Of Howard Kurtz, Media Narratives, and Historical Myths

In a recent column, Wapo media guru Howard Kurtz commemorated the high- and lowlights of news reporting in the first decade the 21st century.  It contained some commonplace observations about the development of the Internet, the obligatory journalistic self-adulation, and ended on a sour note about the decline of the legacy media and their rather dim prospects in the decade to come.  There were some entertaining bits, however, not the least of which was a paragraph citing what Kurtz called “the two biggest disasters of early-21st-century coverage” which “remain a permanent stain on journalism.”  The first of these was unexceptional:

…the media did far too little to spotlight a shadow banking system built on preposterously exotic risks and federal regulators who blithely looked the other way.

However, the second one brought a smile to my face:

The failure to challenge the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq — and an accompanying tendency to dismiss antiwar voices — is now regretted by the news organizations themselves.

It’s a remarkable example of a “sharashka” as defined by Solzhenitsyn in “The First Circle:” A lie so big that, in the end, even those who invented it believe it. This yarn about how the U.S. media were too “pro-war” has always been absurd on the face of it to anyone not suffering from the flavor of cognitive dissonance peculiar to journalists.  Since the days it was first invented it has passed from being a useful lie to a constituent element of the legacy media’s ideological narrative to its current status of historical myth, believed by the journalistic faithful as what Stalin referred to as “a well known fact,” something like the “well known fact” that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery taught in southern schools in the 1920’s.  One might call it the Jingoistic Media Myth (JMM).

I’m not quite sure when the JMM made its first appearance.  It was, of course, necessary to allow a decent interval to elapse so memories could dull before legacy journalists could “repent” for having “dismissed anti-war voices” with a straight face without drawing peels of laughter from their listeners.  Eventually, however, it became possible to recite it to the proper audiences without the least embarrassment, shedding crocodile tears about the “shame” of it in the process.  Among other things, it fit right in with the fairy tales the European media were peddling to their clientele about the evil American’s “yellow press” at the time.  Of course, as anyone who didn’t fall off the pumpkin wagon yesterday is aware, the legacy media was never, in any way, shape, or form “pro-war” in the case of Iraq.  Why, then, invent the JMM?  Among other things, it provided ideological camouflage.  Assuming one swallowed the myth, it became the “duty” of the legacy media to “atone for their sin.”  One did this by giving prominent coverage to any expression of anti-war sentiment and to any story that could be given an anti-war spin.  In other words, one did it by making the news fit neatly in the ideological box the legacy media has occupied since at least the time of the War in Vietnam.  Any mutterings about “defeatist propaganda” could be faced down with a fine show of virtuous indignation, and pious remarks about the need to re-establish “balanced reporting” after the shameful, jingoistic lapses following the first days of the invasion.  

In the upshot, this “balanced reporting” was turned on full blast.  The upper right hand column on the Wapo’s front page became the preferred venue for any story that could be given an anti-war spin or reinforced the assumption that defeat in Iraq was inevitable.  When it became obvious, even to the Wapo’s editors, that defeat wasn’t imminent after all, and Iraq might not actually be another Vietnam in spite of all previous mutual assurances to the contrary, they tired of the game.  The upper right hand column was devoted to promoting more plausible yarns, and the Wapo became all but silent about the war.

I don’t mean to pick on Kurtz. He’s an “honest man” in the context of modern journalism, and I suspect he firmly believes the JMM mantra he recited in his recent article.  I can only suggest that he take advantage of Google and, perhaps take a look through the Wapo’s archives.  If he does, he may stumble across a few facts that don’t quite conform to the JMM.  Unfortunately, I don’t have convenient access to the archives, so I will have to rely mainly on second hand accounts. 

Take, for example, an article attributed to the Washington Post on the website of CommonDreams.org.  Published on March 3, 2003, the article describes the “stunning success” of worldwide anti-war protests on the previous February 15 in glowing terms.  Journalists typically use the last sentence of ideologically loaded articles as a “zinger” to make sure their readers don’t fail to see the “moral of the story.  In this case it is:

“This was caused by social forces, and it’s not something that organizations produced,” said Andrew Burgin, a member of the coalition’s British steering committee. “They’re not in our control. . . . You don’t lead a movement like this, the movement leads you.”

