jueves, agosto 31, 2006

El Medio Oriente y la Objetividad

Este artículo no es nuevo, pero vale la pena reeditarlo. Es una conversación entre Michael Getler, el ombusdman del Washington Post y Leonard Doyle, editor internacional del The Independent. Es interesante ver la posición norteamericana e inglesa sobre la objetividad a la hora de tratar los temas de Oriente Medio. Basta dar un vistazo a la última guerra del Libano, para darse cuenta que la falta de juicio, el análisis interesado, la desinformación y la manipulación fueron el punto central en la cobertura. Es fácil entender el porqué nos alejamos de los diarios.

Objectivity, the guiding principle of the U.S. media, stands accused of undermining the press’s ability to challenge the Bush administration as it rushed to war in Iraq. We were too worried about balance, the argument goes, so concerned with giving all sides a say that we neglected our adversarial role. The British press, meanwhile, which is much more comfortable expressing its political leanings and was decidedly more skeptical about the war, is gloating a bit now that the American casus belli has crumbled. So: Are the Brits right and we Americans wrong about how to practice journalism? CJR asked Michael Getler, the ombudsman at The Washinton Post, and Leonard Doyle, the foreign editor at The Independent in London, to argue this question in an e-mail debate that ran from February through April.

CJR: What’s wrong with objectivity as a guiding principle for the press? Shouldn’t readers and viewers be given the facts as straight as possible and allowed to make up their own minds?

DOYLE We have heard it all before: Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus; the American press is objective and the European press isn’t. If only we partisan Europeans could stick to the verifiable facts and stop telling the readers/viewers what to think, our journalism would be a whole lot better for it and the public better informed.
Let’s put that maxim to the test: The place is Tora Bora in December 2001, the mountain range on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border where Osama bin Laden hid out before escaping in the dying days of the Afghan war.
The Independent and other media reported that American B-52s had unloaded dozens of bombs that killed 115 men, women, and children in a village called Kama Ado. Then the Pentagon’s spokesman told the world: It just didn’t happen. He explained that the U.S. was meticulous in selecting only military targets associated with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. These Alice-in-Wonderland denials prompted our man on the spot, Richard Lloyd Parry, to write the following: “So God knows what kind of a magic looking-glass I stepped through yesterday, as I traveled to Kama Ado. From the moment I woke up, I was confronted with the wreckage and innocent victims of high-altitude, hi-tech, thousand-pound nothings.”
But what really raised eyebrows at The Independent was an amazing CNN nonreport of the same tragedy. From atop the mound of bombed rubble, its correspondent described attempts to dislodge Osama bin Laden from his cave hideaway but never mentioned the 115 dead villagers. As we now know, CNN chairman Walter Isaacson had ordered reporters not to focus on Afghan civilian victims in the ongoing war on terror. That’s objectivity?
What we consistently find is that the loudest demands for objectivity are made by groups or lobbies who want to ensure that they get equal time in any story. The argument over what news organizations call Israel’s wall/fence/barrier is another example of how persistent lobbying and complaints about Middle East reporting — claims of bias and “anti-Semitism” — produce a tortured lexicon of “safe” words. Thus, reports from the Arab-Israeli dispute are often incomprehensible to the average reader and viewer. Why is it that U.S. TV calls the edifice snaking through Jerusalem a “barrier” when a Martian would identify it as a fifteen-meter-high concrete “wall”? As The Independent’s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk has observed, by turning colonies into “settlements” and then into “neighborhoods” — by turning occupied territory into “disputed” territory — we delegitimize the Palestinian argument, presenting Palestinians as guilty of senseless violence.
Surely the foreign correspondent has to be the newspaper’s moral compass, the person we trust to say: “This is a war crime” or “This is fair,” not a cipher who regurgitates the spin and lies of either side of a faraway dispute. A journalist’s job is always to inform the powerless about that which the powerful would rather keep secret. If objectivity is the gold standard, then we must associate that word with fairness, honesty, and an acute sense of injustice — and not an all-encompassing and spurious right of reply designed to protect reporters and their news organizations from powerful interests and their own governments.
GETLER Well, if the objective of this exercise, in part, is to surface differences between the American and European press, we are off to a good start.

Leonard Doyle says: “Surely, the foreign correspondent has to be the newspaper’s moral compass.” My guess is that most American readers do not want their newspaper’s foreign correspondents to be a moral compass who tells them that “this is a war crime.” I believe that if you report as thoroughly as possible, and provide the needed context, readers can discern whether or not something is a war crime. What Mr. Doyle is advocating sounds more like a tutorial approach.
What is most crucial for news organizations, and what is most useful to the public, is news that is delivered in a manner that is beyond reproach journalistically. Readers understand, and can factor in, government or special-interest spin. But they can smell reportorial opinion and bias a mile away and that is guaranteed to distract from the power of the news.
A couple of general points here at the outset of our exchanges: 1) There are lots of good British and European papers that do lots of good reporting. But I think it is also true that European readers, in contrast to Americans, are much more accustomed to, and accepting of, newspapers with political leanings. 2) When I refer generally to the American press, I mean those organizations that devote lots of resources to gathering and originating news. This means the news sections of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washinton Post, and The Wall Street Journal, plus The Associated Press, and several others, such as The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, The Dallas Morning News, and Newsday, for example. The idea that these organizations somehow adhere to an “all-encompassing and spurious right of reply” to protect themselves and their reporters from “powerful lobbies and interests and their own government” is simply not credible. I would also include CNN, which, despite your comments, provides more international news to American TV viewers than any other organization and, in my opinion, does a solid job.
As to the question posed by CJR, I would argue this: There is so much in news decision-making that is subjective that objectivity is hard to claim as much more than a sought-after ideal. Fairness comes closer as a measure because editors and readers can sense it. That does not mean pulling punches. Rather, it means giving the government or a drug company its say. It seems to me that seeking to indict what is often excellent and courageous reporting in the Middle East, for example, because news organizations don’t call settlements “colonies,” or any of the other alleged dodges you cite, is also simply not valid. Clearly, there are always stories that are hard to get to or not being told. But my sense is that American readers of the news outlets I mention have a pretty good idea of what is going on in the Middle East and elsewhere, and that those news organizations have shown themselves quite able not to be intimidated by special interests.
As a consumer of news, I’m grateful for the work you cite of Richard Lloyd Parry and for the fine work of many other British reporters. But there are dozens of similar examples of American reporters, some challenged at gunpoint by American soldiers, getting into Afghan towns that had been bombed — and into Palestinian towns such as Jenin, I might add — to tell readers what they saw and heard and how that differs from initial accounts, sometimes in the foreign press. When all is said and done, I think we are both rather good at that, but we can do without the easy caricatures and straw men.
DOYLE Let’s cut to the chase as we head down a well-worn track in which the American media looks down its haughty journalistic nose at what Mr. Getler characterizes as the flawed reporting of the European press. Our readers, the poor souls, he tells us, are “much more accustomed to, and accepting of, newspapers with political leanings.” That outdated view hardly explains why sales of The Independent, the newspaper I work for, are rising 12 percent year on year as others stagnate or decline. As the name implies, The Independent has no political leanings, the reverse in fact. What it has is a willingness to make strong journalistic judgments when merited by the facts. We do not have the resources of the U.S. media, but neither do we have the pack instinct, which so lets you down. Look at how the American media covered the war in Iraq, from the build-up, to the “war of the embeds” and the current quagmire, and then ask why the God of Objectivity so failed you in your hour of need? Even Mr. Getler was roused to take his own paper to task for its prewar credulity on a number of occasions.

CJR: It has been suggested that the U.S. media were too deferential to the Bush administration as it made its case for war in Iraq. Whether you agree or disagree, how did the press’s adherence to the goal of objectivity affect its coverage of the run-up to war?

