Lies and Consequences

Eason Jordan has resigned as CNN’s chief news executive following
rumors that he said at a conference in Davos that the U.S. military
had deliberately targeted journalists for death. Jordan denied making
this allegation, but two U.S. legislators who were present agree that
he did, and the Davos organizers have denied repeated requests to
release the session video.

But I am not writing to argue about what Eason did or didn’t do. I
want to address the way some people have reasoned about the worst-case
interpretation of his remarks. The blogosphere pressure for release
of the video from Davos has been described
this way: “…tire-necklaced by a bloodthirsty group of utopian,
bible-thumping knuckledraggers” to “benefit the torturing,
gulag-building blood-cult known Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld’s Republican
Party.” Even leaving aside the bloody-minded partisanship, this
seems, shall we say, a little over the top?

Nobody should want journalists ever to fear attacking the behavior
of the U.S. military when they have actual evidence that it is wrong.
Militaries are dangerous and terrible things, and a free press is a
vital means of keeping them in check. It is right and proper that
we make heroes of those who speak damning truths to power.

But it makes all the difference in the world when a journalist does
not have actual evidence of wrongdoing. Especially when
the journalist is a U.S. citizen and the claim gives aid and comfort
to the declared enemies of the U.S. in wartime. Under those
circumstances, such an attack is not heroic but traitorous.

I hope this is a teachable moment. Oliver Wendell Holmes observed
that shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech; if
the speaker has no evidence of actual fire, the consequences to that
speaker should be as dire as the risk of death by trampling he created
for others. The Holmes test should be applied in politics as well.

And yes, I agree that test should be applied to the Bush
administration — but, unlike the “Bush Lied, People Died”
crowd, I haven’t forgotten that the warnings about Iraqi WMD were not
only backed by British and French intelligence reports, but echoed
assessments made by the Clinton administration and endorsed to this
day by Clinton himself. Whatever errors Bush & Co. may have made
on this score, they believed they had evidence to back them.

Assuming Eason Jordan said what the witnesses say he did, his
behavior was far worse — because his own account of his remarks
makes clear that does not believe he has evidence for any claim of
deliberate targeting. It is good that he has been forced out over
this. It will be better if his disgrace frightens other journalists
into paying more attention to details like having some evidence up
front. The best outcome, though probably too much to hope for, would
be the end of reflexive oppositionalism in American media.

After Vietnam and Watergate, a lot of journalists (and other
people) lost the distinction between speaking truth to power and
simply attacking whoever is in charge (especially any Republican in
charge) on any grounds, no matter how factually baseless. Mere
oppositionalism was increasingly confused with heroism even as the
cultural climate made it ever less risky. Eventually we arrived at the
ludicrous spectacle of multimillionaire media personalities posing as
persecuted victims and wailing about the supposed crushing of dissent
on national news and talk shows.

But now, for the first time in decades, irresponsible
oppositionalism just cost a major media figure his career. Better yet,
the campaign that forced him out was a grass-roots effort by people
who take seriously their responsibility to hold the media to account
for its truthfulness. These are both grounds for celebration, and for
hope that the horribly dysfunctional culture of American newsrooms
will improve in the future.


  1. But now, for the first time in decades, irresponsible oppositionalism just cost a major media figure his career.

    Well, rathergate was at least costly to Dan Rather’s career, if it didn’t, strictly speaking, cost him his career in its entirety.

  2. This really isn’t anything new though. Journalism has always had a strong tendancy stretch, misuse, or outright fabricate stories. What is new, is the inconnectivity of news consumers. This is having a corrective effect on the MSM. I believe they are making stronger efforts to dot their i’s and cross their t’s.

  3. This “torture” thing is getting a bit wearing. As the lady said:

    “… torture means what the Nazis and the Japanese did in their concentration and POW camps in World War II; the world in which evil regimes, like those we fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, don’t follow the Miranda rules or the Convention Against Torture but instead gas children, bury people alive, set wild animals on soccer players who lose, and hang adulterous women by truckloads before stadiums full of spectators; the world in which barbarous death cults behead female aid workers, bomb crowded railway stations, and fly planes filled with hundreds of innocent passengers into buildings filled with thousands of innocent and unsuspecting civilians.”

    Yes, even in democracies, some soldiers will misbehave when discipline is lax, but they are usually pretty soon found and dealt with. The only people who benefit from this kind of nonsense in the press are the suicide bombers and head hackers. One has to wonder just what motivates it.

  4. “I haven’t forgotten that the warnings about Iraqi WMD were not only backed by British and French intelligence reports, but echoed assessments made by the Clinton administration and endorsed to this day by Clinton himself. Whatever errors Bush & Co. may have made on this score, they believed they had evidence to back them.”

