Medij. istraž. (god. 17, br. 1-2) 2011. (141-162)
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The Ideology of Uncritical U.S. Journalism: Its Political-Professional and Political-Economic Roots
This article offers a theoretical argument about how to think about journalistic
ideology. I argue that the ideology of uncritical war reporting in U.S. news
media arises from both professional norms and the political economy of news
media. Two incidents for which initial reporting in the New York Times followed
the U.S. government’s claims but later reporting showed those claims and that
reporting to be false are used as empirical support for this theoretical argument.
In each incident, U.S. military forces killed civilians, but the New York
Times repeated U.S. government claims to the contrary. A comparison between
the reporting of those incidents in the New York Times with reporting in “alternative”
U.S. news media and The Times of London demonstrates the uncritical
ideology present in “mainstream” U.S. news media. Through a combination of
the primary theoretical argument and the supporting empirical evidence, this
article contributes to the journalism studies literature by demonstrating that
different journalistic ideologies are produced from different political-professional
and political-economic circumstances that can be found within national
contexts and in cross-national comparison. The theoretical argument suggests
journalistic ideologies should be considered specifically and directly related to
both political-professional and political-economic relationships in which journalists
produce news. There is neither a single international journalistic ideology
nor even a single U.S. journalistic ideology.
Keywords: ideology, journalism, professionalism, political economy, war reporting,
* Brice Nixon, Ph.D. Student, University of Colorado at Boulder, USA. E-mail: brice.
In the first week of April 2010, two incidents in which U.S. military forces killed
civilians became the subject of coverage in U.S. news media when it was reported
that the initial U.S. government version of events and the initial reporting that echoed
that narrative were false. Such uncritical reporting could be seen as representative
of a problematic journalistic ideology in the U.S. This article considers that
question in an effort to determine how to most realistically account for journalistic
ideology. It is primarily a theoretical work in that it critiques two common theories
of why journalists in the U.S. produce news in a manner uncritical of government
claims. The purpose of this critique is to argue that combining the two theoretical
positions would produce a theory of journalistic ideology with a more holistic
understanding of ideology and, thus, more explanatory power. The ideology of
journalists should be seen as a political-professional issue and a political-economic
issue: If journalistic ideology is the thought that guides practice, then that thinking
is related to the political-economic relations of news production as much as it is
related to professional norms. This article then connects that theoretical argument
to an empirical observation of U.S. journalistic ideology in the practice and product
of war reporting. It attempts to demonstrate the importance of considering the
specificity of political-professional and political-economic realities: Journalists at
different news media in the U.S. reported the same story differently, so there is no
single American journalistic ideology. One comparative case is also considered to
support the claim that there is neither a U.S. nor an international journalistic ideology.
Journalists in different circumstances have different ideas about journalism
and practice journalism differently.
I first briefly analyze the concept of ideology. I then examine some specific applications
of ideology in the context of journalism before focusing on two common
ways of explaining U.S. journalism: 1) as a mostly ideological issue rooted in professionalism
that creates an uncritical attitude in U.S. political reporting that results
in uncritical practice and 2) as a mostly material issue of the political-economic
limitations of profit-driven, advertising-supported U.S. news media. I attempt to
demonstrate that, while each approach contributes unique value to understanding
journalism, neither sufficiently accounts for the specificity of observably different
journalistic practices that must be connected to different journalistic ideologies. A
theoretical position that considers journalists’ relations to power as a professional
ideology and practice and news media’s relations to power as a political-economic
situation would enable a more complete understanding of why and how the news
is produced in specific ways. I then examine the initial coverage of two incidents in the New York Times to determine the extent to which the reporting in that newspaper
was uncritical of the U.S. government’s claims. This provides an example of
the kind of journalism that would be criticized by scholars focused on political-professional
explanations and scholars focused on political-economic explanations. I
compare the New York Times coverage to the more critical reporting of the incidents
found in other news media to demonstrate that the dominant journalistic retelling
of the events was not simply based on all the available evidence but was, in fact, an
example of uncritical acceptance of claims made by the government without an attempt
to determine if there were other versions of events available. The journalistic
ideology that seems to underlie the New York Times coverage is contrasted by the
ideology that seems to underlie the reporting in other media with different professional
norms, political-economic realities, and national contexts. This empirically
observable difference suggests journalistic ideology cannot be accurately theorized
without accounting for both political-professional and political-economic journalistic
Ideology in general and journalistic ideology
A brief discussion of “ideology” is necessary. Among the many ways it has been
conceptualized are: as the ideas of a group, including occupational ideology; “any
knowledge that is posed as natural or generally applicable”; and “the practice of
reproducing social relations of inequality within the sphere of signification and
discourse” (Hartley, 2002: 103-104). Thompson (1995: 213) is one who uses the
third definition. Thus, ideology is not something explicit but rather ingrained in a
person’s thoughts and actions. Many often define ideology more simply as “ideas”
(Hartley, 2002: 105). Gitlin relates the ideology of journalists to a general process
of ideological hegemony. Media are a key part of “the systematic … engineering
of mass consent to the established order” (Gitlin, 2003: 253). He assigns a
lot of power to the professional ideology of journalism: “Everyday frames and
procedures sufficed to sustain the legitimacy of the economic-political system as
a whole” (273). The ideology of journalism itself serves an ideological purpose
for the political-economic order: “[T]he media have a general interest in stabilizing
the liberal capitalist order as a whole, and it is this interest … which stands
behind the dominant news frames” (280). Bourdieu (1995: 33) offers a different
means to explain journalism that appears to combine aspects of journalistic professionalism
with political economy but fundamentally considers the two distinct
though structurally related: “[T]o understand what happens in journalism, it is not sufficient to know who finances the publications, who the advertisers are, who
pays for the advertising, where the subsidies come from, and so on. Part of what
is produced in the world of journalism cannot be understood unless one conceptualizes
this microcosm as such and endeavors to understand the effects that the
people engaged in this microcosm exert on one another.” Journalists, then, “are
caught up in structural processes which exert constraints on them such that their
choices are totally preconstrained” (45). Hallin and Mancini (2004) offer an alternative
to explanations of journalism based on journalistic ideologies that is also
not a political-economic explanation. They argue that particular (news) media systems
are associated with particular political systems. The effect is to eliminate the
possibility of accounting for the specificity and difference found within a single
media system. While they attempt to account in a more complete and specific way
for the nature of a news media system by determining its particular qualities and
comparing it with other systems, they push in a direction opposite to that which I
suggest. The U.S. news media system itself should not be seen as monolithic and
the importance of systems and structures should not completely overshadow the
importance of individuals.
