The pack is back

After some hopeful signs, old patterns return

Issue: "Finding the Best in the Worst," Dec. 15, 2001

Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard told a group of us a few years ago that one of the main things to beware in American journalism is a pack mentality. He noted too little independent thinking going on among reporters-and too much laziness. No one, I think, could properly accuse either Fred Barnes's magazine or this one of pack journalism. Each, every now and then, enjoys stirring up a fuss in its own bailiwick. Each exists in part to challenge the status quo. For a while over the last three months, some refreshing breezes seemed to be blowing through mainstream American journalism as well-suggesting that a number of voices that had been part of a predictable pack were willing to look at a few issues in an unorthodox way. They'd been jarred loose from their earlier patterns by the horrendous events of Sept. 11. As a result, a few daring folks posed some politically incorrect questions: Is Islam the peaceful religion it purports to be? Is racial profiling always evil? Might assassination of a foreign leader in some circumstances be a humane policy? Those and other issues led to good discussions. The cynical Dan Rather actually shed a patriotic tear on camera. It took a crushing blow to bring it all about, but the bland uniformity of the mainline media seemed for a while to be taking on a fascinatingly speckled pattern. But now, already, we're reverting to form. Four distinct but totally unproven themes took shape over the last few weeks-and then took on lives of their own as folks from all kinds of perspectives piled on with their "me too!" echoes.

  • First (and The Weekly Standard helped launch this snowball) was a theme that throughout October began to dominate the news: the complaint that the Bush administration was stalling and confused, that it was doing nothing substantial to counteract the terrorists, and that the Bush team "talkers" had squeezed out the "doers" in the plan to respond to Osama bin Laden. It took the actual events of November to silence such complaints. But a quick review of leading newspapers and magazines (not to mention the networks) for the month of October shows the old pack mentality hard at work.
  • Oddly, a second emphasis that's now becoming a drumbeat actually heads the other direction. "Maybe we're doing OK in Afghanistan," this theme argues, "but Iraq would be a totally different story." So, as a few members of the Bush team raise the possibility of dealing firmly with Saddam Hussein after Osama bin Laden is taken care of, they are regularly portrayed as warmongers. Through late November, that too became a typical and recurring theme within the big media.
  • A third example of "unithink": The tendency of mainstream opinion shapers to jump all over the Bush administration's proposal to allow military tribunals to deal with terrorist offenders apprehended in the war effort.
  • And a fourth example: The simplistic effort to explain the business collapse of the Enron corporation by pointing to the foolishness of deregulation of the utilities. I kept count last week, and noted that in 10 stories about the Enron failure, 10 writers headlined the deregulation issue rather than the devious bookkeeping that was at least as big a factor in the Enron smashup. In none of these four examples am I arguing that the issues ballyhooed by the "pack" were false issues. All I'm saying is that they were by no means the only issues, or the only helpful perspectives-and that the media did not serve the public well by jumping on a bandwagon heading in just one apparently popular direction. Don't miss the big irony here. Mainstream media preach the doctrine of journalistic objectivity, but consistently fail to practice it. Here at WORLD, we deny the possibility of journalistic objectivity; we recognize everybody brings a point of view to the reporting task, and that we ought to tell you what our point of view is before we start. Yet having done that, we're still zealous that you be acquainted with just as many points of view as possible. That's why you'll never hear us mindlessly parroting the party line. And just in case you missed my emphasis in this space last week on the World Journalism Institute, you need to know that's the kind of approach we stress there as well. WJI is about developing competent young men and women to work either for WORLD or for the mainstream media. Along with their professional skills, WJI graduates will have strongly rooted opinions about what's right and what's wrong with the world. They'll never run with the pack. I won't mention this again here until this time next year. But World Journalism Institute deserves your support. If you missed the envelope tucked into last week's issue, just send a gift to my attention payable to World Journalism Institute, Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802. It's tax deductible, and it will help unpack America's media monopolies.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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