By Leigh Ferrara
Media consolidation is a hot-button topic these days. There is constant chatter about who’s buying whom, which newspapers are downsizing, which ones are folding, and whether blogs will destroy print journalism. People worry about the integrity of magazines and papers that are now run by corporate suits who care only about the bottom line. But corporations are not the only barrier to this industry’s vitality. Journalism also struggles with pressure from the government, a veritable tug-of-war over the message that reaches the public. News Wars, Frontline‘s timely four-part series, tackles the challenges that face the media industry today—government pressure, the global press, and the increasing pressure on newspapers and television networks to turn a profit. In more than 80 interviews with key players in journalism and government officials, correspondent Lowell Bergman gives an insider’s look at the trials and tribulations of the most public industry in America. It’s an overview of some of its most difficult years, those under the Bush administration.
Part one, “Secrets, Spins and the Future of the News,” which airs on PBS on February 13, is quick to remind us that although the relationship between the government and the press has been historically contentious, the tension reached a new level under this administration, in part due to its diligence to stay on message with the Iraq war.
The program opens with a scene outside the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. where reporters Matt Cooper and Judith Miller—who both refused to testify in the now infamous CIA-leak scandal involving operative Valerie Wilson—are shown hustling into the courthouse as reporters swarm around them. In 2003, Plamegate became a household name. We would later find out that the case was a cover-up by the Bush administration to hide its egregious errors in the early stages of the Iraq war; that the outing of Ambassador Wilson’s CIA-operative wife, Valerie Wilson, was a calculated response to an op-ed her husband wrote claiming that Niger was not supplying Iraq with uranium. The narrator continues: “There was no more tangled business between the Bush administration and the press than the Plame case…it had become the most significant clash between the press and the federal government in decades.”
Plamegate, though, not only served to expose the deceit on the part of the administration but threatened the careers of journalists. (Judith Miller served 85 days in prison for refusing to testify. In the end, she would testify and be let go from the New York Times.) News Wars makes clear that this was a turning point for the press as an institution. “I think the Bush administration saw that a top reporter for the number one newspaper in this country could go to jail for weeks, and nothing would happen…it emboldened them to go after press in other cases… they saw this as a green light,” says reporter Mark Feldstein, who covered the Plame case extensively.
Tom Rosentiel, former media critic for the Los Angeles Times, expands on the importance of the Plame case and how it demonstrated the shift in anonymous sourcing. “To the public, the whistle blower is very different than a high-ranking administration official spinning a reporter with the protection of confidentiality…and that’s what occurred in the Plame case.”
Forcing reporters to give up their sources and subsequently their careers is possibly the most blatant of the government’s controls over the media, but according to many interviewed by Bergman, not the most damaging. They cite the government’s ability to manipulate the press in order to control the message that the public receives. Rosentiel recalls how the media was duped by the administration regarding WMDs in Iraq. “These stories would appear and then they would reference the very material that they’d given them and say, ‘See, this, this is coming from the New York Times, not just us…it was a conscious loop.'” Media critic Jay Rosen is not sympathetic to the press corps. “The way that the press was sold and spun and turned around and just fooled by the White House in the run up to the war…How can one say that we have a watchdog press after a performance like that?”
Part two of News Wars, which airs on February 20, builds the case for a watchdog press, as Bergman delves deeper into the struggle for control of the media and, more importantly, public information. Bergman looks at Washington Post reporter Dana Priest’s story on CIA detention sites, in which she revealed a world-wide system of torture areas. The administration tried to pressure Priest and the Post not to run the story. Bergman talks with Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, about their controversial piece on the legality of NSA wiretapping that was published in December of 2005. The administration pressured Keller as well, claiming national security was at stake. Bergman’s interview with the Post‘s Executive Editor Leonard Downie contrasted with a comment from President Bush demonstrates perfectly the warring parties. Says Downie, “Decisions [about national security] cannot be made by the government. That’s—that’s unconstitutional. And it also would be dangerous to our democracy. It has to be left to the editors and television producers—to make these decisions.” Bush: “It was a shameful act. For someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war.”
Even when matters of national security are not at stake, the government is involved. Bergman interviews San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who have refused to reveal how they got their hands on grand jury testimonies of the steroid-using athletes involved in the Balco case. They both face up to 18 months in jail. In response to whether he is ready for jail, Fainaru-Wada tells Bergman, “If this is what a judge decides, then that’s what’s going to happen because it’s not an option for us to provide information about confidential sources.”
Arts: Frontline documentary examines how the Bush administration, Wall Street, and technology are squeezing the news media.
To reinforce the rapid evolution of media and the importance of new media, News Wars reveals that even bloggers face pressure from the government. Part two ends with the story of Josh Wolf, a blogger who refused to relinquish a protest tape that potentially reveals an illegal act by some protestors. Wolf has been in jail for six months, the longest sentence any journalist has served. “If I were to give those tapes to them, then I stop being an independent journalist, and become…a de facto investigator for the government.”
Although News Wars is jam-packed with information and Bergman has scored interviews with many of the heavy-hitters in the industry, media junkies may feel as if they’ve heard all this before. And, if you’re like me, you’d be happy to never hear the word “Plamegate” again. But the series is leavened by Bergman’s dry sense of humor and witty repartee with his subjects, making for entertaining—if not ground-breaking—TV.
Leigh Ferrara is a Senior Fellow at Mother Jones.