Although Williams (1977) convincingly criticizes the common use of ideology as
“a system of beliefs” or even “the general process of the production of meanings
and ideas” (pp. 55–71) and questions the continued usefulness of the term (p. 71),
I will use the term, and I will restrict my usage of it to that commonly found in
scholarly discussions of journalistic ideology: essentially, a system of beliefs or
ideas. I will, however, push in a direction similar to Williams by arguing that, even
if ideology is conceptualized in this problematic way, it must be seen as inseparable
from material social relations and processes. This is why I am claiming there
are political-professional and political-economic roots to journalistic ideology. In
this way, my argument about how to theorize ideology in a manner useful for empirical
research differs from that of Deuze (2005: 443), who attempts to fill in the
details of the “occupational ideology” of journalists that he claims others have left
unspecified. He sees ideology as an understanding of journalism “in terms of how
journalists give meaning to their newswork” (p. 444) and as “an (intellectual) process
over time, through which the sum of ideas and views — notably on social and
political issues — of a particular group is shaped, but also as a process by which
other ideas and views are excluded or marginalized” (p. 445). Deuze claims most
scholars discuss the ideology of journalists or journalism without explaining the
specific elements of that ideology, and he attempts to fill in those details, but he
does not similarly consider what is meant by “ideology.” That kind of conceptual
clarity is also needed; what is possibly the most common use of the term is problematic, as Williams (1977) argues. Deuze uses it in that problematic way when he
defines it as “a system of beliefs characteristic of a particular group, including —
but not limited to — the general process of the production of meanings and ideas
(within that group)” (p. 445). That definition suggests exclusively “mental” origins
for ideology, in which beliefs are first developed and then materialized in professional
practice. The importance of material relations in the development of that
ideology is missed.
In order to enter the discussion of journalistic ideology, I am forced to partially
accept this problematic conceptualization of ideology. I will use ideology to mean
a system of ideas. I will also, however, argue for expanding the theory of ideology
so that it is neither disconnected from material social relations — as is fundamentally
the case with the first theory of journalistic ideology I consider below — nor
directly attributable to those material social relations — an impression the political
economy of news media risks creating. I argue against the usefulness of discussing
journalistic ideology without relating it to the specific political-economic realities
of journalists at specific news media. The nature of ideology — even if it is seen
as a system of ideas or beliefs — is concealed by the more common, but limited,
conceptualization I argue against: that found in discussions of professionalism and
within the broad field of political communication. Ideas, beliefs, norms, values
and other “ideological” categories are not distinct from material social relations
and processes. How journalists think and act is not a one-way causal connection
from the ideas they have about journalism to their actions as a journalist, with the
political-economic reality of news media as a separate, external factor. Journalistic
thinking and journalistic being are inseparable: It is impossible to understand the
ideology of journalism without understanding the specific social reality of journalists.
The latter includes two relationships that are the focus of this essay: the political-
professional relationship of journalists to those in power, on whom journalistic
dependence is dictated by professional norms, and the political economy of news
media, including the political-economic relationship of journalists to the news organizations
of their employment, another sort of dependence that affects ideas and
practices of journalism. That those relationships do not exist independently can be
seen in the crude but somewhat useful distinction between the “mainstream” and
“alternative” U.S. press. The mainstream press tends to be relatively uncritical of
those in power and profit-driven; the alternative or independent press tends to be
relatively critical of those in power and have an organizational structure designed
to allow it to keep the profit motive from being an overwhelming priority. The
importance of considering those specific realities is that it becomes possible to see
different journalistic ideologies in different circumstances.
