TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The End of Skepticism: “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” in War Reporting

In classical liberalism, the free press plays a crucial role as the major institution of public discussion. Of course there are other venues of debate: gatherings of individuals, meetings of associations, and the lofty debating halls of the legislature. They are locations in which opinion can grow, subject to rational scrutiny, in order to articulate values and policies to confront executive power. Or so the Enlightenment tells us.

All these institutions undergo transformations in modernity. The real work of Congress, for example, takes place in committees or behind other closed doors on K Street, and not in the main chambers, reserved for public performance, not public debate.

But what about the press? As it developed in the United States, at least, it depended on a stark distinction (at least in theory) between the opinion on the editorial page (or associated comments in letters or short essays) and the facts of the “news.”

Yet the “news” is increasingly a matter of displaying cherry-picked information designed to support preformed editorial opinion. The skepticism necessary for good journalism is reserved only for political opponents. Otherwise reportage has become a function of selective hearing: all the news that fits your views. (A similar process takes place, when internet users design their news pages to collect only information on certain topics.)

This is nowhere clearer than in the reporting on the war on terror and the recent developments in Lebanon. In its war on the Bush administration, the New York Times has no compunctions about revealing secret security measures, no matter how legal; just as the press insists on referring to the recently foiled plot to bring down airplanes over the Atlantic as an “alleged plot.”

One could even grant the press such skepticism: after all, why should it take government claims at face-value? The problem is that it does not direct any comparable skepticism toward the enemy. Skepticism ends at the water’s edge: hard questions for Bush, softballs for Ahmadenijad.

But it is the reporting on Hezbollah in the Times that testifies brilliantly to the collapse of journalistic ambition. Today’s article, “Relief Agencies Find Hezbollah Hard to Avoid,” is obviously politically motivated: its point is that the West should work with Hezbollah, since, so the article states, it is mainly a construction company, and this assertion is a de facto rebuttal to the administration’s regarding it as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah is, no doubt, also a construction company, but the journalists, Robert F. Worth and Hassan M. Fattah, evidently refrain from asking any difficult questions or probing below the surface. How does Hezbollah persuade them to bridle their professional curiosity?

Here are some questions they might have explored:

Reports of grants to individuals have varied from $10,000 to $15,000. Which figure is right? Is the scope of aid dependent on political allegiance?

Today’s report claims that “1,700” volunteers have been mobilized to clear streets and dig ditches? How voluntarily was this “volunteering”? Did the reporters speak with any of the volunteer ditch-diggers?

Hezbollah claims that money is coming from wealthy Lebanese living abroad. Are these “donations” linked to any particular protection for their property in Lebanon?

Does Hezbollah help non-Muslims? What’s going on in the Christian and Druse areas?

If Hezbollah really does control all the reconstruction, what is the impact of this monopoly? Are there any independent contractors? What does Hezbollah do to prevent the emergence of any competition?

Finally, there have been plenty of news reports that Lebanon has signed on to “don’t ask, don’t tell”: the government will not move against Hezbollah’s arms, as long as Hezbollah agrees to keep them hidden. Are any of these reporters looking for those arms caches?

The list could go on. The sorry conclusion, however, is that the New York Times does not want to have its journalists ask questions that do not fit its editorial agenda. Moreover, in order to function in Lebanon, the journalists have—or so it seems—come to an agreement with Hezbollah as to what they may or may not write. Given the fate of the Fox journalists in Gaza, no wonder the Times reporters are so stalwartly neutral. The public sphere has turned into coordinated public relations.

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