The mainstream U.S. news media often laments the decline of objective journalism, pointing disapprovingly at the more subjective news that comes from the Internet or from ideological programming whether Fox News on the Right or some MSNBC hosts on the Left.
But one could argue that the U.S. mainstream press has inflicted the severest damage to the concept of objective journalism by routinely ignoring those principles, which demand that a reporter set aside personal prejudices (as best one can) and approach each story with a common standard of fairness.
The truth is that powerful mainstream news organizations have their own sacred cows and tend to hire journalists who intuitively take into account whose ox might get gored while doing a story. In other words, mainstream (or centrist) journalism has its own biases though they may be less noticeable because they often reflect the prevailing view of the national Establishment.
How that translates into daily coverage is that an American news outlet often will demand a much lower threshold of evidence about serious accusations against a perceived U.S. enemy than an ally.
For instance, during the 1980s, when I was with the Associated Press and Newsweek, I witnessed extraordinary demands for airtight evidence regarding the real problem of cocaine trafficking by the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contras, compared with easy acceptance of flimsy evidence about similar accusations against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
After all, President Ronald Reagan had hailed the contras as “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers” and had denounced Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua as "a totalitarian dungeon.” Truly objective U.S. journalism would have tossed out Reagan’s characterizations and simply evaluated the cocaine-smuggling evidence, but that was not how it worked.
Even years later, in 1998 when the CIA’s inspector general concluded that scores of contra figures and groups were implicated in cocaine smuggling, the mainstream U.S. news media ignored or downplayed those findings, while continuing to pummel journalist Gary Webb for flaws in his multi-part investigative series that had revived the contra-cocaine issue in 1996.
The journalistic blacklisting of Webb – carried out by the leading lights of U.S. newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times) – contributed to Webb’s suicide in 2004. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “We All Failed Gary Webb.”]
While the Webb tragedy may have been an extreme case of the mainstream news media tailoring its coverage of a controversial issue to fit acceptable political parameters, the constraints that applied to the contra-cocaine issue were part of a long-running pattern.
Indeed, several years after ganging up on Gary Webb – and protecting Reagan’s beloved contras – many of the same newspapers got in line behind President George W. Bush’s case for war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Claims about Hussein’s supposed WMD stockpiles were trumpeted while contrary evidence was muted.
The Hariri Example
Even after Bush invaded Iraq and discovered no WMD, the U.S. news media didn’t seem to learn much. In another case that has recently returned to the news – alleged Syrian complicity in the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – the double standards continued.
Because Syria was then on President Bush’s hit list for “regime change,” speculative evidence of Syrian guilt was widely accepted by the U.S. news media, which demonstrated very little skepticism toward a preliminary United Nations report implicating Syrian leaders and their Lebanese allies.
“There is probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services,” declared the U.N.’s first interim report on Oct. 20, 2005.
Despite the curiously vague wording – “probable cause to believe” the killing “could not have been taken without the approval” and “without the collusion” – Bush immediately termed the findings “very disturbing” and called for the Security Council to take action against Syria.
The U.S. press joined the stampede in assuming Syrian guilt. On Oct. 25, 2005, a New York Times editorial said the U.N. investigation had been “tough and meticulous” in establishing “some deeply troubling facts” about Hariri’s murderers. The Times demanded punishment of top Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies.