Pot and kettle boogie
Self criticism is an essential part of open and vigorous debate, one we're a bit short of in Norway, (as everywhere else), and so I'm delighted to see this opinion piece in Aftenposten by Arnhild Skre, on media bias and sloppiness in post-September 11 coverage.
Media critics on both sides of the Atlantic now claim that the wish for market shares and more liberal regulations make media corporations ease up on their demands for accuracy, independence and other ideals of good news journalism.
Not sure I agree with what she identifies as the cause, but yes, Aftenposten is owned by a major Norwegian media corporation, and its coverage of areas I have some knowledge of is marred by inaccuracy, herd-thinking and an unhealthy distance to what I consider to be good and interesting news journalism. Right on, Arnhild!
Regardless of how we describe the past, most observers today agree that ideals about criticism of power, of uncovering stories and of independence, have been under severe pressure following September 11.
Yes, Aftenposten showed an amazing subservience to the official Norwegian position on the war in Iraq - UN unity before all. It was slow to uncover stories that supported the case for war, in fact slow to uncover any valuable insights into the minds of the warmongers, and most of the time seemed little more than another member of the Norwegian press herd, offering little outside the standard apocalyptic predictions, the standard statements from curiously untrustworthy "Middle East experts", the standard post-Vietnam worldview, the obligatory America-bashing.
This has especially been a problem with American TV stations, where new investigations reveal that 76% of those who have been interviewed are or have been spokesmen for the government. Less than one percent are critical of the government's policy.
Hang on a second - she's not criticizing Aftenposten at all, she's criticizing the American and British media! Who'd have guessed! But there's something funny about those numbers - I've seen them before. Right, here it is. It was a link Bruce Bawer sent me the other day, claiming he'd never heard about Mark Feldstein, who Dagbladet calls "one of America's most renowned TV journalists", which shows you how much he knows. Why, Mark Feldstein is a professor of journalism at the George Washington university, he's been on TV and received several awards of some kind. Impressed yet? No? Here's what he said in a lecture in Oslo this week:
- George W. Bush doesn't have to censor the media. They dance by his tune - voluntarily. There's a level of self censorship at the moment which is killing the free exchange of opinions, says Feldstein. [..] He believes the climate for speech in the US is worse now than it was when senator Joseph McCarthy was hunting communists in the 50's. - The difference is that the patriotic message can now be broadcasted 24 hours a day, on all the major TV channels. One example: 76% of the experts who made statements about the Iraq war, had previously worked with the government. One percent came from the anti-war movement.
Assuming that the statistic is correct, it has undergone an interesting mutation on the way from Feldstein/Dagbladet to Aftenposten. Feldstein's 76% refers to experts who were interviewed about the Iraq war, which is certainly plausible, with a wide definition of "has worked for the government", but Aftenposten implies that 76% of everyone who has been interviewed on TV, (presumable about the war on terrorism), after September 11, works or has worked for the government, which is certainly plausible if you live in a hole in the ground and a copy of the Guardian is dropped on your head every morning. Feldstein says that only 1 percent of the interviewees were members of the anti-war movement, which is low (too low if true) but plausible, as the anti-war movement as we think of it never really took off in the US. But as Arnhild Skre tells it, only one percent of interviewess were critical of the policies of the Bush administration, which somehow is the same as being a member of the anti-war movement. As Arnhild Skre will likely read this post, (I always let people know that I've written about them, even when I'm being mean and sarcastic), and likely dismiss me as a pawn on Karl Rove's media chessboard, I'll pose a question for my American readers: Is it your opinion that less than 1% of those who are interviewed about the war on terrorism on American TV are critical of the Bush administration, or that it has ever been so after September 11?
Back to Skre's article:
[Media professor Mark Feldstein] finds the explanation for the strong patriotism of the media and its servility to the government in a public opinion that in a time of national crisis is faithful to the government, but also in the concentration of ownership in the media market, and in the structure of the multimedia corporations.
