perspective, asking the same questions, suggesting the same answers.
And too often the leaders decide to abandon the main point and emphasize a minor issue. We saw that with the Dan Rather/George W. Bush reserve controversy last fall, when the issues about our "war president's" service record being raised by CBS News were completely abandoned -- even, eventually, by CBS News -- in the wake of still unanswered charges of the legitimacy of the documents. The only refreshing bit in that story was that the "leader" was not a major media outlet, but a set of semi-anonymous blogs.
More recently, in the Donald Rumsfeld/military armor story, legitimate questions from a soldier about the U.S. government's failure to protect our troops in Iraq became overshadowed by the question of whether it was appropriate for a reporter to have coached the soldier who asked the question. Lost in this story were a few points that have, thankfully, been raised this morning by Frank Rich in his Sunday column in The New York Times. The first point is one originally made (but drowned out) by a Washington Post reporter, Dana Priest, who evidently wrote that similar questions had been put to Rumsfeld directly by soldiers a year earlier. The second point is that Mr. Rumsfeld's answer, which after a rude putdown alluded to limits of production capability, was an outright lie. Manufacturers of military armor evidently have been telling the Pentagon for months that they could increase production. Mr. Rich reports that one company, ArmorWorks, has said it could increase its production by 100 per cent.
Mr. Rich does a valuable service by re-introducing points like these. His column is widely read. Maybe enough people will learn the truth to begin refocusing the story on the issues that matter. One continuing problem in that regard is that Mr. Rich and Bill O'Reilly of the right-wing Fox News Network, have made a game of demonizing each other, to the extent that any valid points made by one are likely to be drowned out by screaming rhetoric coming from the other.
This is the kind of media noisemaking rightly decried by the infinitely valuable Jon Stewart in his notorious "Crossfire" appearance last fall.
Of course, the content of Mr. Stewart's statements was quickly lost in the media babble over his calling Tucker Carlson a "dick" on air. So how many people really even really got the opportunity to hear and consider Mr. Stewart's points?
I do not rest my case. I will be back to this one as often as I can.