September 26, 2006 | Scripps Howard News Service

With Fear and Favor

An essential American institution is in crisis but the story is not being covered by the mainstream media. That's because the institution in crisis is the mainstream media which appears incapable of self-examination, much less self-criticism.

When I trained as a journalist some 30 years ago, there were high walls separating news (what happened), analysis (how experts interpret what happened) and opinion (what someone thinks should be done in response to what happened). Those walls no longer stand.

Today, major media outlets routinely use news and analysis to score ideological and partisan points. The most recent example is the front page New York Times story on a National Intelligence Estimate that no one at the Times had read. The reporters and editors were satisfied they knew what was in it based on what they were told by “several officials in Washington involved in preparing the assessment or who have read the final document.”

That document had been completed in April but the officials leaked what they claimed was its key revelation — that the war in Iraq has worsened the terrorist threat — six weeks before the midterm elections. The possibility that this was the motive for the leak was not shared with Times readers.

The Times said its sources “all spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a classified intelligence document.” A more honest explanation would have been: “All spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were committing a crime as well violating their professional oath by disclosing classified information.”

To the Times' editors, such transgressions are sometimes admirable, sometimes despicable. The accusation that classified information had been revealed to reporters by members of the Bush administration led the paper to call for what became Patrick Fitzgerald's multi-year, multi-million dollar investigation.

Two days after the Times' story appeared, the White House declassified the entire National Intelligence Estimate, demonstrating that the Times' description of the document was, to be generous, incomplete.

It is bad enough that journalists in the U.S. allow themselves to be manipulated while abetting the commission of crimes. There also is this: Terrorist groups abroad are utilizing collaborators to twist the news while intimidating independent journalists.

For example during the recent conflict in Lebanon, Reuters distributed doctored and staged photographs. Other news organizations reported exaggerated casualty figures — and took Hezbollah's words that virtually all Lebanese casualties were civilian. Did you ever see a photo of a dead Hezbollah fighter? Or of a live Hezbollah fighter for that matter?

Few reporters dared pursue the story of how Hezbollah concealed weapons among civilians. As a result, few news consumers knew what UK Foreign Office Minister Kim Howell told a parliamentary committee after his return from Lebanon: that Hezbollah had extensively hidden caches of arms in schools and mosques, and rockets in apartment blocks.

“What I saw out there begs many questions about the way we try to define what constitutes a war crime,” Howell said. “Every time the Israelis responded [to a missile attack] and smashed a building down, every picture of a burnt child and every picture of a building that had housed people [where] there was now pancake on the ground was propaganda for Hezbollah.”

Perhaps the most chilling recent example of how terrorists manage the media was the kidnapping in Gaza of Fox News journalists Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig. Both men were abused, threatened and forced — at the point of a gun — to convert to Islam.

The message sent to reporters in the Middle East was clear: One day you may find yourself wearing handcuffs and a hood while men with guns and butcher knives read your dispatches. What do you want them to find?

To what must have been the kidnappers' delight, Centanni and Wiig, after their release, seemed to accept the notion that journalists in such places as Gaza are obligated to act as public relations representatives for their hosts. The media, Centanni said, should not be discouraged from “telling the story of the Palestinian people. …Come and tell the story. It's a wonderful story.”

Can you imagine a reporter in Israel saying it was his job to tell the “wonderful story” of the Israeli people? And were a reporter covering the White House to say it was his job to tell the “wonderful story” of George W. Bush, he would be fired on the spot – deservedly so.

No one can blame journalists for trying to stay safe while doing risky jobs in dangerous neighborhoods. But is it really too much to expect some examination by the media of the altered reality in which they now operate? A little self-criticism when reporters egregiously fail to report a story without fear or favor might be useful, too.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.