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April 29, 2004

why do we care about press coverage of Iraq?

There's a very hot debate about the quality of news about Iraq. Some colleagues and students and I have created a special website with a lot of relevant information on that topic. I think the first step is to ask what's the purpose of press coverage. Here are some answers that seem to be implicit in the current debate:

1. A citizen's main responsibility is to decide whether the Bush Administration has done a good job so far, and to vote accordingly this November.

Some people feel passionately that the Bush Administration has been awful--either wicked or incompetent--and that the election results in November should reflect this verdict. For them, it is very disturbing that a majority of Americans still believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (or a major WMD program) on the eve of the invasion, and that world opinion is largely favorable toward the war. (See this PIPA report.) They believe that each of these beliefs is false, that the contrary positions make the case against Bush, and that the press is responsible for failing to convey the truth.

Other people (for example, these folks) have the same view of the press' function (to inform citizens who are going to vote yea or nay on the Administration's performance to date), but they believe that Bush is a decisive, visionary leader. To them, it is deeply frustrating that the press emphasizes casualties and conflicts in Iraq, rather than America's work in rebuilding the country. Many of them were incensed when the press reported setbacks in the initial ground war, which quickly turned into a rout of Saddam's forces.

In my own view, citizens need to do much more than vote retrospectively on a president, once every four years. I agree that a president's performance in his first term provides some evidence about how he would behave in the next four years, although this evidence is very imperfect. But if all I'm supposed to do is make a retrospective judgment of competence, and it takes a lot of my time to get adequately informed, and there are many other important issues besides Iraq, and 100 million other adults will also vote, I'm not sure it's worth my trouble to follow the war closely. Furthermore, I don't see a reason to care about the quality of news coverage if each citizen's role is so limited.

2. We are morally complicit in what our government does, so we should understand the results and feel appropriate emotions.

People who implicitly hold this view believe that we are part of a democratic community, so we are morally required to associate ourselves with the actions of the US Government. If Americans are brutally killed by terrorists, we should know all the details and feel a desire for vengeance. If American soldiers are killed, we should grieve for them and their families (and perhaps vent anger against the leaders who sent them into danger, if we think that the war was unnecessary). If our bombs kill Iraqis or Afghans, then we should see pictures and read accounts of what has been done. If people rage against the US in Baghdad, Athens, or New York, we should read what they say so that we can either take patriotic offense or come to share their judgment. Looking away from any of these events is a dereliction of our moral duty.

For their part, news organizations have an obligation to describe events in all their emotional power. Thus it was right to show the bodies of American contractors in Falluja; and we should all view the coffins of the American dead.

There are potential criticisms of this position, although I haven't seen anyone argue against it explicitly. Perhaps we shouldn't engage too emotionally with current events, because our job is to be sober and judicious judges of policy. Or perhaps we have no obligation to read upsetting news or see upsetting pictures, since we aren't very complicit in this war. We are not intentional participants in the group that's fighting. I might say: I didn't vote for Bush, nobody consulted me before they decided to invade, and I don't need to wallow in the bad news that has resulted. Finally, one could argue that the focus of our emotional engagement shouldn't be Iraq. Sadness about deaths thousands of miles away is cheap; we should spend our time worrying about the local homeless, because we can help them.

3. Policymakers will respond to polls, so poll results should reflect good judgment.

This is actually a variant of #1 (above), but it adds an important wrinkle. We don't just vote in November; in addition, we are polled at frequent intervals. Perhaps poll results shouldn't matter, but they do influence policy. If 90% of the public wanted us out of Iraq, we'd probably be heading out. Thus it's important that people pay attention and base their opinions on good evidence and careful consideration of alternative views. Unfortunately, the American people deserve no better than a "B" for knowledge and effort, according to this study.

It's undeniable that surveys matter. But it's not clear that they should. Nor do I have a very strong obligation to inform myself and to participate in discussions about Iraq just in case a pollster decides to call me. It would be better to draw a random sample of Americans, tell them that their opinions will really count, and demand that they do their homework so that everyone else can get on with their private business. This is the Deliberative Polling idea--somewhat utopian, but worth thinking about as an alternative to our current system.

4. The press is a watchdog or whistle-blower.

According to this thesis, it doesn't much matter what average Americans think or know about Iraq. The purpose of the press is to "blow the whistle" when the government really messes up or does something unethical. The audience for such stories need not be especially large. It may be various elites. In extreme cases, the only people who have to read an investigative news report are Members of Congress and officials in the Justice Department, who will use the data in their legal actions against the administration.