GETLER Any analysis of how the American press performed in the run-up to the war in Iraq is a complex task. And it is also vulnerable to the easy cheap shot. So much that was forecast by the Bush administration in the strongest possible terms and imagery has turned out, as of this writing, to be wrong. So it is easy to say the press did not do its job. That is true, in part. But it was a very hard job.
Here are the elements that I think came into play: After 9/11, there was virtually no public opposition to attacking Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. But almost immediately after a flawed attempt to get bin Laden at Tora Bora in December 2001, the administration began to talk more about Saddam Hussein and less about bin Laden. I think the press generally was slow to detect and focus on this switch in emphasis. Similarly, as the official focus on Saddam Hussein grew during 2002, I think the press was slow in recording that public opinion, which had been overwhelmingly supportive of war in Afghanistan, was less unified when it came to possible war in Iraq.
A whole series of events that unfolded in public, beginning almost a year before the invasion, laid out the arguments against war, but failed to get much attention in the Post and some other papers. There were, for example, early statements of caution from some leading Republicans. There were Senate committee hearings on containment and alternate strategies, and another hearing with several retired four-star generals urging caution. There were important speeches by Democrats making the case against invasion. There were antiwar demonstrations in European and American cities.
Meanwhile, the administration, as opinion polls showed, did a much better job of linking 9/11 and Saddam Hussein in the public’s mind than the press did in challenging that assertion, even though it tried.
How did this happen? One factor, in my view, was a failure by editors, a lack of alertness on their part, to present stories that challenged the administration’s line in a consistent way and that would have some impact on the public. That’s why, I believe, so many of those public events were played inside newspapers rather than on page one. There was, in fact, a lot of good, tough reporting going on. Here, for example, are some headlines from The Washinton Post in the three months before the war: alleged al qaeda ties questioned, bin laden-hussein link hazy, u.s. lacks specifics on banned arms, bush clings to dubious allegations about iraq. None of those stories appeared on page one.
At the same time, there were many stories from administration sources that fed the notion of weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. and U.K. intelligence consensus was, indeed, that Saddam Hussein had such weapons. Furthermore, the more skeptical view was very hard to get at because of the intense secrecy and stakes, and the fact that knowledgeable government insiders had to take considerable risk in talking to reporters — something that turned fatal in the U.K. A good many reporters worked hard at it, achieved some success, but their work turned out to be the proverbial snowflake in a blizzard.

DOYLE When you tell us that it is a “complex task,” trying to analyze the American press before the war on Iraq, I’m afraid you lose me. And blaming the media’s failures on the Bush administration just confirms what I have felt all along — that the mainstream American press is often spineless in the face of government bullying, terrified of getting on the wrong side of public opinion, and thus was cheerleading from the sidelines as the nation charged into war.
Mike Getler accepts that the press fell down on the job, that it was outflanked by the Bush administration. Surely it is now time for a fundamental reappraisal of the way the press operated. Because, like it or not, the media were co-conspirators in America’s rush into this illegal war.
How badly we needed — before the war — solid reporting that explained how a kitchen cabinet of neoconservatives and their bellicose friends were cooking up a war that has brought so much bloodshed to Iraq and danger to the world. Surely we need to reassess the whole concept of “embedded” reporting. Consider this conundrum: How could it be that Scott Ritter, the most famous U.S. inspector and the one person who got it right about Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of WMD, was treated with total suspicion? Meanwhile, dubious exiles with no inherent knowledge of WMD were treated with great respect by TV and newspapers.
One explanation may lie in the structure of U.S. print journalism, where big media organizations like the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washinton Post are lumbering beasts with no real competition breathing down their necks. The result is an overcautious press that has fantastic resources at its disposal, but frankly disappoints when it comes to exposing the administration to rigorous scrutiny.
It’s all very well being told by Mike Getler that there was “a lot of good, tough reporting going on.” I’m sure he is right. But as has been said many times before about his newspaper: You never know on which page of The Washinton Post you will find the page-one story.

