Posted by Lex, on May 29, 2008
A pair of Blockbuster Revelations!!!! this week. First, former MSNBC reporter Jessica Yellin told CNN co-worker Anderson Cooper that editors at the news outlet pushed her to trim her stories covering the White House to a more positive breeze:
“The press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president’s high approval ratings,” Yellin said.
“And my own experience at the White House was that the higher the president’s approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives — and I was not at this network at the time — but the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president, I think over time….”
But then a shocked Cooper jumped in, asking, “You had pressure from news executives to put on positive stories about the president?”
“Not in that exact…. They wouldn’t say it in that way, but they would edit my pieces,” Yellin said. “They would push me in different directions. They would turn down stories that were more critical, and try to put on pieces that were more positive. Yes, that was my experience.”
This bit of dialogue was generated in response to former White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s assertion (among others) that the press corps badly mishandled their job to scrutinize administration claims, especially those having to do with Saddam’s WMD programs. Which, considering the fact that intelligence agencies around the world shared the national intelligence bureaucracy’s consensus on the matter, seems like problematic hindsight at best, and a difficult wake to steer by. Especially when you take into consideration the fact that CNN was already self-editing to make the Iraqi dictator look better than he otherwise might have looked.
No, we haven’t forgotten about that.
Still, the wheel comes full circle. McClellan himself – transformed suddenly through his critique of the Bush White House from consensus dullard to left-wing saint – admits that when he started his book he’d intended a much more gracious perspective of his time at the capital but was persuaded to cast it otherwise:
He suggests that the process of working with editors and publishers helped shape his thinking. “Many of the conclusions I’ve reached are quite different from those I would have embraced at the start of the process,” he writes. He came to realize, he writes, that Washington culture is “a game of endless politicking based on the manipulation of shades of truth, partial truths, twisting of the truth, and spin.”
What’s remarkable is that it took the efforts of editors – whose task it is, after all, to make an author’s oeuvre not merely readable but also, crucially, profitable – to make the scales fall from McClellan’s eyes. Spin, in Washington?
There is a lesson in here of course: News media sell to news markets. Everyone knew Saddam was a bad man, having done horrible things and showing every sign of willingness to keep on doing them going forward. A nation traumatized by 9/11, and suddenly aware of a vital vulnerability, looked for reasons to have done with him and the media went congenially along because to do otherwise would have cost them market share.
The public mood became first restless and then shifted as the occupation of Iraq groaned on with no end in sight. Terrorists and jihadis sensed that public opinion was on the tipping point and – knowing that to be our strategic center of gravity – engaged in an escalating public orgy of violence that was duly reported to the target audience by a cooperative media. Because bad news sells, and no one covers the plane that lands on time.
You get what you pay for.