Influences on journalistic ideology
Previous research has demonstrated the widespread failure of the U.S. press to provide
critical reporting of the actions of the U.S. government. More typical is an
uncritical reiteration of the debate among political elites, which can range from
consensus to a limited Republican-Democrat disagreement. Research that has specifically
looked at war-related reporting has found an intensification of this uncritical
stance that at times is even outright supportive of government efforts. This
study labels that a “political-professional” problem for U.S. journalism, as the core
issue is the dominant relationship with political power that professional U.S. journalism
has developed. I contrast that with the more critical relationship maintained
by some mainstream and alternative news media. Analyses of the political economy
of U.S. news media have examined this press-government relationship from
a different perspective, relating the political-professional issues noted above with
political-economic factors that function as structural limitations on most U.S. news
media. The commercial imperatives of advertising-supported, profit-driven news
media structurally constrain the claimed journalistic desire to be independent and
critically minded. The core issue of the political-economic problem is the dominant
relationship with political power U.S. journalism has developed as a result of the
economics of news production and the role of news media in the economic system.
I contrast that with the more critical relationship maintained by some mainstream
and alternative news media. A comparison of reporting in the New York Times with
that in U.S.-based, for-profit online news outlets Salon, The Huffington Post, and
Counterpunch, as well as The Times of London, is potentially illuminating for a
deeper understanding of the political-professional and political-economic aspects
of uncritical reporting.
The government and the uncritical U.S. press: a political-professional problem
The “watchdog” concept is commonly used to describe an ideal relationship between
the press and the government. It suggests news media “serve the public as
a check on the operation of their government” and “act as agents of the citizenry,
keeping a watchful eye on the government, watchdogs guarding the house of the
republic itself” (Koehler, 1998: 691). Much of the literature on the nature of warrelated
reporting and the press-government relationship in the U.S., however, demonstrates
a reality that does not match that ideal: a record of uncritical journalism that extends back at least to the post-1970s era that supposedly marked the heyday
of U.S. political journalism. In a survey of some of the literature on war reporting,
Robinson (2004: 97) notes much of it shows “the consistency between media agendas
and the agendas of governments”: Media defer to the state and “elite-legitimated
controversy” typically defines the boundary of reporting on war and national
security. There is little attempt to go beyond the voices of power to provide citizens
with a full picture of the spectrum of debate — much less the possible spectrum of
debate — relating to issues of war and the military; the debate that occurs in Washington
is all that is consistently presented. Boyd-Barrett (2004: 38) finds a similar
pattern in war reporting: “Time and again the media align themselves with state
propaganda, most intensely so in times of war.” Lehmann (2005) also finds a pattern
of uncritical reporting. The result is that “the media’s reporting of war has been
almost guaranteed to misinform and obfuscate” (Boyd-Barrett, 2004: 39). Entman
(1991) says the importance of this uncritical pattern in political and war reporting
is that a news frame is a “constructed reality” (p. 9): constructed in the sense that it
is a journalistically created version of events; reality in the sense that the news of
the event is the reality as far as readers are likely to consider it. “[T]he news frame
helps establish the literally ‘common sense’ … interpretation of events” (p. 6).
The period just prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is often characterized as a particularly
glaring case of uncritical journalism in the U.S. Before the invasion, “U.S.
journalists accepted, for the most part, uncritically the slogans of the Bush administration,”
creating “patriotic,” rather than watchdog journalism (Lehmann, 2005:
85). Dodson (2010: 101) borrows a concept from Zizek in describing journalistic
professionalism as an “ideological fantasy” for journalists who “fail to recognise
the contingency and ultimately the strategic utility of their practice for military
power.” This serves “to prevent or restrain a critical reconsideration of journalism’s
norms” (p. 111). Marder (2008: 8) points out that the failure of the U.S press to be
any kind of watchdog did not start with the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq,
but it did reach what seems to be its lowest point possible then, when “no attempt
at watchdog reporting was made by a major news operation, with the exception
of the excellent reporting done by the then-Knight Ridder Washington bureau. In
general, it can be said that the press was actually in a supportive relationship with
the Bush administration regarding the invasion of Iraq.” There is no universal U.S.
journalistic ideology, however. One study found significantly more critical and oppositional
coverage of the Panama invasion in The Nation than in Newsweek and
Time (Gutierrez-Villalobos, et al., 1994), demonstrating the potential usefulness of
distinguishing “mainstream” from “alternative” news media, though it might be
even more useful to think beyond that binary division.
