The Common Good
June 2005

The Death of Fact-Checking

by Molly Marsh | June 2005

What the "journalism of assertion" costs us

The presidential commission investigating intelligence failures leading to the Iraq war wrote the following in its final report,

The presidential commission investigating intelligence failures leading to the Iraq war wrote the following in its final report, released in March: "[I]t is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom." Embedded in that whopping understatement is a jewel of good governance: the free exchange of ideas, including an openness to dissent. For as we experience too often, the "conventional wisdom" is usually what those in power say it is.

In the current political climate, stifling opposition gets you awards and top posts. Former CIA Director George Tenet received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, even though many CIA officers expressed grave doubts about the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein was developing deadly weapons. There was much to criticize about the nomination of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador - he spent much of his career trying to abolish the institution, for one thing - but Bolton’s admission during his confirmation hearings that he tried to reassign staffers who disagreed with him was cause enough for his rejection.

During his hearings for the new position of director of national intelligence, John Negroponte was asked if he would challenge the Bush administration’s assertions if they differed from information gathered by intelligence agencies. Negroponte said he would "make sure the right intelligence is presented to the president [and] vice president."

But State Department records from Negroponte’s stint as ambassador to Honduras indicate that delivering the "right" intelligence to administration and CIA officials in the early 1980s involved giving only information that did not conflict with U.S. policy interests in the region. Heeding the mounting evidence of human rights abuses committed by U.S.-supported Honduran forces and the Honduras-based contras - brought to Negroponte’s attention by Honduran and U.S. officials and civilians - would have detracted from the "conventional wisdom" the U.S. sought to enforce. Now, as coordinator of the government’s 15 intelligence agencies, Negroponte will be in charge of regularly briefing the president on issues related to intelligence and security.

CERTAINLY A FUNCTION of the press is to "encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom." But a recent survey of the news media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism suggests the institution may also be too enamored with its own wisdom. The traditional model of journalism - the journalism of verifying facts - has been replaced by a journalism of assertion, say the report’s authors, "where information is offered with little time and little attempt to independently verify its veracity."

The proliferation of blogs, the report goes on to say, expands the volume of assertions and carries a philosophy of "publish anything, especially points of view, and the reporting and verification will occur afterward in the response of fellow bloggers." Cable talk shows operate in much the same way, as do, it appears, government officials, except often the verification of facts doesn’t occur at all.

This news climate, the report concludes, makes it easier for those who want to manipulate public opinion. Indeed, say the same thing enough times, with conviction and without acknowledging contrary evidence, and acceptance often follows. How else to explain that 56 percent of Americans still think Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the war, even after inspectors and commissions have proven otherwise?

In this age of unchallenged assertions, monitoring the forces that covertly run our lives involves discernment, skepticism, and a willingness to act on our confusion and outrage. It involves reading the news differently and looking beyond moment-by-moment reporting to the larger narratives and patterns. It also involves challenging the conventional wisdom and its carriers, who - as they’ve done since Jesus’ time - suppress what, and who, they don’t want to hear.

Molly Marsh is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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