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Sleepy 'watchdogs' in the run-up to war

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Saturday, June 16, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Steve Hallock brought nearly a quarter-century's experience as a newspaper reporter and editor to his current job as director of Point Park University's School of Communication and director of its graduate studies program.

Hallock, 63, of Mt. Lebanon, spoke to the Trib about his new book, "The Press March to War." The tome contends that since World War II, the press has not sufficiently challenged the justifications for America entering military conflicts.

Q: What prompted you to examine the involvement of the press in the nation's buildup to wars?

A: When I was working on my Ph.D., the (George W.) Bush administration was preparing for us to go to war against Iraq. Just remembering back to that period, I didn't see a lot of newspapers challenging the Bush administration's argument. You'll recall that The New York Times and The Washington Post both ran front-page editorials afterward wishing they had been more active in their questioning and apologizing for their lack of oversight to the whole process. I began to wonder if that only occurred in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

Q: And you found that the press has failed in its watchdog role?

A: Yes. In the buildup to every war since World War II, the press basically supported every presidential administration argument or justification for war. They included all these foreign policy doctrines (advocating) the use of military power to support U.S. values and U.S. interests in foreign lands.

Q: Has the press also been a player in crafting rationales for conflict?

A: Yes. My analysis found that in every case when it comes to national defense or foreign policy, the press relies on official sources. So the administration or the Defense Department or Secretary of State's Office were framing the arguments, and the press just bought into them and supported them. And once you help justify the argument for foreign military involvement, you have to stay on board when the involvement actually comes about.

Q: Why hasn't the press held the government more accountable in these instances?

A: The one area where it's almost impossible for the press to do its own independent investigation is the area of foreign policy. But I think primarily (the lack of accountability) is because the press shares the ideologies and the values the administration puts forth.

Q: Are your findings also an indictment against the coziness of the (Washington) beltway, where reporters often get too close to and comfortable with the people they're covering?

A: In the case of the State Department and foreign policy (reporters), yes.

Q: Is there a way to change this pattern?

A: (One) hope is that the traditional owners of the press wake up, realize the most important decision any country's leadership makes is the one to go to war, and take a closer look at how they cover that decision.

But the reason I don't have a lot of hope is because my analysis took me through the Obama administration's drone warfare against Libya and it was the same thing all over again. (The press again) relied on administration official explanations and almost blindly supported Obama's decision.

This repeated lack of watchdog skepticism is a major American press failure. It's always after the fact, after we've gone to war, when we go back and say, "Wait -- was this war really necessary?"

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