Last summer I attended a conference at which a rather distinguished panel of White House correspondents discussedattempted to defend is actually a more accurate descriptionthe coverage by the U.S. media of the Bush administration’s build-up, invasion and continued U.S. military occupation of Iraq. The panelists generally acknowledged that U.S. media coverage of the Iraq invasion had not served the American public well in its reporting of the facts and circumstances that led the Bush administration to determine that war and the horrors of war were justified as a last resort.
Panelists placed considerable blame at the feet of those responsible for White House communications policy, particularly Karl Rove. They also suggested that Democrats were partially liable because of their timidity in the face of public opinion after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They even insinuated that the American public was somewhat culpable because of its willingness to accept, largely without question, the claims that the Bush administration put forth to justify a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. In short, the panelists blamed just about everyone but themselves.
One panelist stated several times in rather colorful language that he found it especially irritating when critics argued that White House correspondents, and the U.S. media generally, had functioned largely as mouthpieces for the Bush administration. One could almost feel the temperature in the room rising toward the end of the discussion, when members of the audience were given an opportunity to object that the mouthpiece analogy was not appropriate.
Truth Versus Truthfulness
In replaying the panelists’ defensive responses over in my mind, I kept asking myself what I found most disturbing about media coverage of the Iraq invasion. I concluded it was the failure to provide a truthful and complete narrativein the context of the complex considerations involved in the decision to go to warin a way that was intelligible to the public and free of ideological jargon intended more to persuade than enlighten.
Apologists for the Bush administration, and for media coverage of that administration’s communication offensive before and subsequent to the Iraq invasion, frequently insist that no outright, formal lies were communicated. Some, however, will now acknowledge that the communication the public received had a distinctive spin and was colored by the credo of those orchestrating the communications campaign. When, for example, a particular piece of intelligence could be read from different perspectives, that fact was ignored by administration spokespersons and neglected by the media.
Efforts to spin information to achieve particular objectives did not, of course, begin with the Bush administration and the neoconservatives who dominate it. Critics of the public relations industry, for example, argue that the entire public relations process is directed toward distorting reality to the advantage of particular special interests. (Public relations practitioners, it must be noted, vigorously deny this charge. Even they, however, will acknowledge that too frequently public relations techniques have been used to misdirect rather than inform those to whom particular communications are directed.)
The philosopher Sissela Bok, in her landmark work Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, draws a distinction between communicating the truth and truthful communication. One enters into murky metaphysical territory whenever one proclaims that he or she is communicating the truth. Achieving truthful communication, on the other hand, simply requires that one communicate in a manner not intended to deceive or mislead. According to Bok, the fact that communicating metaphysical truth presents such daunting philosophical challenges is not a stumbling block in the much more limited inquiry into questions of truth-telling and falsehood.
One telling criticism that can be leveled against the mass media in its coverage of the Iraq conflict is that too often journalists appeared to be satisfied with communicating in a factually accurate manner statements formulated by the Bush administration. When Vice President Dick Cheney or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a particular assertion about evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that were a real danger to the United States, for example, that pronouncement was accurately reported. Too often, however, the truthfulness of those declarations was not placed in a broader context to help the public come to an informed understanding as to whether invading Iraq was genuinely in the public interest.
Neutrality and Context
Concern about a need to move media coverage beyond just reporting accurately pronouncements of government officials, of course, is not something that first arose with the Bush administration. The failure of the press in the early 1950’s to provide contextual reference for the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy has often been cited as an illustration of how accurate reporting of facts can distort the truth.
Reporters understood that McCarthy’s charges about widespread Communist influence within the halls of government were designed more to publicize the junior senator from Wisconsin than to project light on a real menace to democratic government. Reporters schooled in a professional culture that emphasized the importance of neutral, objective journalism, however, felt compelled to report accurately McCarthy’s oftentimes irresponsible allegations without placing them in a context that would allow the public to make an informed judgment about their truthfulness.
Journalists frequently respond to any suggestion that they move beyond objective/neutral reporting by contending that they are professionally responsible for presenting the public with accurate objective (factual) information, that they respect the public enough to allow each individual the opportunity to make up his or her own mind based on an accurate (factual) report of a particular event or pronouncement. Furthermore, they ask, once the journalist moves beyond objective reporting of particular events or pronouncements, on what basis is he or she to provide that interpretation which places the event or pronouncement in a truthful context?
Enter Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The late German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides intellectual and spiritual wisdom for anyone sincerely searching for an answer to this quandary. He also can provide something of a standard by which to measure whether the U.S. media did, in fact, provide the public with information necessary to judge the Bush administration’s determination to invade Iraq and its persistence in a continued military occupation of that country.