I'll be the last blogger in the 'sphere to defend the quality of the American and British news media. Not because I think it's all bad, but beacuse I'm not qualified. I know enough about the trench war nature of American media and politics not to fall for shrill claims like "conservatives are fascists and control the media", or "liberals are communists and control the media", but ask me to analyze the overall quality of American news reporting, what its strengths and weaknesses are, where it comes from and where it's going, and I'm out of my league. (So, I suspect, is Arnhild Skre.)
My concern is with the quality of the Norwegian media, and this ought to be Aftenposten's concern too, because it has a larger discrepancy between its responsibility as our largest non-tabloid and its actual quality, between its self-perceived importance and its actual relevance, than any other media in Norway, with the possible exception of state broadcaster NRK. Skre is worried about the Murdoch's media power, and for all I know she's right that his media have disproportionally focused blame on the BBC. But why the gloating? Here's a selection of articles written by Aftenposten's London correspondent Carsten Bleness about the Kelly investigation: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. You won't find a single article in this list - barely a sentence - that is critical of the BBC's conduct in the Kelly case. Accusations that the BBC, not Blair, sexed up its case, that it, not Blair, abused its powers, have simply not been reported in Norway's most important newspaper! Even the news that Andrew Gilligan will likely be sacked from the BBC has not been mentioned. Are the accusations true? I don't know, but they are credible, and Aftenposten is simply not doing its job when its man on the job refuses to even indicate to his readers that the BBC may have done anything more (or less) than textbook investigative reporting. (Articles from the NTB wire service and this opinion piece by Per Egil Hegge balance the account slightly, which isn't saying much good about Aftenposten's news staff.)
Perhaps Aftenposten holds the BBC too much in awe to consider the possibility that it may have made mistakes. But now who's running errands for major international powers, (which the BBC certainly is)?
One can of course discuss to what extent the critics are correct. But it is striking how it is the "state channel" BBC which today does the most government critical TV journalism in Great Britian, while the private media giants closely support the state power.
Striking, but meaningless. Norway, too, has public and private media. We too have a powerful, bloated state broadcaster. But few relevant differences in the basic coverage of the Iraq conflict could be discerned between our private and public media. The much toated Norwegian media diversity meant only that different media had different reasons for believing that an Iraq war would be day 1 of Armageddon. Some were radical leftists, others neopacifists, and yet others, including Aftenposten, agreed with our official policy which prioritized the unity of the UN over Middle East security, good relations with dictators over the freedom of the Iraqi people What does this mean? Only that ownership and quality does not correlate, at least not in Western democracies. There are other, more important reasons for good and bad reporting than who pays the bills. Journalistic and political culture is equally important, and sometimes bad quality is simply bad quality, nothing more or less.
The sad, boring truth about Aftenposten is that it isn't bad because it's owned by the wrong people, nor because our government told it to be, but because many of the people who work there are bad at what they do. Sad, eh? No conspiracies, no fancy theories: Just shoddy work by shoddy journalists.
alex | 2003-08-30 18:55 | Link
You are absolutely right, Bjørn. Having witnessed both American and Norwegian media coverage of the war in Iraq, there is no doubt: Norwegian media is far more biased and one-sided than its American counterpart. People opposed to the war represents a substantial percentage in most US media outlets.
Aftenposten's journalists in particular are incredibly bad in their reporting of US policies. People like Morthen Fyhn, Nils Morten Udgaard and others have a CONSTANT negative view of the Bush administration in what is supposed to be objective news reporting. Not only is it incredibly biased, it is also riddled with inaccuracies. It is really sad that a what used to be a decent newspaper have degenerated to a rag hardly worth the paper it is written on.
