Saturday, February 12, 2005

Are They Not Paying Attention? Are They Scared? A Look At Why The Mainstream Media Delayed Covering Eason Jordan

Why did the mainstream media not cover the "news" that CNN News Chief Eason Jordan had allegedly accused American troops in Iraq of deliberately killing journalists?

It's a tough question, and one that the collective powers that be should be asking. For if Internet bloggers hadn't buzzed about this story and demanded answers from CNN, the story may have died before it ever made it onto television or the major newspapers.

On Jan. 26, during an economic conference in Switzerland, Eason allegedly made his comments. Jordan says his comments were misinterpreted, but various audience members, including Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) and Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) were among those corroborating the charge.

Rony Abovitz, co-founder of the Hollywood, Fla., medical technology company Z-Kat Inc., told The Miami Herald that he responded first to Eason's alleged comments. "I stood up and asked, 'Is this documented? And if so, why hasn't it been on the cover of Time magazine? Because if it's true, it's much bigger than [U.S. military abuses at] the Abu Ghraib prison.' He kind of froze, and then he started backpedaling. But the crowd included a lot of people from the Middle East, who were cheering him on, so then he wiggled back and forth.''

Frank elaborated to the Herald: "He answered, 'I'm not saying this is American military policy.' And my recollection is that he next said that American military personnel had deliberately shot at journalists and not been punished.''

After the panel, Frank told the Herald that he pressed for more details. "I called [Jordan] and said, 'If you think there are cases where American military personnel killed reporters and weren't disciplined, I want to know, and [Congress] will take action,'" Frank said. ''He said he'd get back to me.'' But Jordan called only after the controversy surfaced, Frank said, and then to say he had been misunderstood.

***

The comments have triggered fierce attacks on CNN from mainstream media critics.

''When thinking people, especially journalism professionals, say something like that -- that U.S. troops might be war criminals -- and can't substantiate it, you've got to follow it up,'' Jack Shafer, media critic for slate.com, told the Herald. "Blogs always seem to ask much tougher questions of a powerful media figure than Time magazine or The New York Times or Newsweek do.''

More than 400 blogs had written up the story before any mainstream press decided to run it. Subsequently, newspapers such as the Herald, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post ran stories, as well as CNN's rival cable networks.

The sequence of events marked the second time in a few months that the "pack journalism" of blogs pushed the mainstream media. Blogs were the first to suggest CBS' 60 Minutes used forged documents in a story last year on President Bush's National Guard service. Ultimately, CBS retracted its story, and an internal investigation led to the dismissal of five CBS staffers.

***

Why didn't the mainstream media move faster coving Eason Jordan?

Perhaps because it doesn't pay enough attention to bloggers. Although there are many well-written, well-researched blogs (hopefully you count JABBS among them) there are countless other blogs offering little more than unsubstantiated rumors and uneducated opinions -- hardly source material for a major newspaper or television news program. The power of the Internet means that unsubstantiated rumors can spread like wildfire.

But what of the bloggers -- many of them professional journalists themselves -- who take the time to research a story, perhaps conduct interviews themselves, all because they believe the mainstream media is failing to do its job? Sorry, the mainstream media has said, we're not paying much attention to you, either.

Times reporter Jim Rutenberg actually wrote about this last October:

"Journalists covering the campaign believe the intent [of web critics] is often to bully them into caving to a particular point of view. They insist the efforts have not swayed them in any significant way."

***

Although I'm sure conservatives will paint it that way, the Eason Jordan story is probably not a case of "liberal media bias." If the story never made it into the mainstream press, that argument might hold water. But the press, too slowly and perhaps reluctantly, did ultimately give the story its due.

But why did it take so long? Only after a mass of blogs buzzed with the same basic plotline -- a CNN executive allegedly said something very foolish, and no one seems to be paying attention -- did the mainstream media pay attention.

Perhaps the problem is that the mainstream media is scared? In the old days -- pre-Internet, pre-24 hour cable news, pre-wall-to-wall talk radio -- the news was far more controllable. The average American only had a limited number of access points to the news of the day.

Now, even if the mainstream media want to avoid a given story, Americans can find that story from other sources -- blogs, talk radio, foreign newspapers that can be found on-line.

Don't believe the media is scared? You probably haven't been reading media criticism sites for very long.

Consider Elisabeth Bumiller of the Times, who wrote last year in one of her pro-Bush "White House Letters" how scared she was.

Recalling a pre-war press conference on Iraq, Bumiller wrote: I think we were very deferential because…it’s live, it’s very intense, it’s frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you’re standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country’s about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.

But this fear is not limited to Bumiller. In today's Post, liberal columnist E.J. Dionne opined about covering President Bush: "Journalists who have the temerity to question whether the claims ring true (or whether the numbers add up) can count on being pummeled as liberal ideologues, even when they are only seeking the facts."

Yes, it's apparently tough to be a journalist, whether you're failing to cover Eason Jordan or President Bush. It's a scary world when news is occurring, and your first instinct is to look the other way.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

what is jabbs opinion on the social security issue, problem or whatever we want to call it. may make for an interesting discussion.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

JABBS has written about that a bunch.

4:35 PM  

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