    So does that mean that Eason Jordan should’ve simply made other journalists believe that there’s evidence of the US military targetting journalists for death? That’s nice. We don’t need evidence, only belief that there’s evidence.

  5. I couldn’t agree any more! I only hope that the MSM actually learns something from this along with everything else that has gone on in the media over the past couple of years. But if history is any judge they probably wont.

  6. By the way, Oliver Wendell Holmes also observed that “all generalizations are wrong, including this one”. :-)

  7. “I haven’t forgotten that the warnings about Iraqi WMD were not only backed by British and French intelligence reports…

    Um, no. They were backed by the infamous “dodgy dossier”, which was heavily re-written by Blair’s spin-doctor Alastair Campbell despite the complaints of the intelligence services. The “45-minute claim”, for instance, was based on extremely thin and unreliable evidence, and originally appeared surrounded by a mass of caveats and qualifications: these were removed by Campbell and his team in order to strengthen the case for war. You may be interested to read about the Hutton report (though possibly not the report itself, as it’s mostly regarded as a whitewash) and the David Kelly scandal.

  8. Umm, in fact Holmes was not discussing the case of a man who had cried “Fire!” in a crowded theatre; that was a hypothetical. The actual case was against Charles Schenck, who had mailed out pamphlets to American citizens during World War I urging them to stand on their Constitutional rights and resist the draft as involuntary servitude. The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Holmes, upheld his conviction and sentence of 15 years in prison. (Schenck served only six months, and the decision was overturned by the Court in 1959, when it replaced Holmes’s “clear and present danger” standard with an “imminent lawless action” standard.)

    Holmes was in general of opinion that violating the Constitution was a very difficult thing to do, and that the national legislature (at the time far more important than the Presidency) should have its head as much as possible with the minimum of judicial interference. In this case, however, he later agreed that the government had abused the discretion he had given them to silence anti-war protestors.

    Even if Holmes had been discussing an actual case of panic, he would hardly have been in favor of the death penalty for it, as you seem to be.

    As for “especially any Republican in charge”: ya gotta be kidding, as we say here in Bluesville. Do you so quickly forget the eight Clinton years, which were one long howl of oppositionalism? By comparison, Bush has gotten a free ride.

  9. “Giving aid and comfort to the declared enemies of the U.S. in wartime” is a little strong (particularly when the war in question is one the US *chose* to get involved in) – he said it in what sounds to have been a private session, if two US legislators had to confirm the allegations. Sounds like a common or garden vendetta to me.

  10. I’m frankly astonished to see ESR indicating approval of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Based on my limited knowledge of the man, he seems to have been as great a fan of unlimited and arbitrary governmental power as our court system has been afflicted with.

  11. By now, there’s plenty of evidence that Eason did say what he was accused of saying, that American troops are targeting journalists. When Saddam made a threat to actually target reporters – or maybe just to kick them out of the country – Eason reacted with appeasement, censoring news reports on Saddam’s behalf. Since he didn’t do the same this time, I see only 2 possibilities:

    1. Eason is a damned liar and has no solid concerns about his reporters being in danger from American troops.

    2. Unlike with Saddam, Eason hates the US military so much that he’s willing to risk his people’s lives…

  12. If one flogs the Eason Jordan story, one is a right-wing nutjob. If one flogs the Guckert/Gannon story, one is a left-wing nutjob.

    Eschewing partisanship my pimpled ass.

    Oh, and by the way, Eric, what makes you relevant?

  13. 1. Your link is to an NYU ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR of JOURNALISM’s blog? Let’s talk real politics, shall we? The current GOVERNOR of some redneck state goes to fundraisers run by racists. Bush goes to Bob Jones U, which calls the Pope the anti-christ and, until 2000, banned inter-racial dating on campus.
    Half the population is below average in intelligence. It’s pretty clear that both sides have some morons. It just so happens that Democrats don’t ELECT theirs. That was perhaps unfair, but no one can deny that RW Reagan was a deeply ignorant man, with long-standing racist ties, and that GW Bush is of strictly average intelligence, and both men simply read from scripts.

    2. You, like all rightists, ignore the content of the claim. Just as the right dismissed the torture allegations before the photos appeared, dismissed the idea that Enron was manipulating energy prices (on the Senate Floor), you are ignoring certain well known instances of the US military firing on clearly-marked journalists facilities (the main downtown hotel, killing the Ukrainian with camera, the arab owned TV station building (not al-Jazeera), and others).

