Why are the media so meek?

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; 12:00 PM

Henry Kissinger once declared Daniel Ellsberg to be "the most dangerous man in America," a peculiar label to give a Rand Corporation analyst armed with only a Xerox machine and 7,000 pages of a Pentagon study. Ellsberg, of course, would come to be regarded more for courage than for perfidy, and now, 39 years after the Pentagon Papers first appeared in the New York Times, comes a new documentary about the most celebrated leak in American history. Produced and directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" is up for an Academy Award next month for Best Documentary Feature.

But four decades after the Times went toe-to-toe with Attorney General John Mitchell and President Richard Nixon, there are serious doubts as to what would happen if a modern-day Ellsberg leaked a 21st-century equivalent of the Pentagon Papers today.

Sadly, the past decade hasn't provided us with much evidence that major daily newspapers, or what's left of them, would pay much attention. A prime example is the Downing Street Memo, a British government document exposing back-room discussions on the run-up to the Iraq war, which the American media very nearly ignored. After the Sunday Times of London broke the story on May 1, 2005, U.S. coverage was practically invisible. Most American media outlets only began to report seriously -- and I use the word "seriously" loosely -- on the memo after angry readers started firing off criticism about the lack of editorial attention that the damning documents were receiving. "When ignoring the memos no longer proved viable," David Michael Green wrote for In These Times, the American press "began to substitute very limited reporting coupled with distortion and denial."

Are the media to blame for such episodes of meekness? Much of the noise created by contemporary media criticism revolves around the issue of liberal/conservative bias, but this is a red herring. In a rather brutal assessment of contemporary American media published this month at truthdig.com, Chris Hedges writes, "The press became, as seen in the Iraq war and the aftermath of the financial upheavals, a class of courtiers." The pursuit of well-placed sources -- those bearers of "official" information -- has made too many journalists unwilling ask tough questions of their sources for fear of losing precious access. Hedges continues: "These press courtiers, lost in the fantasy of their own righteousness and moral probity, cling to the hollow morality of 'objectivity' with comic ferocity."

In the name of access, today's Pentagon Papers might not be published at all, lest an embarrassed government turn off its spigot of information to whoever published them. Or, in the name of objectivity, today's Pentagon Papers might have to compete editorially with a "both sides of the story" article.

Further complicating the matter is the corrosive commercial aspect of media, which increasing consolidation is making worse. More than a decade ago in its "National Entertainment State," the Nation illustrated just how few players there actually are in American media. It is worth wondering whether News Corp. or Disney, Time Warner or General Electric would take the same risk that Times publisher Arther Ochs Sulzberger took with the Pentagon Papers and expose the government that taxes, regulates and monitors them. Though meant in jest, there's still something sinister about GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt's crack that, in the pursuit of government stimulus money, "We're all Democrats now." Immelt is a registered Republican; GE owns NBC.

Can the Web fix the problem? In her three-and-a-half-star review of the Ellsberg documentary, The Post's Ann Hornaday keenly observes: "Contemporary Web-centric media culture, with its proliferation of voices and reigning ethic of decentralization, makes everything equally important and unimportant, with each bit and byte of information just another bee to be herded, heeded or tuned out. Had the Pentagon Papers first been published on the Web, one wonders, would they have been all the more easily marginalized or ignored?" Indeed.

In a 2006 American Prospect essay about Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times from 1960 to 1980, Post columnist Harold Meyerson credits the Times with the creation of Los Angeles as we know it: "The Times became a paper for a cosmopolitan metropolis, helping transform Los Angeles, in the incremental and indirect ways that a newspaper can shape a city, politically, culturally and intellectually." Chandler was embarrassed by the hand-in-glove relationship that his family's paper had maintained with the Republican Party -- and the unflattering reputation that came with it -- and in his 20-year reign he created a robust, independent and well-regarded news outlet. Competent, professional media outlets can have a greatly beneficial impact on the nation. But only if they have the backbone to do their job and report the news, no matter who happens to be making it.

The writer is editor of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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