What little we have seen so far of the Volcker investigation of the UN Oil-for-Food Scandal confirms what we already learned from the Thornburgh investigation of CBS Rathergate. Internal investigations are inherently flawed, at the very least by perception, but usually by a lot more. It is hard to believe that men like Thornburgh and Volcker risk their reputations to sign on for them, but money and ego are powerful motivators.
The question is who can investigate organizations of such power and complexity as the United Nations and CBS (and now CNN) if not themselves. Years ago the mainstream media – particularly the New York Times and the Washington Post – performed this function to some extent. But these days they seem almost chary about doing any serious digging that might yield results in conflict with their core ideologies, only publishing about Oil-for-Food, for one example, long after it was “a story.” (The Times, to its credit, however, seems the one organization to have performed an internal investigation with any teeth in it – the Jayson Blair affair.) Of course, there are also Congressional Investigations, but, although sometimes useful, they are almost always the slave of electoral politics.
So finally there are us – the blogosphere. But although we are many in number, and growing, we have one gaping weakness – money. We can’t afford to do that digging. Even something as simple as getting a hold of video tape of Eason Jordan’s statements at Davos seems beyond our reach. We rely on others to do our footwork. If our approach to the news is to grow and prosper (in the figurative sense) some new methods (meaning more cash) must be developed. I would like to see that happen soon, not just for myself but for all of us. I see what we are engaged together as a positive movement in history leading to a more honest media.
UPDATE: Regarding the “Affair Jordan” (will it get it’s “gate” suffix soon?) Austin Bay properly reminds us that we don’t live in a perfect world and news organizations often have to make a “compact with the Devil,” as Jordan admitted CNN did with Saddam in the pages of the NYT, just to get some semblance of the story out. But Austin continues:
As far I can tell, the CNN Baghdad situation wasn’t based on these real-world caveats. The network’s deal with the devil lasted a dozen years. The deal brought the network a commercial advantage over more tough-minded competitors. Moreover, CNN’s depiction of Saddam’s regime often differed, oh, a hundred degrees from the critical reporting of the NY Times’ John Burns. (Saddam jailed Burns at least twice-underlining my point about the risk correspondents face.) Sure, CNN portrayed Saddam as a strong man – but by the way, Iraqi children were dying. Though Saddam had invaded Kuwait and had a meanish streak, in CNN’s Iraq children died because of UN sanctions enforced by the US military. CNN played a “he’s bad, but-” game. I’ll wager the journalistic excuse was “balance”–a balance Saddam and Baghdad Bob certainly appreciated. CNN’s “balance” was of course anything but balance — over the long haul I believe the network put a finger on the scale that gave Saddam undeserved moral and political weight. We now know the reason Iraqi children were dying: Saddam had corrupted the UN’s Oil For Food program and was skimming money that was supposed to buy medicine and food.
So all these investigations come together in some odd way. Far out, as we used to say.
ONE OTHER THING: We seem to be at an epiphanic moment in history that we all got to witness over the day and night of the Iraqi election. Watching CNN, as I did closely over those hours, their reporters and commentators began with a derisive attitude as if they expected, and yes even wanted, everything to fail. Then as it began to seem that it wouldn’t, their attitudes changed in front of our eyes. At the end, they seemed downright celebratory — but simultaneously confused — as if their entire world view was turning upside down in front of their eyes. It was a fascinating thing to watch — and their confusion is only beginning as some will start to defect from their side.