Quoting great journalists experts and media researchers present at the Perugia Journalism Festival. Carl Bernstein – prestigious Washington Post reporter, made famous in the sixties by Watergate investigation – and Alastair Campbell – ex Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Press Secretary – were only two of the prominent participants of the second International Festival of Perugia to repeatedly and pointedly wrestle with the controversial and complex topic of the relationship between media and power.
Although, in the past, journalism took pride in the investigative reporting that contributed to uncovering inconvenient truths (such as the Watergate scandal in the mid seventies), today, following the Iraq war that was justified by misinformation regarding Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, almost everything seems to have changed.
The way in which media and power are intermingled makes it difficult to differentiate their roles. Government sometimes abuses its power and protects itself by targeted and manipulated news releases that are programmed to get its message across and to justify its actions. While reporters – faced with the competition of new media and often without the time and resources needed to make thorough investigations – tend not to verify their sources and to assume that news provided by seats of power are true.
This leads to a vicious circle in which, when news is discovered to be false, power and the media mutually deny responsibility for the error so that both lose credibility.
Watchdogs of power
How did this come about? How has journalism changed? What, on the one hand, should be done to return the media to its origins as a watchdog of power and, on the other, force the system to accept the media as one of the essential controls that guarantee democracy? These were a few of the topics for discussion at Perugia.
According to Carl Bernstein, a journalist’s work is knocking on doors day by day to report the best obtainable version of the truth. Journalists must be aware of the fact that, although people working for the government and institutions are valuable sources, reporters must always ask themselves “Is it true?” when statements are made.
It is widely accepted – continued Bernstein – that press statements are of strategic importance for governments. On the other hand, reporters must report information that power does not want to reveal by taking care to not limit themselves to official statements by government spokespersons and to find and vet sources of their own.
This, however, does not mean that investigative journalism is only a tool for toppling presidents. It must, in fact, also be supported by and act in the interests of the political system. “In the beginning” Bernstein says “Bob Woodward and I didn’t know where our investigation would lead, but during the course of our work we met with the support of the government and the system, otherwise it would have been unimaginable that we could go as far as we did”.
“But then, let’s not forget that times have changed”, he added.
“Big media conglomerates today, like Rupert Murdoch’s, that control television, the press, etc., are motivated, above all, by the bottom line. They don’t want to invest in big stories preferring ad hoc sensationalism and scandals in order to draw mass attention and turn a quick profit. Unlike 30 years ago, newspapers do not illuminate but reflect a culture of negativism”.
“Turning to the war in Iraq”, he confesses, “it was an unusual mistake for the New York Times to swallow the story about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction”. The American press was slow to unmask the falsity of the war in Iraq that was propagated by the Bush and Blair administrations”.
The New Media Challenge
Alastair Campbell does not share Bernstein’s views. Among other things, the ex Daily Mirror reporter continues to “still support the decision to enter the war. Decisions had to be made based on information that was available at the time”, he said.
He agreed with his famous colleague, on the other hand, that there is a certain culture of negativity in British society reflected all in all in the information system. “The new media, providing news everywhere around the clock, have impoverished journalism. Reporters often invent stories only because they are exciting.
“The Blair government’s press office”, he said, “professionalised communication”. A press secretary’s job is to make Government policy understandable to people. That, however, does not justify lying”.
Having the Courage to Doubt Bush in Front Page
Interview with Peter Eisner and Knut Royce
To try to understand what’s not working in the relationship between the media and power and, above all, to discover if investigative journalism really is in difficulty, we interviewed two more international experts in the field: Peter Eisner – the Washington Post’s deputy foreign editor – and Knut Royce – three-time Pulitzer prize winner.
Is it true that journalism in the United States has changed since Watergate?
Knut Royce: “Yes, and the proof is the Iraq war. Journalism didn’t meet the challenge. Reporters were always late in uncovering the truth and did not inform public opinion of the real facts. The situation was also complicated, however. America was looking at the world through post 9/11 eyes”.
Peter Eisner: “Certainly. It has to be borne in mind that in 2002, just months before the Iraq invasion, papers like the Washington Post and New York Times publicly questioned whether or not there was proof that Saddam Hussein actually had weapons of mass destruction. The problem was that the editors didn’t put the articles on the first page but inside the newspaper where they were less visible.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, on the other hand, had the courage to put its doubts on the front page. But in the United States, news is not news until it is published by the New York Times or Washington Post”.
Why didn’t editors have the courage to print the news on the first page?
Peter Eisner: “It’s not necessarily the case that the newspapers acted in concert with the Bush Administration. You have to remember the country’s social and cultural environment leading up to the war. There was a certain amount of flag waving in the United States and editors feared that publishing arguments and truths against the decision to go to war would hurt national pride and the country’s sense of patriotism. They wanted to support the troops that were getting ready to leave.”
What is your own theory on the misinformation that media and power wanted to disseminate to the public at the time?
Peter Eisner: “Our theory is the one we defend in our book The Italian Letter that will be published in Italian by July. Namely, that US intelligence in 2002 was in possession of information that definitively refuted reports that Saddam Hussein had acquired large quantities of uranium from Africa. Despite this, the reports were used and released to the press – such as the New York Times – that made no effort to verify them before publication. It was manipulation and a huge lie that resulted in one of the greatest disasters of American military history”.
Where does your investigation start?
Peter Eisner: “From Bush’s State of the Union speech in 2002 justifying America going to war: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”.
Does investigative journalism still exist?
Knut Royce: “Yes, but it is more difficult to conduct than before. We’ve seen better times. Many editors do not foster and support it because it is too expensive. Many newspaper publishers do not appreciate it because it consumes too much time and resources just when editorial staffs are being run down and news must have a fast turnaround and be adaptable to various types of media. In addition, politicians take advantage of the press particularly in the daily news cycle. Their most able press secretaries, the “spin doctors” (manipulators of the news), provide ad hoc information while the resources and instruments available to journalists to quickly verify news are unfortunately not always sufficient.
It seems obvious: on the one hand, a good press secretary does not lie and works in the interest of his government and the people he represents. Good journalism, on the other hand, is to always report the truth. Although, as a result of clamorous blunders and slips in recent years, it is difficult to still believe in this.
Translation: Richard Hall