GETLER As I was saying, the American press can be “vulnerable to the easy cheap shot,” and Leonard Doyle, an opinionated news editor when someone else’s coverage is the subject, takes all of them: “Spineless . . . cheerleading from the sidelines . . . co-conspirators.”
That’s just blatant nonsense about the news organizations I mentioned earlier. Even Hans Blix, in his new book, says he believed until early in 2003 that Iraq might have some chemical and biological weapons. There was lots of good prewar reporting about the neoconservatives, and the “embedding” of reporters worked well for news organizations that had several of them and also had reporters working independently in Baghdad and around Basra. The killing of civilians at checkpoints, the turning back of the first armed helicopter assault, and many other stories would simply not have been seen or told otherwise.
Setting the bluster aside, however, Leonard and I are not far apart on some things. I, too, believe, and have made the point several times in my own columns, that news organizations need to avoid the defensive crouch and seriously scrutinize their prewar coverage.
And I believe there is something to what Leonard says about an “overcautious press.” In many ways, investigative journalism in the U.S. today is more authoritative and well documented than ever on those topics editors choose to investigate. But are we choosing the right topics? Are we too slow, too cautious in the sense of waiting to dot every “i” first? Is there too much editorial bureaucracy to overcome?
I think a sense of passion and immediacy is missing from some of this reporting these days; the kind of maverick, skeptical intensity brought to journalism by reporters such as The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, for example. Hersh is controversial. But he was, and remains, a force — a certified challenger of conventional wisdom.
This is not an endorsement of everything he reports; I don’t know enough to do that. But I do know that I read him on Afghanistan and Iraq with a sense of expectancy. I also sense that there are not enough people like that in daily journalism today: reporters who dig, and dig fast, and whom authorities know, for sure, will challenge them or their accounts.

CJR: Your newspaper aside, Mr. Doyle, don’t readers in your country, where the press is more partisan, tend to gravitate to outlets that reinforce their existing views? And thus, aren’t they less well informed than if they read an American-style report?

DOYLE There is no doubt that in the U.K.’s competitive newspaper market great efforts are made to appeal — even pander to — the perceived prejudices of readers. A shamelessly partisan approach to news and analysis is evident when most British newspapers report on the European Union. If there is one thing many U.K. newspaper owners agree on it’s a distrust of all things European — even if British voters stubbornly resist the push toward xenophobia.

The greatest battle has been fought and lost over the introduction of the single currency, the Euro, where the Euroskeptic press managed to scare off Britain’s pro-European Prime Minister Tony Blair from joining. The only balance comes from the straightforward reporting from outlets like the BBC and the few newspapers that are pro-European in outlook.

Notwithstanding these glaring shortcomings on Europe, the British media are so competitive that their readers are among the best informed in the world. Our newspaper industry sustains eleven national dailies, for a population of fifty-eight million, and has high readership levels — sadly, much of that readership is with the “popular” tabloids, rather than the quality press. Still, surveys show that thirty million Brits read a morning paper. This, I fear, is not the case for U.S. readers despite the outstanding reporting in major national and regional papers. The problem may be one of presentation. The position of these newspapers in their local markets means that they are virtually monopolistic players, with all the laziness that comes with such dominance. They are also visually unappealing and slow to evolve.

Here in Britain, competition is fierce, resources scarce, and the readership increasingly promiscuous between papers. This Darwinian marketplace encourages innovation and the past six months have seen a revolution in the way newspapers are produced. After years of declining readership, during which millions of pounds were invested in new supplements to lure readers, the market has been turned on its head by the arrival of the first “quality” tabloid newspapers. Led by The Independent, and followed by The Times, readers now have a choice between taking their favorite newspaper in broadsheet or tabloid format. It turns out that readers really do not like the broadsheet format — which has been around since the 1700s — and they are flocking to the new upmarket compact-size papers.

GETLER I am hardly an expert on the U.K. press these days, but I think Leonard raises interesting points that spark some general observations. When I was a correspondent based in the U.K. during 1984-85, I did feel well informed.
But that was mostly because of the BBC, which all correspondents everywhere cling to, the Financial Times, which is excellent, The Guardian, which I found most stimulating, and a solid dedication to news in The Independent and The Daily Telegraph. So I looked at half a dozen general-interest papers every day — broadsheets and tabloids. I did that precisely because the British press is indeed rather partisan.

