What the government could learn from the media

June 16, 2003

For all their differences, at the moment the Bush White House and The New York Times have a lot in common. Each faces a serious challenge to its credibility.

They’re not alone. The country seems in the grip of a rolling, unusually wide, crisis of credibility, a powerful wave of skepticism and disbelief that threatens to drag down the reputations of institutions and individuals in its undertow.

From what was inside Sammy Sosa’s bat to what was behind Martha Stewart’s stock sale to who shielded predatory priests, respected public figures face rude questions about whether they should be heeded and trusted.

But although there are others, the most prominent targets of this impertinence are the country’s top political leader and its top news organization. The specifics are different, but the overriding question each faces is the same: Why should anybody believe what they say?

And the contrast in answers from the two couldn’t be more dramatic.

For once, following The Times’ example the news media seem to be doing something right, something worth emulating. Unlike the administration, unlike Wall Street, unlike the Church, and notwithstanding the perennially low esteem in which the public holds them, news organizations alone, faced with evidence of major failure, have shown the will and the spine to subject themselves to the kind of far-reaching scrutiny that brings self-awareness and reform.

In the weeks since The New York Times’ disclosed that a fast-rising reporting star had fabricated elements of stories and helped himself to information he had never gathered, the country’s news media have been twisting themselves in a public knot of self-inspection and self-rebuke. The two most powerful Times editors and one of its most admired veteran writers are gone.

Moreover, throughout the news business journalists are reinspecting the full tool chest of reporting devices – anonymous sources, uncredited contributors, truncated quotes. They’re reviewing basic techniques of narrative writing to see whether reporters routinely cut factual corners to produce sharper prose. They’re rebuilding channels for public feedback. Newsroom autocrats are finally getting some of the blame they deserve, as top-down management is reassessed. Ethics is all the rage.

To be sure, the media have plenty to atone for. When will they end their chronic reliance on officialdom? When will they ever admit to getting a story wrong – not just misstating the odd fact, but misconstruing the whole story: As in Whitewater, which never was anything and which a supposedly liberal press used to torment the Clinton administration for most of its term. As in the onetime panic over heterosexual AIDS. As in the hysterical reporting of ritual child abuse in day care centers, for which people are still serving time.

Above all, when will journalists fully acknowledge that they never publish The Story, but at most, a best guess — a sincere attempt, under severe time pressure, to learn and tell their audience things it should know?

So the media have a long way to go.

Still and all, what other powerful institution has shown a comparable willingness to root out error, correct flawed procedures, rededicate to core values — do what it takes to regain public confidence and trust?

Here the contrast with the current administration couldn’t be plainer. The obstinate refusal of the Bush White House to re-examine its own actions is one of the wonders of the contemporary world. Nobody can find the horrendous weapons President Bush was so certain were on the brink of being used that destroying them justified the highly dubious resort to pre-emptive war. Across the Atlantic, Tony Blair’s government is tottering because of Parliament’s dismay over that same assurance, just as groundless in London as in Washington.

Plus, it has now been disclosed that under interrogation captured Al Qaeda leaders told U.S. officials last fall that their organization had never worked with the Iraqi regime because Osama bin-Laden mistrusted Saddam Hussein. Hence, at the same time our president consistently declared that Saddam had to go because of his support for international terror, our government was withholding strong evidence that Iraq had given no support to the terror group that remains our greatest menace.

Regardless of how you view the war in Iraq, those are astounding disclosures. They strike at the heart of the U.S. government’s credibility.

So do we now see, in response, a determination at the highest levels of the administration to learn the truth about the leadup to the war — to find out if indeed this country was misled and if so how?

No. What we see is a determination to change the subject, and a corresponding willingness by the U.S. public to let the subject be changed.

That’s dangerous. The harm that damaged credibility causes isn’t always apparent in the near term. It’s insidious and reaches far into the future, because people remember deceit and respond with contempt.

Credibility is a precious resource, for newspapers and for governments. They squander it at their peril.

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