Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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WaPo editor speaks to People’s Daily

Via award-winning Powerline, here’s an interview that WaPo managing editor Philip Bennett gave to Beijing’s People’s Daily. I won’t repeat Big Trunk’s quotations, but will call your attention to a telling juxtaposition. Here’s what Bennett says about WaPo coverage of the U.S. in Iraq:

Yong Tang: How do you think of the roles American mainstream media play in American foreign policy?

Bennett: We have a little bit different roles in newspapers compared with our counterparts in Europe and other countries. We don’t have any political point of view that we are trying to advance. We don’t represent any political parties. We are not tied to any political movement. On the news side of the paper we try not to give opinions. So I think the role the Washington Post should play is to hold the government accountable for decisions made by it.

This goes to foreign policy as well. For example, the Washington Post has a correspondent bureau in Baghdad. One of the jobs of our correspondents in Baghdad is to tell our readers what the Bush administration is trying to hide. Bush says democracy is advancing in Iraq, but our correspondents say the situation there is much more complex than that. Our job is to put that in the public domain and challenge the government and hold them accountable. We do that by having independent reporting about events, by telling our readers what the actual situation is, with as much independence, fairness and accuracy as we can.

Often that is in conflict with the government. That is why we are having a lot of pressure from the government, though not in the materials ways. We receive a lot of criticism from the government for presenting views of events which are in odds with what they are trying to present. This is very important in our system and it is one of the fundemental roles of the press.

We have seen that similar roles of the press are developing in China as media expose corruption. In any system corrupt officials are trying to cover bad things up. We may look at the press coverage of issues like SARS epidemic. At the very beginning there were efforts to cover things up. But then the news came out everywhere through the press and even the textmessaging. Then the government was forced to admit what happened. This role is quite similar with the role we are trying to play here in the United States.

Of course, we have a lot of limitations on our ability to do that. The government of the US is becoming much more secretive, much more hostile to the press in terms of giving us access to the information. So a lot of what we do here is to fight for access to the information that we think the public should have. That takes a lot of our energy and resources.

And more:

Yong Tang: But my sense is that the Washington Post is not as aggressive as it was. One example is also about the coverage of the Iraq war. Before the war started, the Post published a lot of stories saying that Iraq has Weapons of Mass Destructions(WMD). Of course this claim was found to be wrong. Late last year Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. even apologized that the Post should have published more stories from the opposite side.

Bennett: Again I think it is very important to go back to the division between the editorial side and news side of our newspaper. Our editorial page expressed opinions in favor of the war in Iraq. That has no influence on the news gathering part of the newspaper.

Where the news gathering part of the Post failed was to be sufficiently skeptical about the administration’s claims that there are weapons of mass destructions in Iraq. We never reported that there were weapons of mass destructions in Iraq. We just repeated what the government said and we did not dig hard enough to challenge those statements. That was what Downie apologized for.

As you said, we are not aggressive enough in challenging and testing the statements the government is making. For me, this episode is a good example of how difficult it is to independently verify the government’s claims when the government is lying to you. The newspaper is incapable of going to Iraq and find out for itself whether it has WMD or not. The closest that we may come is to report very closely on the UN’s effort to determine if the regime has WMD in Iraq. But in the run-up to the war in Iraq, the UN is very close to US administration’s view that there was a high probability that Iraq has WMD. We have reported that too.

This is an example of how difficult it is to get the truth on these types of subjects. If George W Bush came out tomorrow and say Iran has nuclear weapons, we would have to report that too. We have no independent means to verify the accuracy of the statement TODAY. As the time goes on, we are able to do some reporting to show how accurate that statement is. In gengeral we are in a difficult period to report on national security issues.

In other ways the Post is still very aggressive. You may read about a story of the insurgents in Iraq last week. It is very prominently placed on our newspaper and we did it very aggressively, trying to tell the inside of Iraq as much as we can. In some areas we have done better and in some other areas we have not done as well as we could. Everyone learns some lessons from the prewar coverage of Iraq. We learned that we are not as aggressive as we should be.