One attempt to describe the “global journalist” advocates a structuralist “hierarchy
of influences” model (Reese, 2001: 178). The global journalist is seen “within a
web of organizational and ideological constraints” that are the “social structural
context of journalism” (p. 174). The highest level is the “ideological,” concerned
with “how media symbolic content is connected with larger social interests, how
meaning is constructed in the service of power” (p. 183). That approach only even
attempts to demonstrate two one-way flows — society to media and media to individual
— in which the lower levels of influence constitute “a coherent ideological
result” that amounts to media as instruments of social control (p. 183). This essay
argues that is an unsatisfactory approach to understanding the ideology of journalism
and its significance. While attempting to incorporate a broad array of constraints
on journalism, Reese sees those constraints as distinct until he joins them in
his model. The political economy of news media is nowhere to be found.
the failure of the press to play a “watchdog” or similar role, as demanded of it
by democratic press theory. Bennett et al. look specifically at the way the U.S.
press covered U.S. government action in relation to the 2003 invasion of Iraq
and Hurricane Katrina. They find the press is quite deferential to political power,
“indexing” its coverage to the claims of “official sources” and providing an uncritical
picture rather than an independent one. This could be seen as an example
of the problem of so-called journalistic objectivity. In a narrow sense, contradicting
government claims would necessitate journalists doing something other than
objective reporting. It could, of course, be argued that the supposed objective reality
would precisely not depend on what official sources (subjectively) say it is;
it would be beyond them. Bennett et al. propose a theory of a “semi-independent
press” as a more accurate depiction of U.S. news media than the standard notions
of a democratic “free press”:
The core principle of the mainstream press system in the United States appears
to be this: the mainstream news generally stays within the sphere of
official consensus and conflict displayed in the public statements of the key
government officials who manage the policy areas and decision-making
processes that make the news. (p. 49)
The authors specify they are discussing the nature of the mainstream press, which
suggests an alternative press would function in an alternative way with an alternative
ideology, but their focus is the mainstream press. The authors outline three
social realities they suggest structurally limit the abilities for journalists to work as
independent public servants (Bennett, et al., 2007: 3–4):
• There is a class of professionals who attempt to control information to the advantage
of those in power
• Media are no longer held publicly accountable to assumed democratic responsibilities
• Public disconnection from and antagonism toward the press makes independent,
critical reporting “risky”
That formulation provides one of the most astute characterizations of what is referred
to in this paper as the political-professional aspect of uncritical U.S. journalism,
focusing on the relationship between the press and the government and the
professional norms of “mainstream” U.S. journalists. The press-government relationship
that leads to official-source dependency and uncritical reporting of what
officials say is a choice made by the mainstream journalistic profession as it has defined
its own norm of “objectivity”: In this view, it is inherently objective to report
the official line, while it is crusading or biased to report assessments critical of the
government. Bennett et al. (2007: 9) argue there is a journalistically “self-imposed
dependence on officially sanctioned information”: “[T]he press has become trapped
in reporting rules of its own making.” Journalists in the national press corps may
be as “embedded” as those traveling with military units in another country. This is
why the political-economic critique is so important: to understand why U.S. journalism
made these rules for itself.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry (1999), who worked for The Associated Press,
Newsweek, and PBS Frontline and “broke many of the stories now known as the
Iran-contra affair,” argues this uncritical trend in U.S. journalism should be understood
in connection with the efforts by the U.S. government to keep the press from
challenging official narratives the way it had in the era of Vietnam and Watergate.
The process used to accomplish this was to “limit the news media’s coverage of the
violence overseas while pressuring journalists in Washington to frame the issues in
ways more supportive of U.S. policy. In this endeavor, the editorial offices in Washington
and New York were viewed as the crucial switching points for limiting or
shutting off the flow of troubling information to the American people” (6). The effect
of such efforts to control information and manage the press, in conjunction with
the press’ self-imposed dependence on “official” information, was to produce an uncritical
approach to the reporting of declared and covert military and CIA actions.
Zollmann (2009) presents an effort to connect the political-professional and political-
economic problems, examining the self-imposed limits of journalistic ideology
in connection with the third filter in Herman and Chomsky’s “propaganda
model”: “the media’s reliance on official sources related to the government as well as to other powerful institutions” (p. 98). Although Herman and Chomsky claim
to present a “political economy” of mass media, the central feature is the “propaganda
model,” in which media play a propagandistic role of producing ideology
as “values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour” (cited in Zollmann, 2009: 99). This
resembles the causal chain found in Reese (2001), in which external forces (“political
economy” for Herman and Chomsky) act on media, and media then affect the
consciousness of individuals (as propaganda for Herman and Chomsky). Zollmann
(2009: 103) argues the indexing theory of Bennett et al. (2007) is limited “because
it is blind towards the corporate power structure and its links with and influences on
governments and media,” but it “can better explain variations in coverage.” Zollmann
Given journalism’s tendency to be biased in favour of dominant politicaleconomic
elites, the question remains whether professionalism is the main
problem, as argued by researchers such as Hallin and Bennett, or corporatemarket
constraints as proposed by the political economy perspective of the
Propaganda Model? (p. 108).
Zollmann’s answer: Corporate control and professional journalism are “two sides
of the same coin” (p. 110).
[C]orporate media constraints and the execution of professional norms,
guided by these constraints, systematically reinforce bias in favour of integrated
state-economic interests. Thus, the press fulfils, among its many other
functions, a propaganda function as identified by Herman and Chomsky. (p.
The previous research into the nature of political and war reporting suggests Herman
and Chomsky’s (1988) “propaganda model” is still relevant, which points toward
the importance of considering the professional norms of journalism in connection
with the political economy of media. Much blame in the research cited above
is put on the press for choosing to abandon its “watchdog” position. While this is
certainly something that must be examined, this supposed journalistic choice points
toward the importance of considering potential political-economic reasons for this
“choice.” Many political economists of media have argued the profit-focused, advertising-
supported nature of the U.S. news media system creates a powerful structural
limitation on the actual freedom of the “free” press. Bennett, et al. (2007: 2)
hint at the importance of the political economy of media: “Thinking squarely about
the democratic role of the press would surely be easier if most mainstream news
organizations were not embedded in large corporations that are more concerned
about representing shareholder interests than embracing public-interest standards that might better serve democracy.” Ultimately, however, they limit their concern
in this area to a discussion of the “public responsibilities of the press” and corporate
“social responsibility.” This is where political economy provides an understanding
of another key aspect of journalistic ideology.
The political economy of news media
Journalism is more than a business; it is a vital part of a functioning democracy.
The current political-economic structure of the news media system in the U.S. is
one that emphasizes the first at the expense of the latter. With profit-maximization
as the first goal, rather than providing information to the public to facilitate the
process of self-government, there is simply no reason to expect the press to function
as a “watchdog” or “fourth estate.” The owner of a news organization in such a
system has incentives only to do what is necessary to keep a high profit margin. In
addition, media companies are continually consolidating ownership and then slashing
jobs and resources devoted to the basic journalistic endeavors of investigating
government and others in power and reporting the findings to the public. Previous
analyses of this aspect of U.S. news media show the quality of journalism — and
democracy itself — suffers under this system.
Baker (2007) describes quite forcefully why concentrated media ownership is democratically
objectionable and why it predictably leads to journalism of poor quality.
He has also explains how the reliance on advertising as a primary source of
revenue, an aspect of profit-based media ownership in the U.S., negatively impacts
the quality of journalism (Baker, 1994). McChesney (2004: 57) argues that the failure
of U.S. journalism to carry out its democratic duties “stems directly from the
system of profit-driven journalism in largely noncompetitive markets that began to
emerge over a century ago ... Concentrated private control over the press, with the
aim of profit maximization, has been the rudder directing U.S. journalism for more
than a century.” Concentrated ownership intensifies the tendency of profit-based
media to focus on the bottom line and the most efficient way to make a profit at the
expense of the resources necessary to allow journalists to investigate, report, and
edit. The larger the entity, the more extreme this bottom-line focus is (Baker, 2007:
29). Publicly traded companies are virtually guaranteed to operate in this way, considering
the fiduciary responsibility of those in charge to return the greatest possible
profit to investors. “[T]he most obvious plot line is: publicly traded companies
fire journalists, degrade quality, and increase profits” (p. 36). News media entities
that are part of conglomerates, meanwhile, are vulnerable to outside pressures. “[C]onglomerate ownership structurally creates economic vulnerability to outside pressure
and creates internal incentives to trade journalistic integrity for the conglomerate’s
other economic interests,” structurally ensuring that the journalism produced
will not be in the public interest (pp. 40–41). Mergers make this problem worse by
creating new opportunities to gain profit by cutting costs (p. 42).
Previous research claims the heavy dependence on advertising revenue is a particularly
problematic aspect of the political economy of U.S. news media. More than
eight decades ago, Sinclair (1928) said, “Financially speaking, our big newspapers
and popular magazines are today more dependent upon their advertisers than they
are upon their readers. … A newspaper or popular magazine is a device for submitting
competitive advertising to the public, the reading-matter being bait to bring the
public to the hook.” Advertising, Sinclair wrote, is “the ‘legitimate’ graft of newspapers
and magazines, the main pipeline whereby Big Business feeds its journalistic
parasites” (p. 282). “To expect justice and truth-telling of a capitalist newspaper,”
he said, “is to expect asceticism at a cannibal feast” (p. 224). Because of this pursuit
of profit and dependence on advertising, Sinclair asserted, “not hyperbolically
and contemptuously, but literally and with scientific precision, we define Journalism
in America as the business and practice of presenting the news of the day in the
interest of economic privilege” (p. 222). Baker (1994: 3) argues “private entities
in general and advertisers in particular constitute the most consistent and the most
pernicious ‘censors’ of media content.” Sinclair (1928: 241) claimed advertising
was one of the main ways in which the “Empire of Business” ensured journalism
worked to the benefit of the capitalist class, and Baker (1994: 16) demonstrates
why this is so. He connects the rise of advertising as newspapers’ primary source
of revenue with the twentieth century’s steady decline in competition. Advertising,
he claims, reduces the economic influence of readers’ desire for diverse newspaper
perspectives (p. 23), “creating the condition necessary for natural monopoly” (p.
25). He also finds a connection between increased reliance on advertising revenue
and the decline of political partisanship and rise of objectivity that occurred during
the same time period (p. 30).
