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Official Sources: Iraq Has WMDs… And Other Tales

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After being panned for using unnamed sources, journalists seem to have switched to just replaying official communiqués from the government. Once upon a time, the stories used to rely exclusively on first hand reporting, and by that I mean talking to multiple people belonging to differing factions, visiting the place of action, and all mixed with the little wisdom gleaned from one's own "sources."

Today all that has changed, and what has been left of reporting is quotes from public statements from the government or other official or publicly authorized sources. What is even more alarming is that often the bankrupt official versions are juxtaposed with first-hand reporting to sabotage what the journalists have gleaned first hand. Of course this farce is only perpetrated when it suits the narrow political aims of the news organization or the journalist. Take for example the recent shameful reporting on the Lebanese conflict by The New York Times, which took care to always weave in an official Israeli government reaction to any news about casualties in Lebanon. The paragraphs went something like this:  So many civilians died when an apartment building collapsed in a particular town. Israeli army has said that the building was being used as a Hezbollah hideout.

Whatever the truth may have been there, it should have been arrived with due care, mixed with reporting from the scene, and talking to multiple people. For what does and empty line of an official source really tell us? Why does it become part of reporting? A journalist's job is to analyze and assimilate multiple sources and piece together what really happened. It is not to quote Israeli or Hezbollah sources.  Including direct quotes from official sources or including a summary of the official line uncritically in the midst of first-hand reporting amounts to perversion of the basic principles of journalism.

The sad repercussions of this kind of non-journalism were on full display in the Iraq WMD fiasco. The NY Times, a full year after that episode, came out with a report saying "mea culpa" and made assertions that it has learnt from its mistakes but the recent reporting from Lebanon shows that not much has changed at the Grand Old Lady. Of course, the New York Times, by far, is not the worst culprit of doling out official wisdom as reporting; that title of course is reserved for government lapdog, Fox News, which makes its living by distributing government propaganda with just the right amount of titillation, rancor, and graphics. On the other hand, the demise of true reporting at this touchstone of journalism is much more disturbing.

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  • http://everydayentrepreneurs.blogspot.com Intrepid

    The Israeli PR efforts are famous for simply handing down “official” versions of events, and the US media has often been guilty of simply reporting those. And not just in the recent conflict, but for many many years now. Check out the documentary “Peace, Propoganda and Promised Land” on Google video

  • http://www.booklinker.blogspot.com Deano

    I hate to tell you but this is nothing new. For better or worse, this is the environment within which news is gathered and reported, and has always been. Is it perfect – no. Does it sometimes have an agenda – yes. Do governments and political groups and interests try to influence the reporting of the new – Hell yes.

    What can you do about this – be skeptical, use multiple sources for your news, if a newsperson then they need to verify from multiple sources where possible and if not possible use caveants when reporting.

    This applies to all sides in the conflict as all sides use the war for propaganda purposes. While the Israelis claim every strike is one on legitimate Hezbollah targets, Hezbollah claims every strike an attack on innocents. Hezbollah has been documented staging and faking pictures of victims and bombings.

    Information is a critical element in a modern war. Hezbollah and the Israelis know this – it would be wise if we did too.

  • Peter J

    Gaurav,
    You said the magic word; propaganda. This administration has learned by its mistakes in the way of offering tid-bits of information hear and smidgens of facts there. Somehow, the press was able to decipher this garbled jibber-jabber and actually develop a story.

    Add to that ‘W’s public appearances (or as it’s called ‘Romper Room’s Name That Word’) which turn into very uncomfortable sweat soaked palm podium clutching knee knocking comedy shows, also known as press conferences, which are a rare event indeed.

    The White House is finished giving up information which will inevitably be used as ammunition against them. As it should be. Imagine our gall to believe that the White House owes US, piss-ants all, the truth. We can’t handle the truth!

    Whether the news is happy, sad, discomforting, or elating, just so long it is the truth and has any effect whatsoever on the American public it must be disclosed in a truthful, unbiased manner. That is news.

    Don’t expect to hear any ‘news’ from the White House any time soon although that shouldn’t come as a surprise, I don’t believe that we’ve gotten any truth (news) from this administration for a long time.

    Remember, propaganda can be your friend, embrace it!

  • Justin Berry

    The problem is not with the politicians or the media. The problems is with dumbasses who vote for Bush because Falwell says or Kerry because Hollywood says. The same dumbasses who are too lazy to decide for themselves how they feel about an issue and research candidates who will push the legislation that they feel strongly about.

  • http://mrbounce.blogspot.com/ Mistress La Spliffe

    Deano is right. It’s been like this since Hearst – the New York Times has been doing it since the 19th century – and consumers of news like us are at fault if we’re not aware of that.

    The best we can do as consumers is get our news from multiple sources and try to be aware of when we’re paying attention to a media source because it’s informing us, and when we’re paying attention because we like the way it spews back and reinforces our own prejudices and paranoias . . .

    *cough* Bill O’Reilly *cough* Noam Chomsky *cough*.