Bonhoeffer was a German minister, ordained in the Lutheran church. In his book Lives of Moral Leadership, Robert Coles notes how a young Jesuit taking one of Cole’s courses dreamed that the Catholic Church would one day make Dietrich Bonhoeffer its first ecumenical saint.’ Coles describes Bonhoeffer as a theologian who lived as if Jesus were a concrete, nearby presence, constantly insisting that deeds, not clever-spoken or written words, not practiced rituals, are the test of a particular faith’s significance in one’s life.
Bonhoeffer was executed only weeks before the liberation of the concentration camp at Flossenburg, where he was held. He was, as described by Coles, a person and theologian of great social, economic, and educational privilege, who refused to embrace Hitler and his henchmen, as the great majority of Germany’s ministers all too evidently did, many of them even wearing the swastika as they went about their so-called spiritual duties.
Bonhoeffer and the Truth
Of particular relevance to the U.S. media’s failure to provide a genuinely accurate and contextually complete account of the Bush administration’s campaign to justify its military invasion of Iraq is an unfinished essay Bonhoeffer was writing, entitled What Is Meant by Telling the Truth’? In that essay Bonhoeffer maintains that telling the truth is a matter of correct appreciation of real situations and of serious reflection upon them. He is emphatic that communicating in a truthful manner must go well beyond questions of factual accuracy. He insists, for example, that a lie cannot be defined in formal terms as a discrepancy between thought and speech. More specifically, there is a way of speaking which is in this respect entirely correct and unexceptionable, but which is, nevertheless, a lie. This occurs, Bonhoeffer asserts, when an apparently correct statement contains some deliberate ambiguity or deliberately omits the essential part of the truth.
For Bonhoeffer, an individual utterance is always part of a total reality which seeks expression in this utterance. It does not rest in the literal factual accuracy of a particular communication separate from that larger reality. A lie, Bonhoeffer writes, is the denial, the negation and the conscious and deliberate destruction of the reality which is created by God and which consists in God. The purpose of any serious communication, consequently, is to express the real as it exists in God.
Applicability to Iraq and the Media
Bonhoeffer acknowledged that his concept of living truth is dangerous. He also recognized that the more complex the actual situations of a man’s life, the more responsible and the more difficult will be his task of telling the truth.’
There is and will continue to be a danger in challenging the media to go beyond a simple transmission of official administration pronouncements, to place those pronouncements in a context that includes much more than an accurate recitation of the particular spin promulgated by official spokespersons. Once one moves beyond simplistic objectivity, there is always a danger that any interpretation provided will be driven more by ideological considerations than by a professional journalistic desire to achieve at least some level of objectivity.
While recognizing that danger, journalists do assume a particular responsibility in light of their claim to be professional communicators. By appropriating the professional title, journalists accept an obligation to learn how to communicate in a truthful manner. Communicating in a genuinely truthful manner, Bonhoeffer wrote, is something which must be learnt. It involves serious reflection upon that which is being communicated and a recognition of the very real complexity of the task that confronts any journalist who aspires to authentic professionalism.
There are, of course, journalists who recognize a serious obligation to move beyond functioning as the equivalent of an office stenographer for those in positions of power. The widely respected editor James Fallows, for example, points out in Breaking the News that even if the traditional press somehow vanished, and if all of us could, through the Internet or 500-channel TV, get exactly the information we wanted, we would still want some way to compare impressions, to put things in perspective, to ask other people, What do you make of this?’
Fallows maintains that the real purpose of journalism is to satisfy the general desire for information to have meaning. He acknowledges that people want to know details, but argues that they also want to see what the details add up to. For Fallows, journalism exists to answer questions like What is really going on?’ and Why is this happening?’
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the obligation to communicate in a truthful manner is not something theoretical. Neither can it be subjected to a process of mental gymnastics that allows one to plead that they have not told a formal lie, when they are in fact attempting to deceive or mislead those entitled to the truth. Bonhoeffer believed that if one is to say how a thing really is, i.e. if one is to speak truthfully, one’s gaze and one’s thought must be directed towards the way in which the real exists in God and through God and for God.
I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer would hold that the institutional press failed in its reporting of the Bush administration’s desire for a military solution to the Iraq problem because it failed to communicate to the American public the full context of that policy, its real and living truth. Any effort by the media to shift blame to Karl Rove, the Democrats, the American public and so on must be seen for what it is: an evasion of responsibility. What one would like to see instead from the U.S. media is an act of contrition that includes a firm resolve to do better in the future. Whether that will ever happen with the contemporary mass media, which is most concerned with corporate profits and its own public relations image, remains to be seen.