There's an old saw in the news business: Journalism is the first draft of history. Of course, there's an element of truth to this statement. Historians routinely make use of newspapers and magazines, photographs, broadcast transcripts and archival recordings to understand and interpret the past.
But all too often, news workers use this phrase to dodge responsibility for getting the historical record right. It's a convenient way to make claims to journalistic authority without much concern for historical accuracy, or public accountability for that matter.
These days, the news is chock full of references to the historic times in which we live. For instance, journalists, economists and politicians routinely refer to the current economic crisis as The Great Recession. Likewise, the United States Armed Forces are engaged in two major wars, with no end in sight in either Afghanistan or Iraq, which are compared to the quagmire of Vietnam.
"A closer look at mainstream press coverage in recent weeks reveals that reporters, editors and publishers are sleepwalking through history."
Back home, Congress is gearing up to vote on a historic piece of legislation that may dramatically change our health care system for the foreseeable future. Then there is the specter of global climate change, which threatens the very existence of life as we know it on this planet.
There's no two ways about it. These are historic times. But a closer look at mainstream press coverage in recent weeks reveals that reporters, editors and publishers are sleepwalking through history.
Consider news coverage of the healthcare reform debate. For years now, a diverse coalition of Americans -- health care professionals, community organizers, activists, and thousands of so-called ordinary people -- have mobilized support for a single-payer health care system: a system that can be succinctly described as "Medicare for all."
And yet, groups like the California Nurses Association, Mad as Hell Doctors, Mobilization for Health Care for All, and Physicians for a National Health Program barely get a mention in the daily paper or the nightly news.
Recently, some of these groups have upped the ante by organizing sit-ins at the corporate headquarters of the nation's leading insurance companies. Borrowing a tactic from the civil rights movement that helped propel the struggle for racial equality into the national consciousness, the sit-ins at CIGNA, Humana and other health insurance companies are designed to call attention to the sorry and shameful state of health care in this the richest, most powerful nation on earth.
Like the sit-ins of the 1950s and 1960s, these actions were also designed to generate press coverage for single-payer activists. And yet, despite growing popular demand for universal health care, these actions receive relatively little coverage in the mainstream press. Instead, Tea Baggers, Birthers and astro-turf groups who oppose any meaningful health care reform receive the lion share of media coverage.
"Tea Baggers, Birthers and astro-turf groups who oppose any meaningful health care reform receive the lion share of media coverage."
This isn't just a shoddy journalism -- it's what writer Anne Lamott might call a "shitty first draft" of history. What's more, the historical inaccuracies disseminated by the mainstream media are not isolated to the current health-care debate.
This past week, thousands of workers, union leaders and community organizers gathered in Chicago to demonstrate outside of the American Bankers Association's annual meeting. The organizers billed the action as "the Showdown in Chicago" -- a reference to the "Showdown in Seattle" that successfully scuttled the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting in November 1999.
The protests attracted thousands of people from all across the country who vented their frustration with the banking industry and the pivotal role it played in the current housing crisis and subsequent economic meltdown. Nevertheless, mainstream press coverage of the protests was scant.
A search of Lexis-Nexis database reveals that the New York Times, the Boston Globe and NBC News were among the few domestic news outlets that devoted any attention to the protests. Significantly, these stories -- slim as they were -- typically framed the three-day protest as a business story.
For all its pretense to writing the first draft of history, the mainstream press is missing the social and political significance of taxpayer frustration with the economic and political elites who have run the U.S. economy into the ground.
We can detect the same myopic view of history at work in mainstream press coverage of the war in Afghanistan. While Pentagon brass and administration officials wrangle over the number of troops that will be added to the Afghan theater of operations, reporters and editors ignore or dismiss the voices of veterans, peace activists and citizens of both the United States and Afghanistan who oppose the eight-year war.
Even last week's high-profile resignation of Mathew Hoh, a Foreign Service officer and former Marine Corps captain who quit his post over the use of military force in Afghanistan, failed to motivate the U.S. press corps to appreciate the lessons of history.
"This isn't just a shoddy journalism -- it's what writer Anne Lamott might call a 'shitty first draft' of history."
Hoh believes that the U.S. occupation is fueling the insurgency and that we risk embroiling our forces in an increasingly vicious and costly civil war if we escalate the fighting and add more troops to the occupation.
In response to Hoh's resignation, Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who in 1971 leaked to the New York Times the Pentagon Papers -- top-secret documents that revealed years of U.S. government deception about the Vietnam War -- observed the ominous parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan.
In a statement published by the Institute for Public Accuracy, Ellsberg said: "I see the situation as Vietnamistan: If you put more troops in this year, the Taliban will be stronger next year. We recruit as we kill and support a corrupt, dope-dealing government. There's no way of making this government look like it really cares about the Afghan people. No foreign troops have ever carried out a successful counter-insurgency campaign in terms of actually winning over the population."
Predictably, Ellsberg's analysis has not gained much traction in the mainstream media. Instead, reaction to Hoh's resignation, and what it might say about the prospects of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, was limited to military personnel and administration officials who have made it clear that a troop surge is imminent.
It's one thing for the Pentagon and the administration to ignore the lessons of history, quite another for the press to uncritically accept the specious rationale for escalating the Afghan war.
This willful ignorance of history does a profound disservice to the American people and further undermines the already shaky credibility of the mainstream news media.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of the recently released Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.