Monday, January 24, 2005


The failure of the coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq was the failure to be wary of the powerful, the failure to listen to those who are not our own. Stories about an imminent Iraqi threat, which turned out to be false, were splattered across the pages of the nation's most prominent newspapers. There were voices, important voices, that questioned the assertions, but they were largely unheard because the media ignored them. This failure was also, and perhaps more important, a failure to honor the moral contract that journalists have with viewers and readers to be truthful, even when it means challenging conventional wisdom and ferreting out unpleasant facts.

Those who defend the prewar coverage argue that reporters are only as good as their sources. They say they reported accurately the falsehoods leaked to them by those who sought to wage war. By making such an argument they are also saying they are morally neutral, that they are little more than conduits for lies, half-truths and truths all rolled into one unintelligible message. They forget the contract.

There is a concerted attempt to destroy this contract. Balance and objectivity have become code words to propagate the insidious and cynical moral disengagement that is destroying American journalism. This moral disengagement gives equal time, and sometimes more than equal time, to those who spread falsehoods and distort information. It tacitly sanctions the dissemination of lies. It absolves us from making moral choice. It obscures and often shuts out the truth.

This sophistry has come to characterize the circus that goes by the name of journalism on cable news shows. Facts on television are largely interchangeable with opinions. The television reporter, like a game show host, makes sure each warring party has his or her time to vent. The veracity of what is said is irrelevant. But the disease of moral neutrality is no longer confined to the poseurs on television, who are, after all, entertainers posing as journalists. It is seeping into those organizations that are still attempting to report the news. Objectivity is not the same as moral disengagement. Balance does not mean giving everyone the same space. We are more than dutiful court stenographers. Journalists have a contract with viewers and readers. This contract was broken. We must make sure it is not broken again.