It's clear that the press has played this watchdog role well, from time to time. Watergate is the classic case. However, there are several drawbacks to the idea of press as watchdog. First, the only tribunal that should really judge a president is the people. So unless the people pay attention to the full range of news (good as well as bad), a president will not be fairly judged at the polls. If congressional committees, special prosecutors, and bipartisan commissions become the bodies that assess presidential performance, democracy is weaker--and we risk criminalizing policy mistakes.

Second, the press has a legitimacy problem. No one elects the White House press corps to be Tribunes of the People. If we don't approve of their performance, we can't remove them. A skillful populist can discredit reporters precisely by making this point. Indeed, Bush's approval ratings rose when reporters began to hammer him on Iraq, presumably because a lot of Americans view the president as more their representative than the networks and major newspapers. Jay Rosen considers this phenomenon in a subtle essay.

Finally, it really doesn't make much business sense to imagine printing a national newspaper or running a cable news network for the benefit of, 300 powerful policymakers. The news that appears on TV and in print must interest masses of people. This tends to distort any effort to investigate the details and complexities of alleged government misbehavior.

5. Citizens Can Do More than Vote.

People who know me have been waiting for this answer. We don't just observe policy and render occasional judgments. We can also do "public work." In relation to Iraq, we can choose to: organize political movements for or against the war; debate and try to develop policy alternatives for our government to adopt; follow the reconstruction effort closely to learn lessons for our own local work in battered American communities; develop relationships with individuals abroad and with immigrants in the US (in order to strengthen America's "soft power" and make us more responsive); raise money for NGOs like the International Rescue Committee; and even enlist in the US Military.

I like this position best, for philosophical reasons. But we need to be realistic. A lot of these forms of engagement are very hard or cannot reasonably be undertaken by most Americans. For instance, approximately 0.04% of the American population is serving in Iraq. If we increased that number tenfold, we would still only be able to include four tenths of one percent of the American people in direct work "on the ground" in Iraq.

Getting good information about Iraq is difficult, since much of the most important data is classified or inaccessible to Americans.

Also, a lot of movement-building, advocacy, and deliberation work really aims to change other Americans' opinions. But what's the point of that, other than to help them cast the correct vote next November (see #1 above)? If voting is a weak form of citizenship, then trying to change other people's votes is not much better.

As a personal matter, I feel compelled to watch the Iraq situation very closely and to express my views to anyone who wants to hear them. I try to be a responsible observer. I think this is because of #2 (above), a sense of moral association with the US Government. Perhaps my emotional response contains a dose of bad faith or self-indulgence or moral convenience, since I'm far from the suffering and have nothing to do about it. In any case, we need to decide what obligations we have as citizens, in order to decide what role our press should play, in order to assess the performance of the press in the Iraq war.

[Two more answers to my original question ("Why should we care about press coverage of Iraq?"), added on May 1:]

6. This war and occupation is a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn about profound and perennial issues.

What better way to examine democracy, power, tyranny, military force, cultural differences, law, civil liberties, Islam, Christianity, economic development, and even human nature than to study the dramatic events taking place in Iraq? We ought to understand these issues, because they arise in our own lives and communities; because they are intrinsically interesting and morally serious; and because the views that we form in response to the Iraq war will not only influence next November's vote--they will shape every decision we ever make about national politics. If this is true, then we should expect the press to be an excellent educator, providing diverse opinions and useful information relevant to profound and lasting issues. We shouldn't much care why George W. Bush ordered the invasion, but we should ask what are the necessary conditions for democracy to take root. We should also be interested in such perennial questions as: Should societies use the talents of people who have committed wrongs in the past (e.g., former Baathists in Iraq)? What potential for good and evil do we see in Americans under stress, and how can we strengthen our best instincts as a people? How can a government respond when the popular press is fomenting hatred and violence?

7. The "few-to-many" press is not important; it's the "many-to-many" dialogue that matters.

All my previous answers focused on the mass media: the broadcast networks and major newspapers. But today there are said to be three million blogs, not to mention countless Listservs and printed newsletters. Most of this communication is not focused on Iraq, but a substantial portion is. There may be one million people who have created public, accessible commentary about the war and related issues. Perhaps we should prize this conversation. It is intrinsically interesting, it may shape broad public opinion, and it's so international that it may increase cross-cultural understanding. The paid, professional press still has a major role to play, providing most (although not all) of the basic information that feeds into these informal, public debates. But if we care most about the informal discussion, then we should ask whether the professional press is doing a good job in providing raw material. (I would say that it probably is.)

Posted by peterlevine at April 29, 2004 08:54 AM


Peter: Thank you for laying this out so well. Your six reasons make a lot of sense. The value of your approach, for me, is captured in this sentence: "we need to decide what obligations we have as citizens, in order to decide what role our press should play, in order to assess the performance of the press in the Iraq war."

A few comments and questions.