Not exactly the stuff of jingoistic saber rattling, is it?  What about the anti-war left’s own assessment of Wapo’s coverage at the time?  If the JMM is true, one would expect to find them fairly frothing at the mouth.  However, based on contemporary comments posted on the website of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), their actual reaction was somewhat more positive in response to the Wapo’s coverage of anti-war demonstrations:

The Washington Post (1/28/07) distinguished itself by assigning six staff writers and a researcher to the (anti-war) protest. Its page-one story conveyed the upbeat mood of the crowd and its diversity. It gave prominence to protesters with relatives in Iraq, let us hear a mother explaining the protest to her son as an exercise in free speech, and reported the crowd chanting for impeachment of George W. Bush.

But the paper went beyond human interest, explaining the protesters’ political goal of prodding Congress into action. By naming 10 of the organizations that have come together under the umbrella of United for Peace & Justice, which coordinated the event, it showed the political blending of the agendas of feminists, religious organizations, farmers, active and retired military members and others.

The Post’s coverage also included two sidebars, one about college student protesters and the other a collection of pictures and quotes from a variety of protesters.

Is this the “dismissal of antiwar voices” Kurtz was referring to.  Here’s another puff piece on antiwar demonstrations that appeared on January 20, 2003.  Zinger at the end of the article:  “‘War is not the answer,’ said Mary Appelhof, 66, of Kalamazoo, Mich.”  I could go on and on.

Perhaps it would jar Kurtz memory if he went back and looked at the stuff he was writing himself in the first days of the war. In an article published on March 24, 2003 containing a series of question and answer responses he replies to one “Howard” of New York, who is griping about what he considers an implication in news coverage that anti-war demonstrators don’t “support the troops:

… I do think it’s a canard to say that those who oppose this war don’t support the troops. At the same time, there has understandably been more focus on the antiwar demonstrations because there have been far more of them, drawing bigger numbers, than the pro-war rallies.

Is this the sort of “dismissal of antiwar voices” he’s talking about? 

No matter, the JMM will live on, in spite of the facts.  Historical myths eventually take on a life of their own.  The truth is always elusive, and historical truth is the most elusive kind.  Those who seek it will need a skeptical attitude and lots of source material.

2 thoughts on “Of Howard Kurtz, Media Narratives, and Historical Myths”

  1. I’d just like to point out that the “contemporary comments” you quote from FAIR are from 2007, describing a 2007 protest (as you can see from the date cited). Years after the launch of what had become a deeply unpopular war, coverage of protests had changed somewhat, though the article from our magazine was still noting the Post’s coverage as exceptional, not typical. Here’s a release from FAIR that talks about the Post’s coverage in the period Kurtz is describing:

    http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1644

  2. Mea culpa. Regardless, it’s not difficult to find examples of fawning coverage of anti-war demonstrations in the legacy media from the period in question, as my other examples demonstrate. If anyone had reason to complain, it was the guys on the other side. I attended a “Support the Troops” rally in Harrisburg, PA in March 2003. There were easily 10,000 people there, yet I saw no mention of the event on TV, newspapers, or the web, although there was copious coverage of anti-war demonstrations, many of which were much smaller. Interestingly, the Foxnews website also did not mention the Harrisburg rally in a story about demonstrations on its website the day after the event, probably because they often use feed from AP with little alteration of the spin, if any. You can find one of the few articles that eventually did appear about the event at:
    http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2003-03-30/news/0303300246_1_beck-clear-channel-war
    Note the snarky attitude of the author and the “zinger” line at the end: “Many of the rallies are paid for by local Clear Channel stations, with contributions from one of Beck’s advertisers, clothing manufacturer Bills Khakis of Reading, Pa.” You’ll find nothing like that about anti-war demos in the legacy media. BTW, I opposed the war from the start, because I considered it then and still consider it now a war of aggression. It doesn’t alter the fact that the myth of uncritical legacy media coverage is just that – a myth.

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