McChesney (2004: 78) claims that the “primary and overarching factor” that explains
recent developments in journalism is commercial pressure. It is this pressure
that causes mass layoffs, the abandonment of investigative reporting, increased reliance
on official sources, increased focus on political “strategy” rather than analyzing
the actions of elected officials, increased focus on celebrity gossip as news,
increased focus on crime and disaster, the tailoring of news to the wealthier audience
desired by advertisers, the rise of uncritical business reporting, and the commercial
corruption of the news itself (pp. 79–88). This argument is an example of the simultaneous strength and limitation of the political economy of news media as
an explanation of the ideology of journalism. It connects the nature of journalism
to political-economic relationships and processes. Those relationships and processes
are, indeed, an important part of the reality of news production and ideology
of journalists. But, like the political-professional arguments above, it is focused
on mainstream journalism or the dominant journalistic trends. This is certainly for
good reason. As an analysis of the news media with which most people interact, it is
surely essential to a complete awareness of the nature of news production. Further,
the nature of news production is necessarily related to the ideology of the journalists
who are the producers. However, a more complete understanding of the ideology
of journalists in the U.S. would account for the specificities of news production
— including the different nature of news production at alternative, non-profit, and
public news media — and related specificities of journalistic ideology.
The uncritical ideology of the mainstream U.S. press can be seen as a result of
both the political-professional and political-economic relationships and processes
of journalism. Similarly, the more critical ideology apparent in other aspects of the
U.S. press is a product of different political-professional and political-economic
relationships. Much of the social-scientific research into the performance of journalism
in the U.S. proceeds with, at most, a limited consideration of the political
economy of media. It often focuses on journalistic professionalism as the generator
of the observed ideology of journalists. The failures of the press in the U.S. cannot
be fully discussed without including political-economic factors. Political-economic
analyses of media, however, can offer theoretically sophisticated and empirically
detailed accounts of the economic aspects of U.S. news media but do not provide
equally illuminating treatments of the specific values and norms of journalists. This
study argues journalistic ideology should be understood as consisting of both political-
professional and political-economic aspects.
Two cases of an uncritical U.S. Press
On Feb. 12, 2010, in Afghanistan, U.S. forces shot and killed five people in a village
in the Paktia Province. On July 12, 2007, a U.S. helicopter killed 12 people
in Baghdad, including two Reuters journalists. In each case, the initial reporting in
major U.S. news outlets mostly presented the Pentagon’s version of events. In the
same week in 2010, it became apparent that the initial stories in both incidents were
false: The Pentagon had lied and most major U.S. news media had repeated that
lie without even presenting it as possibly contradicted, let alone actively seeking to independently determine what had happened, as the rhetoric of “watchdog” and
“fourth estate” journalism would suggest. News outlets corrected the record with
new reporting, but only after the evidence to the contrary became nearly impossible
to ignore. In the case of the Afghanistan incident, more independent-minded journalists
pursued the story and reported on the falsity of the Pentagon’s initial version
of events. These revelations reached outlets like the New York Times in April 2010.
This forced the Pentagon to admit its first account of the event was wrong, and it
appears there was a cover-up effort on the part of the Pentagon. In the Iraq case,
the whistleblower website WikiLeaks released a classified video that showed the
helicopter killing of two Reuters journalists and 10 other people. The release of this
video made it impossible for the Pentagon to stand by its initial story. In that same
week in April 2010, the New York Times ran a story about the video and how it contradicted
the initial claim of a combat situation. Again, it appears the Pentagon tried
to cover up the truth of the incident until a military whistleblower turned over video
of the killing to WikiLeaks.
On March 13, 2010, Jerome Starkey published an article in the News Corporationowned
The Times of London that NATO forces in Afghanistan had killed civilians
in a nighttime raid and then tried to cover it up. The article, headlined “Nato ‘covered
up’ botched night raid in Afghanistan that killed five,” appeared a month after
the incident, in which five civilians — two pregnant women, a teenage girl, and
two local officials — were killed by U.S. and Afghan soldiers. It was nearly another
month before the New York Times reported that the initial NATO story was
part of an attempted cover-up (Oppel Jr., 2010, April 4).
This incident provides one clear example of the kind of uncritical war reporting
found in previous research on U.S. news media. The initial report on the day of the
incident in the New York Times provided only a brief reiteration of the U.S. military’s
version of events. At the time, NATO alleged the shooting involved a fight
with militants, after which the bodies of three women were found “tied up, gagged,
and killed” (Nordland, 2010, February 12). The story noted an alternative version
from an Afghan police chief, who said it was “Taliban militants” who had killed
five civilians, including two men. There is no indication of an effort by the New
York Times reporter to ask non-official sources for their version of what happened.
A reporter for The Associated Press did just that. The story repeated the NATO
claim of a fight with insurgents and the later discovery of five bodies, including
two “bound and gagged women,” but it gave nearly equal weight to claims that
it was the U.S. soldiers who had killed the five civilians, noting “relatives of the
dead accused American forces of being responsible for the deaths of all five people
when contacted by The Associated Press by phone” (The Associated Press, 2010, February 12). The reporter for The Associated Press was able to determine that
there were reports directly contradictory to that from the U.S. military, while still
producing a story on the same day as the incident.