Which raises an interesting question from this side of the Atlantic: Why doesn’t someone try to provide British readers with a truly independent newspaper that reports without an ideological, partisan perspective and brings critical reporting and analysis to all sides of the news? Or why don’t even those papers with an ideological tilt at least challenge people to think a bit more broadly? Why confirm prejudices and the conventional wisdom of your partisan readers rather than challenge their known assumptions and put a fuller plate of reporting and analysis in front of them? I think that, by and large, is what the big “serious” papers do in the U.S.

I remember a healthy and widespread British devotion to breaking stories, looking under rocks, and wonderful features. As a reader, I enjoyed what seemed to be the fruits of required journalism courses on being clever. But I found the lack of attribution on many stories, especially political reporting, to be maddening in terms of understanding (perhaps because I was an outsider) and just plain laziness and acquiescence to the lobby system of insider reporting.
As for the question of appearance, I’m sure many of the newly designed papers, including the tabloid size, do look splashier than American papers.
Tabloid formats, especially, are becoming more widely used here as quick subway and bus-commuter reads. They clearly do not, however, fulfill the role of informing people in any depth on any subject.

DOYLE A lot has changed since Mike’s time in London, mostly for the better. We are still far behind the U.S. in terms of access, but the ever-secretive British state has come blinking into the daylight. MI6, the spy agency, is now acknowledged to exist, and Tony Blair even has monthly press conferences.
A lot of this has to do with the power of the Internet, which ensures that stories which break abroad are instantly available to us. The past year has been witness to the British media hammering away at the WMD issue, harrying the Blair government to come clean. In our attempts to seek out the truth, the press on both sides of the Atlantic is a lot closer than either side may wish to acknowledge. Now the U.S. press, with greater resources and greater access to information, has taken up the challenge with gusto. So U.K. reports — often based on more narrow discoveries of facts — are often amplified and rounded out by U.S. reporting. But what if the U.S. press had been a bit more aggressive about ferreting out the facts before the war, might it have put a stop to the wild goose chase for WMD and prevented a lot of unnecessary bloodshed of U.S. servicemen? And while Mike criticizes our truth seeking, I suggest a bit of journalistic fact-checking is in order. Check us out online. You might be surprised by the depth of knowledge and objectivity you’ll find.

CJR: What do you admire about the U.K./U.S. approach to journalism? What would you change if you could about your own country's journalism?

GETLER Well, as noted earlier, I’m a bit out of date on the British press but, in checking with friends and colleagues, many of the things I liked and admired during my years there are still intact. The overall impact may well have been enhanced by the commitment to innovate, to improve the look of their newspapers and strengthen individual stories through good use of photos and graphics.
What I used to enjoy, as special strengths, were the obituaries and the book reviews, the wit and insight of many columnists, the more uninhibited way that stories were sometimes displayed. The U.K. press also did a number of revealing international stories that tended to get little coverage here. Whatever dedication to partisan spin any one paper might have, I still felt well informed because there were so many papers and so much lively reporting. But you had to work at that. I think the contrast with the best American newspapers is that you probably had to read more than one British paper to get a more confident and balanced understanding of what was going on.

Also, I always thought the British understood something that seems to be a secret in America: that people read newspapers on Saturdays and will pay even more attention if you give them something of interest. The British Saturday papers, and their big, colorful magazine sections, are wonderful. In sum, I thought then, and am told now, that the papers themselves are more innovative in many ways.
And they hit hard at American subjects. They were far more skeptical, for example, about the Private Jessica Lynch story than was the American press, and reported it that way.