Gill Doyle, Northern California | 2003-08-30 19:14 | Link
Bjørn, you wanted to know whether American readers think that Aftenposten's commentator is right when she reports that fewer than 1% of those interviewed on American TV news after 911 are hostile to the current administration's policy. My feeling is that she is quite mistaken. I get most of my TV news from PBS and the BBC. I occasionally look at ABC or NBC. CBS doesn't fit my schedule, and I don't pay for cable service and so cannot look at CNN. As one example of the sort of pieces that we see done on PBS, I'll mention an interview done recently with four newspaper editors. This is a regular feature of the PBS news show called the Lehrer Report, and the editors interviewed always represent different parts of the country and readerships with different interests. The editors interviewed this time represented a paper in Madison, Wisconsin; a paper in San Francisco; a newspaper in San Diego; and a fourth paper from somewhere back East. The editor in Madison, Wisconsin was very much against the war and advocated pulling out now. The editor in San Francisco also opposed American policy in Iraq. The other two editors supported the administration's attempt to transform Iraq. I don't keep tabs on the number of folks pro and con that I see each day interviewed on television, but I think that that 1% figure is quite wrong.
Aftenposten's article also tells us that 76% of the people interviewed on American news shows are employed by or have been employed by "regjeringen". I'm not sure how Aftenposten intends us to understand this term "regjeringen". While it may be true that 76% of the people interviewed on American TV news have worked for the government, it can't be true that those 76% have all worked for the current administration. And a person who worked for Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton -- while he indeed worked for the government -- may not support the current administration's policies.
Finally, I want to point out that Aftenposten is itself hardly immune to the pressures exerted on a paper by its advertisers. Just look at Aftenposten's English-language paper and compare the stories run there to the stories that run in its Norwegian paper. Aftenposten's English paper is primarily a vehicle for Norway's tourism industry. As such, it takes care not to offend its English-speaking readers. The anti-American tenor of its Norwegian-language edition is nowhere evident in the English-language edition, where we are treated instead to articles about Keiko the Whale and a wonderful new subway line in Oslo.
James Haney | 2003-08-30 23:20 | Link
"76% of the experts who made statements about the Iraq war, had previously worked with the government"
This number obviously includes people who worked for the State Department, the Pentagon, etc. during the Clinton and Carter administrations. The idea that they are going to be shills for George W. Bush is absurd.
Skre should be ashamed of herself for taking a ridiculously Chomskyite statistic and distorting it in an even more Chomskyite direction.
Jennifer, Florida | 2003-08-31 02:07 | Link
Mark Feldstein is wrong and his McCarthy rhetoric is laughable. ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN are all anti-Bush/anti-war. I have to balance their views by watching FOX News (Murdoch's network). Be wary of American college professors...the vast majority are left-leaning, politically correct Chomskyites.
Suzanne, California | 2003-08-31 08:22 | Link
Wow! Fewer than 1% of US media is critical to Bush and the war in Iraq? Does this Norwiegian "expert" only watch FOX news? Does this person understand how extremely difficult it is to find any GOOD new coming out of Iraq? You can find it, of course, if you know where to look. For example, does US media report that property values in Baghdad have trippled since the end of the war because business are moving into Baghdad and space is at a premium? If business is moving INTO Baghdad, this must indicate something positive. (Souce MEMRI.org)
US media always manages to find the disgruntled "man on the street". Never mind the people who are thrilled that the US is there. Does anyone hear the statistics of power/water reconnections pre and post war? Of course not.
Johan | 2003-08-31 10:23 | Link
Yes, Aftenposten is pure garbage when it comes to reporting on matters involving the United States.
For those of you that can read Norweagian, take a look at Aftenposten's US correspondent Kristin Nilsen's piece in todays issue.
It makes me want to puke. It praises Democrat John Kerry beyond belief, basically an editorial orgasm over the Democratic candidate (even though it is supposed to be a news article), with a thinly veiled hope that the candidate will be able to unseat George W. Bush in 2004. Of course, absolutely no mention of Kerry's numerous negative sides.
