Walcott on the Record

Jonathan Galinsky ’10 had the opportunity to sit down with John Walcott ’71, Washington Bureau Chief of The McClatchy Co., before he comes to campus on Friday to participate in a panel discussion on “Media, Politics and the Iraq War.”Joining him will be Rex Smith, editor-in-chief of the Albany Times Union and Michael MacDonald, professor of international relations at the College. Walcott is recognized as one of the first journalists to refute the Bush Administration’s need for war in Iraq. He has won numerous prizes for his journalism, including the Edward M. Hood Award and the Freedom of the Press Award from the National Press Club and three Overseas Press Club awards, as well as a National Headliners Award in 2005.

You have been very critical of the media’s coverage of the Iraq War. Looking at how the coverage of the war has developed since the initial stages of the conflict, how do you assess the media’s current performance?

I think it’s still sub-par. It’s certainly better than it was in 2002 and early 2003, but I think there’s been a very ready and uncritical acceptance of the idea that the surge worked, that there is peace at hand in Iraq and that our troops can make a rapid exit and move back to Afghanistan, where they’re even more desperately needed.

In your assessment, are the two presidential candidates following the media’s lead in uncritically declaring the surge a success?

I think that Senator McCain is simply saying what he believes, which is that the surge worked and victory is at hand – In the case of Senator Obama, he has made the point over and over again that the central front in the war on terror is in Afghanistan and along the border with Pakistan, and that one of his priorities is going to be to reinforce the American military presence in those areas – What’s missing is anyone asking the hard question about what the surge has really accomplished and whether it has accomplished anything of lasting value. And I think that is very much open to question.

What do you foresee will happen when American troops begin to leave Iraq?

The gains are very much at risk because the surge has accomplished almost nothing in terms of political reconciliation among any of the three major groups. The Kurds in fact have expanded their area of influence in northern Iraq, virtually completed the ethnic cleansing of Kirkuk, show no indication of a willingness to reconsider the sharing of oil revenue from the northern oil fields with the Sunni Arabs. The Sunni Arabs are becoming much more restless and that’s likely to increase when they stop getting paid from the American treasury for being part of the so-called “Sunni Awakening.” And I’ve seen very little indication that the Maliki government or the Shias more broadly are prepared to surrender any significant amount of political power to the Sunnis – So I don’t think any of the very deep and old grievances among the three major groups in that country have been addressed in any significant way. And so I think the withdrawal of the American troops is about as likely to mean a march to business as usual as it is to mean a march toward peace and reconciliation.

Can the U.S. help to foster reconciliation?

Ultimately Iraqis are going to have to solve that problem; no one else can solve it for them. Certainly America can play a role in that, and I think had the so-called surge lasted longer and been accompanied by some greater demands on the Maliki government and to some extent on the Sunnis and especially on the Kurds, it might have moved things in this direction. But it wasn’t. It was really directed largely at an American domestic political audience, not at the Iraqis, and so you know it may have solved the political problems of the Republican Party and the Bush Administration. I don’t know if it has been anywhere near as successful in solving the problems of the Iraqis.

Switching gears to the presidential election, does the media face any challenges here that are similar to those it faced in regards to Iraq?

That’s an interesting question. I think the polarization of our society along partisan lines complicates the job of every political reporter – You criticize Obama and you get blasted from the left, for whom he can do no wrong. And you criticize McCain or Palin and you get blasted from the other side for whom, for example, Palin’s lack of experience is a non-issue: “Why are you even challenging her, you must be sexist if you’re raising questions about her lack of experience,” [her supporters say.] – My response to all of that at least, and the response of the staff here, is largely to ignore it and keep doing the job as we see it and let the chips fall where they fall. When [the candidates] misspeak, when they exaggerate or misrepresent their opponents’ records or their own we call it. And it doesn’t make us particularly popular, but at the end of the day journalism really can’t be about cultivating popularity; it’s often about telling people things they don’t want to hear. And that was the case in the run-up to the Iraq war, and it probably should have been the case more as we watched the financial system take on more and more risk over the last decade or so.

Do you think the media failed to scrutinize Wall Street closely enough in recent years?

Yes I do – I think the media’s performance was lacking analysis of what was going on and was not as rigorous as it should have been. And I know these instruments are terribly complicated, but the simple principal of what was going on is not terribly complicated, and that’s the bundling of very risky mortgages into securities and the resale of them. That’s not a hard concept to understand, nor is the risk hard to see, and I think we were not as critical as we should have been of that or of – beginning in 1981 – the gradual and constant deregulation of much of the American economy.

What do you think is the reason for the lack of media scrutiny on things like this – Iraq and in the presidential campaigns?

As I have said in other venues and will probably say again on Friday, there are two pernicious notions out here: one of them is that there is no such thing as truth or that everyone is entitled to his or her own version of it, and that this person’s version is as true as that person’s version – I think that’s basically not true. And then the second one which I think the media has fallen victim to in many cases is the idea that the truth or some approximation of it can always be found somewhere at roughly the midway point between two opposing arguments and that, in any event, the two opposing arguments deserve equal weight. And that, again, is simply not true – [When we] surrender to the temptation to make all arguments equal or to dismiss all arguments as shaped entirely by point of view I think we get ourselves in way over our heads. And I think there’s a third temptation – and that’s the notion of all of us thinking by default that the world revolves around us – and that therefore our perceptions are skewed by that tendency – I think a lot of people in the news business thought they were doing well and therefore thought “what’s to scrutinize?”

Where do you see the newspaper industry headed in the near future?

It’s very difficult to answer that question. There’s no question that the future at best is uncertain and at worst it’s disastrous. – The bottom line – question that will answer your question is: can we find ways to make enough money with online products to pay for journalism as we’ve known it for the last 150 years or so in this country? And nobody knows the answer to that question and no one has yet found an answer to that question, and that’s what it depends on.

Where do you see print journalism sitting in the whole media landscape right now? How does it fit into the picture as a journalistic institution?

I think it continues to play an important role – There are many, many things that are still done by the dreaded mainstream media organizations such as McClatchy that bloggers and others can’t do – If you were to compare what was written on Talking Points Memo by Josh Marshall and his people about U.S. attorneys and what was done by Marissa Taylor and Margaret Talev and Greg Gordon in this office, what you’d see is that Josh raised a lot of important questions about what was going on here, but it was the McClatchy reporters who came up with the answers to those questions – If you were to compare those side by side there was a very important role that Josh and his people played – but the bulk of the real digging and the real reporting was done by the old fashioned media organizations. So there continues to be an important role I think for media organizations that have the resources and the personnel and the will to do that kind of difficult journalism and then the courage – if that’s what the right word is – to speak truth to power and to disregard popularity.

What advice would you give to students who hope to be print journalists?

Well I would advise to think very hard about it because the business landscape is far from certain. I would advise them in whatever ways you can to acquire as many tools of the trade as you can, ranging from critical thinking to the mastery of some of the new media tools like video and blogging and podcasting because those are all going to be part of the media future. The media future is going to be a multimedia future, and anyone who wants to be a journalist is going to have to have some command of all the different media that will be part of it.

Do you see print journalism expanding into the multimedia landscape that you just talked about?

Absolutely. If you look at the McClatchy mission statements they say that explicitly – that the company is transforming itself into a multimedia news company. But we’ve got to do that I think in a way that does not abandon the old principals of the profession, the speaking truth to power, the critical thinking, the willingness to ask hard questions, the willingness to speak unpopular truths. As I say some of the temptation in the blogosphere is to appeal to some segment of the audience and to try to play to the cheers of the crowd. And that isn’t journalism.