The New York Times broke a story earlier this week about a classified intelligence report that links the war in Iraq to the rise in Islamic radicalism in the Middle East. For liberals, this was a monumental piece of journalism – maybe three years too late, but still, statistical proof of what many had been saying all along. Yet outside the liberal sphere, the story caused hardly a ripple. The same situation occurred earlier this month, although with the roles reversed, when the Bush Administration released its report, “9/11 Five Years Later: Success and Challenges,” linking the war to a decline in terrorism. Although assessments of the America’s progress on the so-called “War on Terror” are likely to vary, polar-opposite stories like these are symptomatic of the growing fragmentation of our society. Media outlets, particularly on the Internet, are increasingly catering to an ideologically homogeneous audience, and we are seeing not just diverging interpretations of what is happening, but glaring discrepancies in the facts themselves.
No story is exactly the same. Events can be interpreted a million ways and statistics can be manipulated to fit a purpose – but the basic facts should at least consistent. Discrepancies foster dialogue that inherently leads to a freer and more open society. But it seems that much current reporting is based on different facts altogether, not just minor discrepancies.
The war in Iraq provides a stark example of the widening gulf between coverage. In the months leading up to the U.S. invasion, Fox News showed extensive footage of aluminum tubing that left many viewers convinced that Saddam Hussein possessed a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world fifteen times over. After all, Vice President Dick Cheney said that these tubes were “irrefutable evidence” that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, those skeptical of war didn’t take their second-in-command at his word. War reporting became distinctly separate in the facts conveyed, forcing Americans to line up behind the reporters who reinforced their respective ideologies. Consequently, reporting produced stories to reflect a specific ideology, even more so than in the past.
The blame shouldn’t fall completely on the media. Journalists compete with an administration and a new body of politicians who increasingly rely on spin to serve their political purposes – the Bush Administration being the main culprit. By using rhetoric that often contradicts facts, the Bush Administration has made the pursuit of reliable information an uphill battle. Even if journalists make compelling, factual arguments, the president’s spin discounts them.
Whether or not it is entirely the media’s fault, these fragmented portrayals by the media have left Americans confused and polarized. In a 2004 Gallup poll, journalists ranked as the second least-trusted people in American society – right behind car salesmen. There’s something very disturbing about this. Journalists are supposed to be an extension of the people and an avenue for people to stay informed, a role made impossible without trust.
So long as Americans obtain their news from ideologically slanted media or blogs, the country will remain divided as its fragmented media. The American people need to feel that the journalists are protecting the common good and not just their jobs. One way to start is by pointing out contradictions between political rhetoric and hard facts. Hopefully, consistent reporting can foster a more unified democracy with a majority of informed – not confused – citizens.