Josh Chafetz of Oxblog has a cover story (!) in the current Weekly Standard, “The Disgrace of the BBC.” First of all, Maziltov! to Josh on the story publication – I think the cover of the Standard is quite a cap-feather.
What’s striking to me about Josh’s story is how much envy I feel of Brits. They, after all, did have critical coverage of the lead-up to war on major networks. That wasn’t all they had – it’s my impression that the interested Brit could find plenty of pro-war views in both major dailies and on the major networks – but that had it at all is, to me, something stunning. In the United States, there was no critical coverage of the “march to war” until well after the war had begun.
This is a much more important “free speech” issue than the censorship of Demon Beast Invasion, by the way. The marketplace of major news outlets – which sells their product to advertisers, please recall, and not to the general population – decided, for whatever reason, to be overwhelmingly in support of George Bush in preparing the American people for war with Iraq. From September 2002 to March 2003, a large minority of Americans – between 33% and 43% – opposed invading Iraq. (The numbers opposed to an invasion were larger in other polls, depending on how the question was asked; for example, a CBS poll in February 2002 found that 61% of Americans prefered to “wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time.”)
Admittedly, 33-43% is a minority – but it’s a very large minority, and one whose size was never reflected in the coverage given their views in the lead-up to war on TV or in major newspapers. For example, FAIR did a study of major American network coverage in January and February, and found that “17 percent of the total on-camera sources, represented skeptical or critical positions on the U.S.’s war policy– ranging from Baghdad officials to people who had concerns about the timing of the Bush administration’s war plans.” That’s not just folks who were anti-war; there were only 17% of sources who were skeptical at all. Other numbers are even more depressing; of the 267 Americans interviewed by the major networks in reports on Iraq, only 17 (about 6%) expressed any skepticism about invading Iraq.
So somewhere between 33% and 43% of Americans opposed invading Iraq; but if you were watching network news, only 6% of the Americans you saw were even skeptical about the prospect.
Isn’t that a problem? To my mind, this kind of censorship – the kind of marketplace preference that makes certain views simply disappear into insignificance – is the biggest problem in the media today.
Meanwhile, conservatives in the US are infuriated that even one British network had the nerve to express any skepticism.
If it’s true – and I’m not at all convinced it is – that the BBC had an anti-war bias in its reporting, then my feeling is, great. At least British TV viewers had that one alternative; they could flip their channels and see more than one view on the war presented. In the US, viewers didn’t have that option. (Unless they had cable TV, that is. With cable, we could choose between the war boosters on the networks, and the war cheerleaders on FOX).
Josh’s case against the BBC isn’t that impressive – basically, in months of 24-hour reporting, the Beeb made a handful of generally slight errors. Not exactly a stunning indictment. As Kevin at CalPundit argues:
Kevin goes on to point out that on the most substantial issues, the BBC seems more correct than wrong:
Gilligan may have overplayed his hand, and the BBC certainly went over the line in defending him, but ‘ so far ‘ the actual charges Gilligan made seem to be holding up pretty well.
Meanwhile, some significant counter-evidence – such as an academic study which found that the BBC was actually one of the most pro-war of British networks – is simply ignored in Josh’s article.
Sadly, Josh hasn’t yet replied to CalPundit, although he did reply to the (in my opinion less substantial) criticisms made on Matt Yglesias’ blog (by both Matt and Matt’s readers). Mainly, Josh seemed put off – understandably – that one person accused him of being a “sell-out,” and many questioned the motives of a Rupert Murdoch-owned magazine criticizing Murdoch’s competition.
Josh also seem annoyed at how many people brought up the case of FoxNews for comparison. But Josh has only himself, or perhaps the Weekly Standards‘ editors, to blame for that. The sub-headline of his story (” Unfair, unbalanced, and afraid”) implies a comparison between Fox and the BBC; it seems a little unfair of Josh to object to critics making the same comparison.
There is something of an ad hominom in certain of the criticisms (such as the “sell out” comment), and Josh is right to treat those comments with disdain. But I think he’s missed a larger point – and one that, admittedly, in no way refutes Josh’s case against the BBC. Nevertheless: The Weekly Standard didn’t publish Josh’s article because it was well-researched, or well-written (although it was); nor did the Standard print it because they are in any way opposed to media bias. They published Josh’s piece for one reason only: Because it attacked the BBC.
To see what I mean, imagine that Josh (who, to his credit, dislikes Fox News) wrote an equally good article outlining Fox’s considerable bias. Is there any chance that the Standard would run it as a cover feature? Heck, would they print it at all? No, of course not. Doing that would be be criticizing both Murdoch and the right, and the Standard will not do that (unless they’re trying to avoid being dragged down with a drowning man, e.g. their criticism of Trent Lott). The Weekly Standard doesn’t care about media bias or dishonesty; they only care about these things insofar as they’re useful as partisan tools for bashing the left.
In that sense, I think the critics of this piece were on to something. Until the Standard finds dishonesty, bias and hypocrisy on Fox News worth criticizing, it does seem rather self-serving and smug of them to criticize the BBC’s far less egregious bias on their cover. Regardless of the fact that Josh’s own motives in writing the article were, I believe, high-minded.
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