The initial report from The Associated Press indicated there was evidence of a need
for a journalistic investigation of the official claims about what happened, but it
was nearly two months before the New York Times reported that the official version
was false. That came only when the U.S. military admitted that was the case. Two
days after Starkey’s story about cover-up allegations, the New York Times, as part
of a bigger story about reigning in the Special Operation Forces, detailed the claims
by relatives of the civilians who were killed that it was the U.S. forces who had
killed all five civilians (Oppel Jr. & Nordland, 2010, March 15). But while Starkey
had already reported there was evidence the U.S. military had actively attempted to
cover up the incident, the New York Times repeated the Pentagon’s claims, including
that the women were already dead before the incident, before noting relatives
of those killed claimed U.S. forces were responsible.
On April 4, 2010, the New York Times reported the Pentagon had admitted U.S. forces
were responsible for the deaths of the five civilians (Oppel Jr., 2010, April 4). The
next day, Starkey in The Times of London and reporters for the New York Times reported
that Afghan investigators believed the U.S. had attempted to cover up the incident
by digging bullets out of the bodies of the three dead women (Starkey, 2010,
April 5; Oppel Jr. & Wafa, 2010, April 5). Almost two months after the incident, the
New York Times reported the long-known claims that contradicted the Pentagon’s
official version, and then only when officials changed the story — first, the Pentagon
admitted the first story was false, and then Afghan investigators characterized it as a
cover up. The Associated Press’ reporting had suggested contradicting stories from
the beginning, and Starkey had spent significant time interviewing the relatives of
those killed to determine in March that the official story was covering up U.S. responsibility
(without yet reporting allegations that the cover-up had involved U.S.
soldiers going so far as to disturb the bodies of the women who were killed to create
the story that they were already dead, and were not killed by gunfire). As Glenn
Greenwald, a fiercely independent political blogger at the for-profit website Salon
who won the 2009 Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media (along
with Amy Goodman), characterized the New York Times’ reporting of the incident,
“the NYT simply ignored entirely the claims of the residents of the village,” while
“serious conflicts about what actually took place were known from the very beginning”
(Greenwald, 2010, April 5). On March 22, 2010, Starkey published an article
on the Nieman Watchdog website of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism
in which he said, “NATO is rarely called to account. Their version of events, usually originating from the soldiers involved, is rarely seriously challenged” (Starkey,
2010, March 22). The reason, he said, is that “far too many of our colleagues accept
the spin-laden press releases churned out of the Kabul headquarters” (ibid.).
An incident in Iraq in 2007 provides another example of this kind of uncritical
journalism — “stenography,” Greenwald (2010, April 5) and others call it. On July
12, A U.S. Army Apache helicopter killed more than a dozen people, including a
Reuters photographer and his driver, and injured two children who were in a van
trying to help the wounded journalist, Namur Noor-Eldeen. As Dan Froomkin of
for-profit website The Huffington Post — formerly a Washington Post columnist —
later described the initial journalistic response, “The next day, the New York Times
reported the military’s official cover story” (Froomkin, 2010, April 5).
That first story from the New York Times repeated the Pentagon’s claim that nine
“insurgents” and two civilians had been killed. It quoted a military spokesperson’s
claim: “There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat
operations against a hostile force” (Rubin, 2007, July 13). Three days later, Patrick
Cockburn of the reader-supported Counterpunch reported the incident this way:
The US military says US and Iraqi forces engaged “a hostile force” and,
after coming under fire, called for air support that killed nine insurgents and
The police and witnesses tell a different story. A preliminary police report
from al-Rashad police station said Mr Noor-Eldeen and Mr Chmagh were
killed along with nine others by a “random American bombardment.” (Cockburn,
2007, July 16)
It was not until the whistleblower website WikiLeaks released the Army helicopter’s
video of the incident on April 5, 2010 — almost three years later — that the
New York Times had a story with a version of events other than the Pentagon’s. Like
the more recent incident in Afghanistan, the more critical reporting in the New York
Time in this case did not come about because of an independent investigative effort.
It was the release of the video by WikiLeaks, a site devoted to releasing information
those in power would prefer not get out — something most news organizations
claim to be in the business of doing — that forced the renewed interest in this story.
As Froomkin says of the Pentagon’s initial claim of “combat operations against a
hostile force,” a claim that was uncritically repeated in the New York Times (Rubin,
2007, July 13), “The video shows otherwise” (Froomkin, 2010, April 5).
The video shows there was no hostile force against which the U.S. military was
engaged in combat operations. In the New York Times’ first story (Rubin, 2007, July
13), a photo of the destroyed van used in the attempted rescue of Saeed Chmagh — Noor-Eldeen’s driver, who was alive at that point — is accompanied by a caption
that implies the journalists entered an ongoing battle: “Their van, above, was hit
near the scene of a firefight.” The 38-minute video from the helicopter that killed
the 12 people, released by WikiLeaks almost three years after the incident, shows
this was not the case. In fact, the van arrived after the first round of the helicopter
attack and attempted to help Chmagh. The van was then attacked, killing Chmagh
and two would-be rescuers and injuring two children inside. As the New York Times
article written after the release of the video indicates:
[T]he video does not show hostile action. Instead, it begins with a group of
people milling around on a street, among them, according to WikiLeaks, Mr.