Here’s what Bennett says about the Post’s coverage of China:

Yong Tang: The Washington Post often describes China as a dictator communist regime without democracy and freedom. Why is the newspaper so fond of playing with such negative words?

Bennett: I disagree with that. First of all, Neither The Washington Post, nor the New York Times, nor any other big newspapers, refer to China today as a dictatorship regime. We don’t use these words on the paper any more. Now we say China is a communist country only because it is a fact. China is ruled by the Communist party.

On the contrary, we are trying to understand the complexity of China. We stayed last year in China writing many long stories about the civil society in China, about Internet, about workers, about disputes between the state and individuals over certain things. Those stories showed how complex China is.

There are many things happening now in China. Sometimes it is extraordinarily contradictory because it is a big country and it is a country which includes many many things happening at the same time. You have economic development which has put more people out of poverty over a short period of time than any other country in the world in human history. At the same time you have a single party state which dominates almost most aspects of civil society. I was in China last year to interview Primer Wen Jiabao and other Chinese officials. The top leaders of your country have spoken very often about these contradictions. How Chinese leaders will resolve them is something the whole world is waiting to see.

And more:

Yong Tang: But it seems to me that the Washington Post stories about China are still focused on such things like political dissidents?

Bennett: No, it is not true. If You look at all the stories published on the major newspapers about China last year, you would find the widest variety of stories of any time since US journalists were allowed back in China. We used never to have correspondents in China who can speak Mandarin very well. Now every major correspondent in China speak Mandarin. Our correspondents used to be in Beijing all the time. But now they travel much more. In the past the party congress is the center of journalism, but today it is no longer the center for our reporters. We are more interested in the environment, the students, the business, the corruption and all sorts of different issues. The coverage of China is becoming more and more complex.

When I became the Assistant Managing Editor for foreign news, which was the job I had before, the Post has one correspondent in China while we have three in Russia. Today we have one correspondent in Russia while we have three in China. So the importance of China is very much present. I think it is even more present to American media than to the American government, which is so dominated by Iraq and terrorism.

After all, the presence of Washington Post in China is still small. We have only three correspondents in China, a country with a population of 1.3 billion. We are trying to do our best.

Yong Tang: So you think the Post’s coverage of China is objective and balanced?

Bennett: In general, yes. Does the coverage see everything from the perspective of Chinese government? No. I think there are periods in which US government or political figures go through the moments of China bashing or very negative talking about China. But the media is more balanced than that. I don’t think we are running after those negative issues. We are trying to see the big picture, not the little points of disputes.

In other words, "complexity" requires a nuanced view of China but an almost wholly anti-government view of events in Iraq. The WaPo will cover "good news" about developments in China, but mostly "bad news" about developments in Iraq. If I had to defend Bennett here, I might say that he was trying to teach his interviewer about the adversarial role of journalists (something his question about WaPo coverage of China suggests he has a long way to go before learning). I might also argue on Bennett’s behalf that we can expect the government to broadcast the good news, so there’s less need for journalists to ferret that out and report it.

But given the generalized mistrust of government that journalists seem to cultivate and to communicate to their readers, they actually seem to work to obstruct the possibility of achieving a balanced view. We’re supposed to be highly skeptical of government claims (after all, they’re self-serving), but not so much of journalistic claims (after all, there is a rigorous editorial vetting that goes on). If it weren’t for
Arthur Chrenkoff we wouldn’t have a "fair and balanced" view of what’s going on in Iraq. By the way, is anyone sure that Chrenkoff isn’t being paid handsomely by the Bush Administration (a joke, by the way, in case you’re a humor-impaired reader)?

Discussions - 3 Comments

Love your stuff, but please condense. Your posts are often soooo long I lose interest in them before I even start. Thanks.

Holy crap, that was the longest post ever.

O.K. Short version: WaPo is more critical of the U.S government in Iraq than of the PRC. For evidence (and nuance), see the post above.

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