Do Media Rule?

A response to those who think I was too kind to The N.Y. Times. Plus: the courage of the NYRB

In my brief tenure as a media critic, nothing I've written has pissed readers off more than my recent assertion that newspapers don't make wars happen. Not even a V.I.P. (very important paper) like The New York Times.

My e-mail server has been burning ever since I reacted to the Times' admission that its reporting on Iraq was remiss. In fact, the errors that the paper acknowledged were far more significant than the word remiss implies. But were they responsible for the invasion of Iraq? Did the public form its opinion based on the ripple effect of stories in the Times? I say no.

True, Dick Cheney, who puts the ease in sleaze, cited Times stories (which the government apparently planted) to support his claims that Iraq had ties to terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. No doubt the rest of the media took these claims more seriously because of the Times. But TV news producers could find some very skeptical reporting in The Washington Post, and I assume they're fluent enough in English to read the British press. All they had to do was catch the BBC news (whose reputation in America reached almost sacred heights during this conflict) to see what the Times couldn't or wouldn't.

If this dissent didn't dominate CNN's coverage of the run-up to war, it's not because the network was taking cues from the Times. Something much more fundamental was at work: the binding connection between public opinion and TV news presentation. Still, the key question is: Who's zoomin' who?

It's a root belief on the left and right alike that the media shape the masses. Their shared assumption is that the press promotes a consensus in the name of entrenched power. Where rightists see liberalism as the great hegemon, lefties see the military-industrial complex. But both agree that a false media consensus keeps people from knowing the truth. I'm not suggesting that just because both ends of the spectrum concur, their conclusions are wrong. However, I do think they're incomplete.

Here's a different view of how media and public opinion work. If this weren't a family newspaper, I'd use the word dialectical. What I mean is that a complex interplay of sociopolitical forces shapes the media's perceptions. But the media also create a space to challenge this consensus, and that space is one of the main arenas for social change. (Pop culture is another.) We ought to hold the Times responsible for abandoning this role—and for failing to report the facts—but not for the massive loss of life in Iraq. That blame should fall on the government, which became a medium unto itself by providing incendiary rhetoric and imagery that made most people feel like they were in the middle of a low-res hyper-real combat film.

I have never known this tactic to fail during the early days of a war. Nor have I ever known the press to resist the spirit of such imagery. That happens much later, when the rush has passed and the bodies begin to pile up. The government has tried to keep those corpses out of sight, because when an issue touches people's lives they stop believing what they hear from their leaders, and for that matter, what they see or read in the media.

Few will flame me if I say there's a relationship between a paper's dependence on advertisers and its ability to speak truth to power. But an even more powerful force is at work. To the extent that a publication cares about being respected by its readers, it will trim its sails to please them. And very few publications can honestly say that they don't care what their readers think. This is the social loop at work.

Consider The New Yorker's coverage of Iraq. The first thing that comes to mind is Sy Hersh's brilliant investigative work, along with some vividly reported pieces from the front. But this critical perspective didn't fully emerge until The New Yorker's readers began to have profound misgivings about the war. Back when it was a sign of intellectual respectability to be a hawk, that publication ran judiciously argued pro-and-con essays. (In one of them, its editor, David Remnick, came out as a bird of prey.) Charlie Rose followed the same trajectory. When hawkism was hot, Charlie was gung ho, but as his class began to shift on the war, so did his roster of guests—and his remarks.

I don't mean to single Charlie out. Only publications that weren't overly dependent on ads, or whose readers expected it to dissent, consistently opposed the war. The rest of the media followed the polls, as they usually do. The editors who last are those who can sniff water in the wind like a giraffe in a drought.

What conclusions do I draw from this? Mainly that focusing on the media distracts us from the really crucial task, which is changing public opinion. How can we do that in a world where power is so consolidated and so generous in its provision of spectacle? I don't know. But we'd better start experimenting, or, as Margo Channing might say, we'd better fasten our seat belts. Because if George W. Bush is re-elected we're in for a very bumpy ride.

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