Why do do we care about a typology of reasons for citizens paying attention to the news? What can do we with it, if we're satisifed that it "works?" I would love to know what you have in mind.

One answer may be: adjust our criticisms of the press, accordingly, as well as our expectations.

So under each number 1-6 for "why we might care" you might spell out the consequences for press behavior, ethics, aspirations, authority and critique. You do that here: "If this is true, then we should expect the press to be an excellent educator, providing diverse opinions and useful information relevant to profound and lasting issues." Each item could have that sentence in it.

When I read about the "tremendous opportunity" rationale, I got a little warning shock. It's not what you meant, just a dangerous precedent to be aware of. John Dewey is famous for being in favor of World War I and against World War II. Anyone who takes Dewey seriously as a philosopher needs to grapple with that, I'd say.

One of the arguments he made for why the US should get engaged in the Great War was its "educational" value for Americans. I'm not saying you meant such. Just that the parallel is worth investigating and it may tell you something about your own formulation. The reasons he gave resemble the reasons you articulate here.

Of course it was in that context--Dewey's disastrous error--that Randolph Bourne wrote his great essay, "War is the Health of the State." (Which I find has been revived and floating around the blog sphere.)

This is clarity inducing essay. Thanks.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 2, 2004 06:05 PM


I like the way you have thought through the connection between press criticism/evaluation and the underlying conception of the work of citizens within a democracy. Each of your several frames, however, hews closely to a constricted model. You position citizens as lone actors who at best can be aggregated into larger interest groups. When you say "each of us is only one voice among 300 million," you reinforce an atomistic model of democracy.

I don't buy that model. I may think about issues by myself, but I don't really firm up what I think until I am in conversation with people with whom I have some kind of sustaining relationship. There are all kinds of associational ties and networks that make me more than one in 300 million, that make me part of a number of clusters and networks of people. These clusters and networks do more than aggregate interests. They create relationships within which a citizen can learn from other citizens and can create what Daniel Yankelovich calls public judgment. When clusters move, when networks pulse, the polity moves and pulses. Does the press recognize this? Contribute to this? Discourage this and thus reinforce the idea that we are all really atomized and powerless?

What is the work of the press in inviting people into public relationships with one another and the institutions and officials that serve us collectively? It seems that the relational work of the press -- how it names and frames issues and positions political actors, to use terms that Jay Rosen and David Mathews use -- is as important as its informational work.

Posted by: Cole Campbell at May 3, 2004 12:25 PM

Jay Rosen and Cole Campbell are my two favorite media critics.

I agree with Jay that we mustn't welcome, or even tolerate, war because it provides teachable moments. I regret writing that the current war is a "tremendous opportunity" to learn, because that gives the impression that the learning justifies the suffering and killing. Jay lets me off the hook by saying that's "not what you meant," but I shouldn't have put it the way I did. (Incidentally, I'm a big fan of John Dewey, but it should worry us that this engaged scholar, this defender of practical experience, was very often wrong about the great issues of his day. He was mistaken about two world wars, the New Deal, and much else. A lot of people who were less "pragmatic" than he in theory had better judgment in practice.)

Jay says that each of my answers to the question, "What is the press for?" implies a different set of expectations for reporters. I can spell these out a little:

If the press is supposed to help us vote yea or nay on Bush, then it should give us critical but unbiased information about the Administration. Above all, reporters should ask forward-looking questions (about plans and policies) so that we can weigh competing futures instead of simply judging the incumbent's performance to date.
If the purpose of the press is to provide images and stories for us to respond to morally and emotionally, then I would ask for more challenging fare. The balance is wrong: we get too many heart-warming stories about Jessica Lynch and too few disturbing ones about the Iraqis and Afghans who are killed or abused by our forces.
If we're supposed to do more than vote, then we need more stories about how we can act constructively. For instance, a tough, evaluative report about the international NGOs would be useful for anyone who is thinking about making a donation.

Cole and I share exactly the same view of deliberation. It's not only a way to change opinions; it's also how we form opinions in the first place. Deliberation occurs largely in civil society: in groups and networks. An "atomistic" theory is factually wrong, because there are not lots of individuals walking around with opinions, waiting to decide which groups to join and whose minds to try to change. At least as often, we are in groups to start with, and by participating, we develop opinions.

Yet I don't know what this theory implies about press coverage of a national crisis in a foreign land. Deliberation (or "public judgment") must result in some kind of decision or choice. If we deliberate about gender roles, for instance, then we have a million ways to put our beliefs into practice. But if our choice is a single vote in November--and the major candidates share the same policy regarding Iraq--then must we really go to all the trouble to form opinions carefully and wisely? Actually, I think we should go to this trouble, but I'm not quite sure why.

Posted by: Peter Levine at May 3, 2004 09:42 PM

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