As for the big and serious American papers that I’ve mentioned earlier, I think that, one-on-one, they are the best and most trustworthy over the long haul.
I think this outbreak of scandals in the past year or so involving a dozen or so individuals and newspapers will, in the long run, make those affected papers better. I hope it does not make them risk averse, but there probably is some chance of that.
If I were king, I would demand that many more of the nation’s chain-owned newspapers, and extremely profitable local television stations as well, invest in good journalism and more original reporting and live up, more fully, to their obligation to inform. There are many examples of chain-owned papers that do a very solid job. But in general, chains need to contribute more to the body of solid, accountability journalism in this country, especially, and overseas as well for the bigger operations. They work on the cheap, and in so doing they short-change readers and our democratic foundations. Eventually, I believe — rather I hope — it will be a failing business strategy as well.

There is also too much of a celebrity culture to journalism here nowadays, and too much of what has been called gotcha journalism. Many stories today tell us more about the personalities and the politics than about the substance of the policy or the legislation and how it will affect people. I think there probably is too much of a sameness of personality, background, and outlook in many American newsrooms. This is an increasingly diverse and complex country and I don’t think we are well enough staffed to understand and capture it.

Finally, and most importantly, we have had two huge surprises in the past two years, the Enron-type scandals and the so far nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, for which we went to war. The press needs to think hard about why these came as such surprises. I’m not one who takes the easy shot at the U.S. press with respect to its prewar coverage about Saddam’s arsenal. This was extremely hard to get at in any authoritative manner, and many reporters worked hard at it and did achieve some success. But, in my view, if we are to do better next time, there is no more important episode in the last forty years that bears self-examination than does the overall reporting and editing about the road to war in Iraq. I’m not holding my breath.

DOYLE The sheer professionalism with which the quality U.S. print media carry out their task is impressive. The newspapers of the major U.S. cities have a rigor in their approach to newsgathering that deeply impresses many of us on the other side of the Atlantic. Then there are the relatively vast resources the U.S. media have at their command — some of which came into view in the aftermath of 9/11, especially at The New York Times. It is also the case that the U.S. print media tend to foster the trust of their readers with rigorous research and a capacity to admit mistakes big and small whenever they are found to have made them.
The British and European media have learned a lot from observing their U.S. cousins in action, and there is no doubt that some of the recent innovations here — columns for corrections and clarifications, care in the attribution of sources, allowing a right of reply — have by and large come from the U.S.

There is also something admirable about the slow pace of change in the U.S. quality media and their determination to hang onto the tried and tested formulas. I am thinking of The Wall Street Journal’s timeless front page and the literal nature of headline writing in many U.S. newspapers.

If the U.S. media have a fault, it is that they are too trusting of the establishment hand that feeds them — especially on stories of international peace and security. We saw this in their limp-wristed coverage of dirty wars of the CIA in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Despite their great merits, the U.S. media largely failed in their responsibility to explain the true nature of George Bush’s military adventurism in Iraq.

The British are great consumers of media, consistently spending twenty-three hours a week absorbing information from an ever-increasing range of papers, books, and TV. But readers and viewers are not always well served, especially by the increasingly xenophobic popular tabloid press.

When the media locusts of the popular press descend on a story for forty-eight hours or a week, it is a sight to behold. At the moment, the big issue in Britain is immigration — often allied to the hunt for foreign terrorists — and much of the media have been busy whipping up popular sentiment against the government.
A week’s worth of headlines tells a lot: the evil in our midst was the page-one headline in the Daily Express about the arrests of the British Muslims suspected of planning a terror attack. the great asylum con trick followed it, dealing with a bureaucratic foul-up that gave Romanians fast-track visas to work in Britain. This was followed by migrant on the run who killed our innocent angel aged 12 about a sex attacker from Poland who coincidentally had a free heart operation on the U.K. national health system. In one edition of one newspaper there appeared a flow of pages with scarcely disguised xenophobic messages. Muslims are behind terror attacks; Poles are latent sex murderers; a failed immigration/asylum policy is letting dangerous people enter Britain. So there is a lot to fault about the British media, but they are a fiercely competitive lot with a long tradition of excellent political writing and of foreign correspondents who call it as they see it. Cable television’s 24-hour news cycle may be our common enemy but it has created a space for careful, thoughtful journalism, the kind at which the best U.S. and British media excel.


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