    Eric, try aiming a little higher than blogs run by ASSOCIATE PROFESSORS, in your vain attempts to damn the whole “left.”

  14. Did you delete that, or did it simply mispost?

    I said

    1. An Associate Professor of Journalism at NYU is fairly low hanging fruit. Aim High.

    2. What Rightists don’t address is the large number of attacks on well-marked/well-known journalist facilities. Like the right pre-dismissed the torture, and seem either willing to overlook or are ignorant of what people like (the racist) Special Forces actually do.

    Very little discussion of the IDF shooting journalists, banning journalists, is found in the same circles (as a general rule).

  15. Not to mention that UN inspectors went through a lot of sites picked by the US in early 2003. Whatever was thought before then, it was pretty clear after that the the ‘vast stockpiles’ didn’t exist.

  16. >” irresponsible oppositionalism just cost a major media figure his career.”

    It’s too bad that irresponsible credulity in promoting the war hasn’t cost more “journalists” their careers.

    Of course, they’re just doing what their bosses want them too, so it’s not surprising.

    What is surprising is how irrational ESR’s politics are, given the clarity and strength of his pro-OpenSource writing.

  17. Hummm… Despite billions (trillions?) of dollars spent and the most amazing technology on the plant many countries intellegence communities were ‘fooled’ into thinking that Iraq had WDM’s.
    Another way to look at it would be that the intelligence communities knew nothing and claimed (ie. lied) that S. had WMD’s just to be on the safe side and cover their collective asses. Or, that they knew he had nothing and chose to inform Clinton/Blair and Bush that he did, just to justify an invasion and knock a loose cannon out of the field.
    My point here is that everyone could be lying. The intelligence community lies, politicians lie, dictators lie, lying is a stategic mainstay of millitary and political campaigns…and now the press may be telling some pretty tall tales (nothing new). This latest round of crazy-talk on the part of the press just further undermines my faith that the “man in the street” is getting any truth at all to deal with. Basically, there has been very little accountability for lying on all sides of the picture, except of course for Sadaam himself. String up the press for exaggerating? Come on, we would have to gut the halls of government if we handed out the death penalty for putting people in harms way via a well-placed exaggeration.
    So, as a man in the street, where can I go for the truth? If my president can’t even find it, with all the data at his disposal, what level of hubris could make me think that I can just pick it out of thin air? Truth is a rare commodity, even the sacred halls of scientific academia are frequently tainted with fabricated data and manufactured conclusions. It is just a fact of post-post modern life that the more you know, the less you believe. Now, I’m gonna burry my head in my littly cubby-hole and see if I can avoid lying to myself about my chances of finding any signifigant truth at all. Mayby I’ll just fudge a little bit and see if I can get the funding I need. If the press, the politicians (left and right) have taught me anything it’s that when it comes to lying, a little goes a long way, and even a huge lie can pass so long as people want to believe in the cause. I guess I will be a pan-agnostic on all fronts for as long as I live. I certainly am not going to call for the death penalty just b/c somebody is making wildly false claims on T.V. Who knows who really pushed for the invade Iraq scenario? Politicians come and go, the un-elected guys in the intelligence community go on and on, decade after decade…saying whatever they want, basically without proof or personal consequences. Must be a nice gig.

  18. It is a lot easier make critic than to be in charge and have to take decisions that are the best for the long term. Also a lot of media, is not blurring the edges between objective / subjective news and plain entertainment.

  19. //The only people who benefit from this kind of nonsense in the press are the suicide bombers and head hackers. One has to wonder just what motivates it.//

    What motivates it? Liberal ideals of “just saying no” to any vaguely conservative action that comes down the pike. Although I consider myself a Democrat, this tendency of my party’s demagogues really puts me off. It’s been said before–but sometimes I wonder if we even have a positive ideology. We’re the Canadians of American politics; just as our northern neighbors have an identity of non-Americanism (rather than a positive sense of being Canadian), our Democratic Party often has an identity of non-Republicanism (rather than a positive sense of being Democratic).

  20. Your mention of Justice Holmes’ “fire in a crowded theatre” line reminded me of the current Newsweek “Koran flushing” dust up. I wonder that nobody has pointed out that this is almost exactly analoguous.

  21. Kenneth Turner, then what about all the gloom and doom stories that terrorists are moving from explosives to biological weapons? There’s not a single shred of evidence that this is happening. Is that not the same as shouting “fire” when there’s no fire? Why have all the “We Are Guardians Of The Truth!” right-wingers not pointed this out?

    And there were cases of Koran mishandling, so the Newsweek story wasn’t completely off.

    So much for the Liberal(TM) Media(TM) Bias(TM).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *