It is a mixture of different motives that propel newspapers to do what they do. Newspapers want to make money, they want to be well regarded. That’s fine, because they are a business that produces a retail product.
At the same time, newsrooms want to inform citizens about what their government is doing, to make the world a better place. In other words, newspapers give a little bit of what people want to read, and a little bit of what people should read.
Take the Journal Sentinel. They give us a lot on American Idol, which I guess is a TV show or something. Brett Favre and Hannah Montana, of course.
But the paper, to their newsroom's credit, has also given readers stuff that was less tasty, but instead good for them: a damning look inside the government's failure to care for mentally ill people comes to mind, or wire service coverage about the renewed genocide waged by Sudan.
So there is fluff in the Milwaukee daily that folks want to read, and stuff they ought to read. And, since there are a few dozen pages to each paper, it’s OK to do a little of both.
However, here’s a different question. What if the paper gives us what it thinks people want to read even though it conflicts with what people ought to read? To wit, the 1A story by Meg Jones today that tells us Saddam Hussein caused the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.
The headline on the story reads: "Memory of 9-11 shaped young state Marines". It is a part of a series of stories that Jones is filing from Iraq about local soldiers. These men and women are making admirable sacrifices, and lots of readers appreciate coverage of them. I suspect that Journal Sentinel managers also believe these stories will reflect well on the paper itself.
Most of the time these stories by Jones assiduously avoid touching on the reasons for the war, the government's conduct of the war, or the place where the war is being fought. I think the decision going in to this project was to produce stories that are "postive" and that readers will enjoy. Leave the icky stuff for the wire copy we run on 3A.
In today's story, information about the reasons for the war nevertheless leak in around the focus on the soldiers. But these reasons are incorrect. In fact, they are a damnable lie. The article recounts the Sept. 11 memories of Lance Cpl. Devin Fedel of Waukesha, who was drawing in an art class in eighth grade in 2001 when news of the attacks were announced:
"It kind of steered me into joining the Marines. It made me mad, and I wanted to do something about it," Fedel said.
Jones' story did not balance this geopolitical analysis by an eighth-grader with any of the abundantly available sources for the fact that Saddam Hussein did not cause the 9-11 attacks. Instead, the effect of her story resuscitates an early, now discarded, rationale that the Bush administration peddled as it built a case for attacking Iraq about five or six years ago.
That's my main point: The paper's aim to bring back stories of local soldiers is fine, and the soldiers are at least as entitled to their take on the war as I am. But the war is too important to not balance a quotation that feeds into a damnable lie perpetrated by the government that papers are supposed to be bird-dogging.
Many people did or still do believe that Hussein was directly involved in killing about 3,000 Americans in 2001. This myth-making is well documented in books by journalists from John Nichols to Frank Rich. It happened through statements by Vice President Dick Cheney in late 2001 that it was "pretty well confirmed" that one of the men who plowed a plane into the World Trade Center was linked to Hussein. The impression was built subtly but unmistakenly in to the way President Bush's aides wrote his 2003 State of the Union address.
Surely Meg Jones must know that Bush has since admitted that Saddam had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. Some Journal Sentinel editors must also be aware that a Pentagon report this week substantiates the lack of any such connection.
Here is what is most stunning about this story by Meg Jones and the paper that published it. On the very day this story ran, the Journal Sentinel did not run the news that the White House is working to keep that report secret.
It is as if the paper had to choose --when the issue in play was a war for god's sake -- whether to run news that folks would like to believe or run news that they should know.
UPDATE: Oopsy, my bad, Patrick McIlheran informs us that Saddam did have some support for groups that in certain respects resemble those who did do 9-11.