The Iraq War in Hindsight: How Journalism Is Versus How It Should Be

--Guest post by Sarah Merritt, American University doctoral student.


As we begin to look back at the Iraq war in hindsight, it is clear that more scholarship needs to focus on how both small and large-scale journalistic systems operate in times where going to war should be deemed controversial and the subject of public skepticism.

As the University of Pennsylvania's Barbie Zelizer explains, much of the relevant scholarship in political science involves inquiring how journalism is versus how it ought to be, including the interaction between the journalist and the source as well as the functioning of journalism’s intersection with the political world. In the case of the Iraq war, both of these factors played a role.

Bill Moyer’s 2007 documentary "Selling the War" about the press’s involvement with the government in pushing for the war in Iraq identified several conditions and factors that constrained the independence and skepticism of journalists and their news organizations. As Moyers opens the film:

The story of how high officials misled the country has been told. But they couldn’t have done it on their own; they needed a compliant press, to pass on their propaganda as news and cheer them on. Since then thousands of people have died, and many are dying to this day.

According to the documentary, patriotic fervor made journalists less willing to ask difficult questions or even question the facts set forth by the Bush administration.  Journalists’ own emotions, especially those who covered Ground Zero, potentially interfered with challenging the President’s claims and decisions. News organizations – notably CNN -- even felt threatened to post pictures of civilian war casualties with a CNN memo warning that advertisers and audiences might be lost if coverage was too critical of the Administration. 

With regard to small-scale journalistic practices, sourcing practices as described by Zelizer and identified in the Moyers film as specific to the coverage of claims of weapons of mass destruction enabled the government to make the case to go to war.  Scholar Michael Schudson warns about the social organization of newswork that “the reality-constructing practices of the powerful will fail (in the long run) if they ride roughshod over the world “out there.”

As social scientists, we view political news making as reality-constructing, too often following the lead of government officials and others in power.  Sourcing practices define journalism on a day-to-day basis, where the interaction of reporters and government officials is central. As in the case with the decision to go to war in Iraq, analysts agree, according to Schudson, that officials have the ‘upper hand.’

As Sigal (1986) asserted, “News is not what happens, but what someone says has happened or will happen” (p.25).  All too true in the case of weapons of mass destruction.

If you haven't watch the Billy Moyers' documentary Selling the War, the full film is available online.  Below is a trailer.

--Guest post by Sarah Merritt, a doctoral student at American University’s School of Communication.  Read other posts by AU doctoral students and find out more about thedoctoral program in Communication at American University.

REFERENCES

Moyer, B. (2007). Buying the war: How did the mainstream press get it so wrong? Bill Moyer’s Journal. Retrieved online from http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/btw/watch.html.

Schudson, M. (2002). The news media as political institutions. Annual Review of Political Science, 5(1), 249-269.

Sigal, L. (1986). Sources make the news. In R. Manoff & M. Schudson (Eds.), Reading the News (pp.9-37). New York: Pantheon.

Zelizer, B. (2004). Chapter 6: Sociology and Journalism. Taking journalism seriously: News and the academy (pp.145-173). Sage Publications, Inc. 

Develop mindfulness to boost your creative intelligence

Sharon Salzberg, world-renowned mindfulness leader, teaches meditation at Big Think Edge.

Image: Big Think
Big Think Edge
  • Try meditation for the first time with this guided lesson or, if you already practice, enjoy being guided by a world-renowned meditation expert.
  • Sharon Salzberg teaches mindfulness meditation for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

For a long time, the West shaped the world. That time is over.

The 21st century is experiencing an Asianization of politics, business, and culture.

Videos
  • Our theories about the world, even about history or the geopolitics of the present, tend to be shaped by Anglo perspectives of the Western industrial democracies, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • The West, however, is not united. Canada, for instance, acts in many ways that are not in line with American or British policies, particularly in regard to populism. Even if it were united, though, it would not represent most of the world's population.
  • European ideas, such as parliamentary democracy and civil service, spread across the world in the 19th century. In the 20th century, American values such as entrepreneurialism went global. In the 21st century, however, what we're seeing now is an Asianization — an Asian confidence that they can determine their own political systems, their own models, and adapt to their own circumstances.
Keep reading Show less

Why modern men are losing their testosterone

Research has shown that men today have less testosterone than they used to. What's happening?

Flickr user Tom Simpson
Sex & Relationships
  • Several studies have confirmed that testosterone counts in men are lower than what they used to be just a few decades ago.
  • While most men still have perfectly healthy testosterone levels, its reduction puts men at risk for many negative health outcomes.
  • The cause of this drop in testosterone isn't entirely clear, but evidence suggests that it is a multifaceted result of modern, industrialized life.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

Videos
  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less