This is not unique to Aftenposten, earlier this year, it heaped endless praise on Robert Byrd (the former KKK-member and current Democratic Senator) for his "extremely brave" stand against Bush's policy in Iraq...!
I just read Aftenposten for comic relief these days, that is all that is usuable for...
Taco, Norway | 2003-08-31 21:02 | Link
Johan: I don't agree with you on the article you mentioned. I read it as quite a fair (and balanced) portrait of a presidential candidate. It was not about his politics, but about the man himself. I don't like him as a person, but that is more a gut feeling. I don't like his chameleon-style politics, but the article wasn't about his politics.
Taco, Norway | 2003-08-31 21:07 | Link
I ment Kerry, of course.
Markku Nordstrom, New York/Helsinki | 2003-09-01 03:24 | Link
Gill: "Aftenposten's English paper is primarily a vehicle for Norway's tourism industry. As such, it takes care not to offend its English-speaking readers. The anti-American tenor of its Norwegian-language edition is nowhere evident in the English-language edition..."
The same is true for Finland's number one newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat (Helsinki News). Anti-Americanism runs rampant in its Finnish-language edition, but the English language web-version is all cleaned up.
The change in tone is really not only for tourists, but for businessmen as well. The message is, of course, "we might be critical of you, but Finland is still a safe place for Americans to invest in". Finland, more so than Norway probably, has benefitted enormously from the influx of American capital, and the access of Finnish paper products and technology (Nokia, mainly) to American markets.
The two-faced reportage disgusts me without end. It is so... cowardly.
Markku Nordstrom, New York/Helsinki | 2003-09-01 03:59 | Link
I was just channel surfing this Sunday evening's news reports, and I was amazed at how close the continuing reporting on the Shiite mosque bombing on CBS, NBC and ABC resembled that of the BBC - though, of course, the BBC is always more vitriolically anti-American (except when they cover Hollywood!)
I agree with Gill on the McNeill/Lehrer News Hour on PBS. That is my favorite American tv news show, even though it, too, is very anti-Bush. The intelligent delivery of the news on that show doesn't make me cringe as much as those of the commercial channels. And yes, Jennifer, I enjoy watching Fox because it is the lone antidote to the left-leaning blather of all the others.
Not one of the channels though - not a single one! - mentioned that the bombing follows the scenario thought up by the neo-con think tanks in Washington before the war: make Iraq the arena where various currents of the Arab world sort, struggle and, yes, sometimes clash in defining what it means to have a real democratic Arab state. It's not like this was a big secret: it was written up in all the major political journals, and also the various prominent newspapers.
No one also commented on the fascinating fault line that has emerged and become more defined in the Arab world: the Wahhabis cannot give up their ancient prejudices against Shiites, even when Americans occupy an Arab land. This gives more opportunities for political manoeuvering, rather than less. I hate to say it, but in many ways this was a gift on a silver platter... for the US.
Johan | 2003-09-01 06:24 | Link
Taco: I disagree, not only did the article paint a too-rosy-for-comfort picture of Kerry, it also included the usual Aftenposten inaccuracies, like the political leanings of the Heinz family and his Vietnam experience (which under closer scrutiny does not even come close to the distasteful bragging Kerry panders himself on each campaign stop)
The problem with Aftenposten might be better observed in an article printed last week on John Ashcroft, coinciding with the US Attorney General's visit to Norway. An extremely bad piece of journalism, it even alleges Ashcroft is a racist and womanizer, neither of which has any foundation in the truth.
One thing is that Aftenposten will never say anything positive about any Republican. We all know that Aftenposten is no longer a conservative paper. But when it goes so far as to print obvious falsehoods and inneuendo to support its appearant hate of the Bush administration, the paper has lost all credibility in my eyes.
Bjørn Stærk | 2003-09-01 09:35 | Link
Gill & Markku: I haven't read that Finnish newspaper, but I don't agree that Aftenposten's English edition is less anti-American because of advertiser influence, or at least not necessarily - that would be a break of journalistic integrity I would not expect Aftenposten to tolerate.
