Cliff May

An essential American institution is in crisis but the story is not being covered by the mainstream media. That's because the institution in crisis is the mainstream media which appears incapable of self-examination, much less self-criticism.

When I trained as a journalist some 30 years ago, there were high walls separating news (what happened), analysis (how experts interpret what happened) and opinion (what someone thinks should be done in response to what happened). Those walls no longer stand.

Today, major media outlets routinely use news and analysis to score ideological and partisan points. The most recent example is the front page New York Times story on a National Intelligence Estimate that no one at the Times had read. The reporters and editors were satisfied they knew what was in it based on what they were told by “several officials in Washington involved in preparing the assessment or who have read the final document.”

That document had been completed in April but the officials leaked what they claimed was its key revelation -- that the war in Iraq has worsened the terrorist threat -- six weeks before the midterm elections. The possibility that this was the motive for the leak was not shared with Times readers.

The Times said its sources “all spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a classified intelligence document.” A more honest explanation would have been: “All spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were committing a crime as well violating their professional oath by disclosing classified information.”

To the Times' editors, such transgressions are sometimes admirable, sometimes despicable. The accusation that classified information had been revealed to reporters by members of the Bush administration led the paper to call for what became Patrick Fitzgerald's multi-year, multi-million dollar investigation.

Two days after the Times' story appeared, the White House declassified the entire National Intelligence Estimate, demonstrating that the Times' description of the document was, to be generous, incomplete.

It is bad enough that journalists in the U.S. allow themselves to be manipulated while abetting the commission of crimes. There also is this: Terrorist groups abroad are utilizing collaborators to twist the news while intimidating independent journalists.

For example during the recent conflict in Lebanon, Reuters distributed doctored and staged photographs. Other news organizations reported exaggerated casualty figures -- and took Hezbollah's words that virtually all Lebanese casualties were civilian. Did you ever see a photo of a dead Hezbollah fighter? Or of a live Hezbollah fighter for that matter?


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.