Noor-Eldeen and Mr. Chmagh. The pilots believe them to be insurgents, and
mistake Mr. Noor-Eldeen’s camera for a weapon. They aim and fire at the
group, then revel in their kills. (Bumiller, 2010, April 5)
Cockburn did not need video evidence of the killing to attempt to independently
determine what had happened. His report just three days after the New York Times
uncritically recited the Pentagon’s version of events is perhaps one of the clearest
examples of how the critical reporting done by some non-mainstream journalists
compares to the reporting from a major, profit-driven organization like the New
York Times. Cockburn, who works for a news organization that relies solely on donations
and subscriptions, works from a skeptical view of any government claims
about events. He finds out what witnesses and others outside the U.S. government
say happened and finds a pattern that provides for a counter-narrative he gives equal
weight with the U.S. military’s version of events.
There are other recent examples of the Pentagon’s claims turning out to be untrue:
• “NATO apologized Wednesday for shooting to death four unarmed Afghan civilians
this week in Khost Province and acknowledged that it had wrongly described
two of the victims as ‘known insurgents’ ” (Oppel Jr, 2010, April 22)
• “An airstrike launched Sunday by United States Special Forces helicopters
against what international troops believed to be a group of insurgents ended up
killing as many as 27 civilians in the worst such case since at least September”
(Nordland, 2010, February 23)
These and other incidents further demonstrate the need for journalists to take a
more critical view of official stories. Instead, the pattern is one of consistent will ingness to repeat official stories without much, if any, effort to find out what other
sources say. This reliance on official sources is documented in much of the research
on political and war reporting in the U.S. I argue that such a relationship amounts
to a political-professional problem of self-assigned “embedding” to political elites.
The government does not force those who report on the Pentagon and other institutions
of national political power to follow around officials and go only where
told to go the way it does with reporters following military units in combat — that
would evoke immediate cries of censorship. But most journalists in the major news
outlets in the U.S. choose to work under just those conditions of self-censorship,
and political elites are surely the beneficiary.
This professional journalistic choice, however, cannot be fully understood without
a simultaneous consideration of the political-economic problem of U.S. journalism:
Most of the major news organizations are profit-driven entities largely supported
by advertising. This creates structural restrictions on the freedom of the press in the
U.S. that are also effective censors. The demands placed on journalists in such a
system limit their ability to work as independent “watchdogs” and principle investigators
of the claims of the powerful.
A solution to both of these problems of U.S. journalism is necessary for democratic
governance to work. Journalists cannot proceed from the assumption that repeating
the claims of the political elite qualifies as “objective” reporting. That is an unacknowledged
bias in favor of the powerful. At the same time, the fate and structure
of news media cannot be left to the demands for profit above all else that capitalism
places on entities that are not otherwise shielded. The political-professional problem
is tied to the political-economic one. If journalistic ideology is seen as represented
by the nature of the actual reporting done, then the more critical journalism found in
some U.S. news media can be seen as the result of different journalistic ideologies
that arise from different professional and political-economic arrangements, as well
as the specific efforts of individual journalists whose actions are never completely
determined by the general journalistic ideology that surrounds them.
In the examples cited, the New York Times reporters demonstrated a consistent ideology
of uncritical journalism: What the Pentagon said was what they reported.
Much of the mainstream, profit-driven press in the U.S. is accused of having a
similar ideology, and research has shown this to generally be the case. There are
simultaneous consistent patterns of professional practices and political-economic
relationships: reporting that repeats government claims and news production based
on profit-seeking and advertising support. Even within that general pattern, however,
it is possible to find exceptions that point to an alternative journalistic ideology. Starkey at The Times of London demonstrates an ideology of critical reporting
despite working for a major profit-driven news organization. It is also important
to consider the fact that he reports for a London-based organization; the different
national context alone is a potentially powerful factor in his journalistic ideology.
Froomkin of the for-profit online outlet Huffington Post, and formerly of
the Washington Post, exhibits an ideology that is not obviously what research suggests
would be the case. It is probably significant, however, that he was fired by
the Washington Post and that the Huffington Post attempted to define itself as an
alternative outlet. This still supports the argument that a journalist’s social reality
should be considered in its specificity if an accurate understanding of journalistic
ideology is sought. Greenwald provides a similar example of this. While writing
for the profit-driven, advertising-supported Salon, Greenwald is a consistent critica
of political and economic power. The journalistic ideology of Cockburn of the
reader-supported Counterpunch is certainly easy to contrast with that of the New
York Times reporters.
As the difference between the New York Times and online U.S. news media demonstrates,
there is no single journalistic ideology in the national context of the U.S.
The most encompassing ideologies that can be accurately abstracted are those of the
generally uncritical mainstream press and the generally critical alternative press,
even thought the alternative outlets analyzed her are for-profit. The comparison of
The Times of London also suggests that, at the least, not every journalist at mainstream,
for-profit news media has the journalistic ideology of uncritical reporting
demonstrated by the journalists of the New York Times. All of this suggests that the
most effective means of producing and broadening a critical journalistic ideology
in any specific context would be to effect change in professional norms and the
everyday behavior of journalists as well as the nature of journalistic labor and the
political economy of news media.
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