A large part of the reason is probably that at least two of the edition's three journalists have American backgrounds. That's no guarantee of anything, of course, but anti-Americanism is deeply ingrained in the Norwegian press culture, and much less so in the US. I don't _know_ that this is the reason, but I find it a lot more plausible than that Aftenposten would allow advertisers to influence its editorial decisions.
Another reason might simply be that the English edition sticks to local issues. It's written for foreigners who are interested in Norway - I see no reason at all why it should focus on foreign issues that don't directly relate to Norway, which is where Aftenposten's anti-Americanism shines through most clearly.
Milan/Redondo Beach CA | 2003-09-01 15:00 | Link
Reading the comments about Aftenposten sounds like my thinking about our own local rag, the L.A. Times. I can't believe what a crap-ass paper it has become. Critical insights and information are totally lacking when it comes to their leftist brethern. An example is this recall thing. It's not like a thirty eight billion dollar deficit happened overnight, dudes.
Gill Doyle, Northern California | 2003-09-01 18:35 | Link
Bjørn, I'll disagree with you, I guess over the extent to which individual employees are permitted to modify an organization's guiding principles. While Tisdall, Berglund, and McNamara should, as American ex-pats, have a different perspective on things American, they remain employees of a business whose first obligation is to satisfy its paying customers -- its advertisers. I've shot an email to Nina and company and asked them to take a look at our little debate here and comment if they wish. Of course, if I am right about Aftenposten's policy regarding its English page, I can't expect Nina, Liz, or Johathan to admit that here. Still, it would be interesting to hear what they have to say about this. I hope they choose to drop by and talk to us.
For the first time (I think) since Ashcroft arrived in Norway, Aftenposten's English page ran a story on the event. The story appears on today's English page and is essentially a faithful interpretation of an article by Halvor Tjoenn that appears on today's Norwegian page. I had hoped to show how the Norwegian article had been defanged for an English-language audience, but I must admit that both versions of the article strike me as being quite fair.
On the other hand, a really nasty piece about Ashcroft that appeared this last week on Aftenposten's Norwegian page (referred to earlier here by Johan) was not translated for Aftenposten's English-speaking audience. That fits my theory.
Bjørn Stærk | 2003-09-01 18:55 | Link
Gill: Not necessarily - it also fits my theory that Aftenposten's English edition simply avoids purely foreign issues. Ashcroft's visit to Norway is interesting because it involves _Norway_ - his policies at home do not. It's really a question of why anyone would want to read Aftenposten in English. Most visitors propably already have their preferred news sources about international affairs - and there's no way for Aftenposten to compete with for instance CNN with only three employees. What visitors are looking for, I believe, is information about Norway. So why dedicate resources to foreign news?
Gill Doyle, Northern California | 2003-09-01 19:51 | Link
Bjørn, you have a good point there when you say that "most visitors propably already have their preferred news sources about international affairs - and there's no way for Aftenposten to compete with for instance CNN." Yes, you're right about that.
Still, Nina and staff chose NOT to translate that character assassination of Ashcroft that appeared earlier this week on Aftenposten's Norwegian page. The article they DID choose to translate is uncharacteristically (for Aftenposten) fair and unbiased.
While you are right, I think, to say that Aftenposten's English-language edition does not do international news, I do think it has opportunities to address issues of national concern that touch upon American policy. For instance, what does Norway's chapter of Amnesty International have to say about the prisoners at Guantanamo? What do Norwegians think about its government sending soldiers to Iraq? What do Norwegian NGO's have to say about the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad? I feel that Aftenposten's English page does not often tell us what Norwegians think about America. Norwegian opinion about American is what doesn't appear on Aftenposten's English page. Yet, Norwegians will tell you that what happens in America -- whether it's the Patriot Act or a Presidential election there -- very much concerns them.
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