The Rise of the Anti-war Media, and Its Importance

Today's Wall Street Journal online edition features an important essay by sociologist James Q. Wilson examining how the American press has turned into an unpatriotic and anti-war entity. He also explains why this matters: because educated people are likely to be swayed by the media's coverage of events, whether that coverage is accurate or not.

A few excerpts:

We are told by careful
pollsters that half of the American people believe that American troops
should be brought home from Iraq immediately. This news discourages
supporters of our efforts there. Not me, though: I am relieved. Given
press coverage of our efforts in Iraq, I am surprised that 90% of the
public do not want us out right now.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2005,
nearly 1,400 stories appeared on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news.
More than half focused on the costs and problems of the war, four times
as many as those that discussed the successes. About 40% of the stories
reported terrorist attacks; scarcely any reported the triumphs of
American soldiers and Marines. The few positive stories about progress
in Iraq were just a small fraction of all the broadcasts.

When the Center for Media and
Public Affairs made a nonpartisan evaluation of network news
broadcasts, it found that during the active war against Saddam Hussein,
51% of the reports about the conflict were negative. Six months after
the land battle ended, 77% were negative; in the 2004 general election,
89% were negative; by the spring of 2006, 94% were negative. This
decline in media support was much faster than during Korea or Vietnam.

Naturally, some of the hostile
commentary reflects the nature of reporting. When every news outlet
struggles to grab and hold an audience, no one should be surprised that
this competition leads journalists to emphasize bloody events. To some
degree, the press covers Iraq in much the same way that it covers
America: it highlights conflict, shootings, bombings, hurricanes,
tornadoes, and corruption.

But the war coverage does not
reflect merely an interest in conflict. People who oppose the entire
war on terror run much of the national press, and they go to great
lengths to make waging it difficult. Thus the New York Times ran a
front-page story about President Bush's allowing, without court
warrants, electronic monitoring of phone calls between overseas
terrorists and people inside the U.S. On the heels of this, the Times
reported that the FBI had been conducting a top-secret program to
monitor radiation levels around U.S. Muslim sites, including mosques.
And then both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times ran stories
about America's effort to monitor foreign banking transactions in order
to frustrate terrorist plans. The revelation of this secret effort
followed five years after the New York Times urged, in an editorial,
that precisely such a program be started.

Virtually every government
official consulted on these matters urged that the press not run the
stories because they endangered secret and important tasks. They ran
them anyway. The media suggested that the National Security Agency
surveillance might be illegal, but since we do not know exactly what
kind of surveillance is undertaken, we cannot be clear about its legal
basis. No one should assume that the 1978 Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act requires the president to obtain warrants from the
special FISA court before he can monitor foreign intelligence contacts.
Though the Supreme Court has never decided this issue, the lower
federal courts, almost without exception, have held that "the Executive
Branch need not always obtain a warrant for foreign intelligence
surveillance."

The Vietnam War was where all this began, as the American press became willing stenographers for the anti-war movement. Following the Tet offensive which was falsely reported as an American defeat, the media's spin began to have an effect:

When Douglas Kinnard questioned
more than 100 American generals who served in Vietnam, 92% said that
newspaper coverage was often irresponsible or disruptive, and 96% said
that television coverage on balance lacked context and was sensational
or counterproductive.

An analysis of CBS's Vietnam
coverage in 1972 and 1973 supports their views. The Institute for
American Strategy found that, of about 800 references to American
policy and behavior, 81% were critical. Of 164 references to North
Vietnamese policy and behavior, 57% were supportive. Another study, by
a scholar skeptical about the extent of media influence, showed that
televised editorial comments before Tet were favorable to our presence
by a ratio of 4 to 1; after Tet, they were 2 to 1 against the American
government's policy.

Opinion polls taken in 1968
suggest that before the press reports on the Tet offensive, 28% of the
public identified themselves as doves; by March, after the offensive
was over, 42% said they were doves.

Sociologist James D. Wright
directly measured the impact of press coverage by comparing the support
for the war among white people of various social classes who read
newspapers and news magazines with the support found among those who
did not look at these periodicals very much. By 1968, when most
newsmagazines and newspapers had changed from supporting the war to
opposing it, backing for the war collapsed among upper-middle-class
readers of news stories, from about two-thirds who supported it in 1964
to about one-third who supported it in 1968. Strikingly, opinion did
not shift much among working-class voters, no matter whether they read
these press accounts or not. Affluent people who read the press
apparently have more changeable opinions than ordinary folks. Public
opinion may not have changed much, but elite opinion changed greatly. [...]

I repeated for the Iraq War the
analysis that Professor Wright had done of the impact of the media on
public opinion during the Vietnam War. Using 2004 poll data, I found a
similar effect: Americans who rarely watched television news about the
2004 political campaign were much more supportive of the war in Iraq
than were those who watched a great deal of TV news. And the falloff in
support was greatest for those with a college education.

Wilson identifies several factors he sees as being responsible for the media's move into the anti-war left. His third explanation is insightful:

Control of the press had
shifted away from owners and publishers to editors and reporters.
During the Spanish-American War, the sensationalist press, led by
Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, William
Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, and Joseph Medill's Chicago Tribune
all actively supported the war. Hearst felt, perhaps accurately, that
he had helped cause it. His New York paper printed this headline: "How
Do You Like the Journal's War?" Even the New York Times supported the
Spanish-American War, editorializing that the Anti-Imperialist League
was treasonable and later that the Filipinos "have chosen a bloody way
to demonstrate their incapacity for self-government."

Today, strong owners are almost
all gone. When Henry Luce died, Time magazine's support for an
assertive American foreign policy died with him. William Paley had
worked hard to make CBS a supporter of the Vietnam War, but he could
not prevent Walter Cronkite from making his famous statement, on the
evening news show of Feb. 19, 1968, that the war had become a
"stalemate" that had to be ended, and so we must "negotiate." On
hearing these remarks, President Johnson decided that the country would
no longer support the war and that he should not run for reelection.
Over three decades later, Mr. Cronkite made the same mistake: We must,
he said, get out of Iraq now.

There are still some family
owners, such as the Sulzbergers, who exercise control over their
newspapers, but they have moved politically left. Ken Auletta has
described Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, as a
man who has "leaned to the left," but "leaned" understates the matter.
Mr. Sulzberger was a passionate opponent of the war in Vietnam and was
arrested more than once at protest rallies. When he became publisher in
1997, he chose the liberal Howell Raines to control the editorial page
and make it, Mr. Sulzberger said, a "more assertive, populist page."

Other media companies, once run by
their founders and principal owners, are now run by professional
managers who report to directors interested in profits, not policy.
Policy is the province of the editors and reporters, who are governed
by their personal views, many of them acquired not by having once
covered the police beat but from a college education. By 1978, 93% of
the top reporters and editors had college degrees.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013