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War Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card July 28, 2003

How the Press Makes America Look Bad Even When It Isn't

The local daily recently (9 July) ran an Associated Press story about the crash of a Sudanese jet, in which only a baby survived. It was a sad tale.

It did not make it any better that the last four paragraphs of the story were about the Sudanese foreign minister's accusation that U.S. sanctions against Sudan (as a terrorist-sponsoring state) had led to shortages of vital aircraft parts.

Three paragraphs were devoted to the accusation, and his call for President Bush, then touring Africa, to drop the sanctions.

Obvious conclusion: Aren't we Americans awful? Our government's actions are constantly killing people everywhere.

Oh. Wait. Oops. The last paragraph of the story includes a quote from a U.S. state department spokesman, offering condolences and reporting that no Americans were killed.

Then, at the very end, the spokesman mentions that "there was no ban on equipment needed for aviation safety."

Now, how can this be called anti-American press bias? The State Department denial was included, wasn't it? It was the last word, wasn't it? So the story was fair, wasn't it?


The Sudanese accusation was given a two-sentence quote that repeated the summary already given. A third paragraph made sure to mention President Bush (though of course the sanctions were imposed during Clinton's presidency -- and quite properly, too! -- but we wouldn't want to miss a chance to tie Bush to any negative story, would we?)

When we finally get the denial, it is not a quote. It wasn't even a whole paragraph. It was an afterthought: "He also said there was no ban ..." as if this were not an important statement at all.

In fact, the denial comes after an apparent change of subject -- it seems that the article has moved past the issue of U.S. culpability and is instead going on with the boring official-condolences stuff.

In other words, it is designed to encourage readers to stop paying attention before the State Department denial is mentioned.

How would it have been presented if it were not an expression of the blame-America- (especially-the-current-president) -for-all-the-worlds's-ills mindset of the "mainstream" American press?

The accusation would have been reported, certainly, in exactly the same words used in the first paragraph.

But it would have been followed immediately by the fact that there was no ban on equipment needed for aviation safety. There wouldn't have been three paragraphs to pound in the accusation before any hint of a denial is given.

And the denial would not have been a summary of State Department statement. It would have been presented as a simple fact.

I can hear "journalists" retorting that everything in a news story has to have a source. But that is arrant nonsense. The only reason to cite the State Department as the source of information in this case is if the reporter is too lazy to check the facts.

The sanctions against Sudan are a matter of public record. They can be looked up. It can be determined, by reporters worth their salary, exactly what is and isn't banned. Even if the information were secret (as the details may be), the State Department denial can be checked with other sources and verified.

In other words, if the reporter had wished to absolve the U.S. of blame and to expose the specious anti-American accusation for the lie that it is (and aren't our heroic reporters supposed to hate lies and eagerly expose them?), it could have been done -- and done impartially, without a "pro-American" bias.

Instead, the end of this article is structured so as to leave a strong impression with readers that the U.S. caused this plane crash by our sanctions against Sudan, and that President Bush has been asked to lift the sanctions but has not done so. And if readers notice the denial at all, buried as it is, it won't be presented as a fact that the accusation is false, it will merely be a State Department denial, as routine as the condolences and as self-serving as the statement that no Americans were killed.

This is such a small thing, isn't it? Four paragraphs at the end of an article about a tragic accident. And look at how much space I have devoted to talking about it! My response is all out of proportion.

Except that this article is not an aberration. It's the standard operating procedure in American newsrooms. All anti-American accusations are big news, to be given multiple paragraphs, actual quotations.

Denials are to be buried, are to be government statements only, are never to be reinforced by actual research that would verify that the American position is in fact the truthful one.

No wonder a huge number of Americans are so easily persuaded that our nation is a force for evil in the world, and that pro-Americanism is inhumane. No wonder so many Americans regard with cynicism any claim that we are the "last best hope" of humankind.

Oddly enough, though, smart people living in countries ruled by anti-American governments, pounded constantly with anti-American propaganda, still manage to conclude that America is their only hope.

That's because they know their newspapers are full of lies. They can't do anything about it, but they can disbelieve what they read.

Americans, however, are repeatedly suckered in by anti-American propaganda because we think we have a free press.

We don't. And it's not because the owners insist on a single viewpoint. Companies that own newspapers or television news departments rarely intervene in news coverage, because there would be an outcry of "censorship" and "propaganda" if they tried to stop reporters from reporting things "impartially."

Where does the anti-American bias come from, then?

You can't get a job at the leading newspapers now without having a degree from a university -- preferably a degree in journalism or communications or, at the very least, English.

By sheerest coincidence, these departments at almost all American universities are completely dominated by leftist faculty with cynical attitudes toward America and contempt for the very idea of patriotism.

(Though if you ever say so, they wrap themselves in the flag and whine, "How dare you say I'm unpatriotic?" Well, maybe it's because most of the time you make fun of patriotism and the people who get teary-eyed at the sight of the flag.)

Some journalism students become true believers in the leftist ideas of their professors. Some simply become cynical about all ideals, assuming that right-wing doctrines are just as empty and stupid as those of the Left (and it's hard to refute that view).

And even those few who manage to cling to the idea that America is a force for good in the world, and that America comes closer than most nations to measuring up to its lofty ideals -- well, they learn to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, to avoid being scorned and shunned and punished with low grades.

So instead of being impartial, the reporters trained by these institutions come out spouting a single party line.

We would have a freer press if reporters were not college-trained.

Everything you need to know to be a great reporter can be learned on the job, which is how it was done until fairly recent years.

Some might say that the college degree is needed to make sure that reporters are well-rounded, knowledgeable in many fields, and able to do research and reach independent conclusions.

Well, what does that have to do with an American college education?

There are a few teachers remaining in American universities who try to get their students to think independently, to research things for themselves, to be thoroughly acquainted with most areas of human endeavor.

But most college professors are so badly and narrowly educated themselves that they wouldn't know an independent thought if a student actually had one. Most college professors think "independent thought" means "agrees with me about the evils of middle-class American society."

One result is the humiliatingly bad level of reporting (and editing) in American newspapers -- all done by "educated" reporters.

Actual research is rare. Article after article reveals the writer's abysmal ignorance of even the basics of history or science -- and this in articles that are supposed to be about history and science.

And whenever reporters have a chance to show a snide, cynical, "sophisticated" view of America and of traditional American ideals, they use it.

No one at the newspaper calls them on it because they all think the same way -- or have learned to keep their mouths shut.

If a newspaper ever became serious about impartial reporting, it would begin hiring straight from high school and train their own writing staff. Editors would rigorously remove obvious bias. They would insist that their reporters actually learn their subject matter before writing about it.

Or they would admit their bias up front -- "This is a newspaper of the American Left" -- so that readers would not be deceived into thinking they were getting the unshaded truth.

In my dreams ...

Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.

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