James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Journalism and “experts”

Posted by James McPherson on May 3, 2008

Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky have written a new book about what is for them a familiar topic: the “experts” quoted in the news, and how often those experts get it wrong. The new book, Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq chronicles the litany of wrong predictions by Bush administration officials and media pundits before the Iraq War and since–or, as the book puts it, “authoritative misinformation, disinformation, misunderstanding, miscalculation, egregious prognostication, boo-boos, and just plain lies, about the Iraq War.”

Cerf and Navasky call themselves “The Institute of Expertology,” and have been writing on this theme since 1984’s The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation. The book seems especially appropriate after the recent New York Times story about military “experts” trained as public relations advisors by the administration. One wonders why former military men might be so taken in by an adminstration full of chickenhawks, but perhaps they were overly flattered by attention from the White House and the media. You can see more about Cerf and Navasky, with a clip of Dick Chaney saying in 1994 why invading Iraq would be a bad idea, here on on the Bill Moyers site. I’ll embed the same clip below.

Incidentally, I also have previously noted a couple of issues related to the media’s rising use of experts (though in a far less humorous way than Cerf and Navasky). Noting that such experts had been used heavily during the Persian Gulf War, I went on to note in a book published a couple of years ago:

As when covering politics, journalists offered their interpretations of war news for readers and viewers, but one noteworthy trend that continued after the war was the tendency toward letting non-journalists help with the interpretation. News directors called upon more and more “experts,” referred to by journalism scholar Lawrence Soley as “news shapers,” to lend credibility to the analysis of issues. Typically retired military officers, university professors, or representatives of “think tanks” such as the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, those experts frequently spent more time on camera than did policy makers.

Because of the months leading up to the fighting, producers and editors had time to develop lists of experts they could call upon when circumstances warranted, even if the circumstance primarily was a need to fill airtime while waiting for significant news to occur. For television, of course, the experts had to look and sound good on camera. They had to be able to summarize ideas or arguments quickly, ideally with memorable voices and phrasing. When seeking out the experts, both newspaper and television reporters sometimes found titles more appealing than credentials. Regardless of the sources’ achievements, news producers preferred Harvard and Johns Hopkins University professors to professors from institutions considered less prestigious, and people with more prestigious-sounding titles were more likely to be quoted.

 

And now, a few prescient words from Dick:

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