Media Criticism

That Darn Media


At The Weekly Standard, Thomas Joscelyn is in a tizzy over the way the "elite media" "ignores" the theory, recently revivified, that the KGB and the Bulgarian secret service were behind the attempted assassination of the pope. His chief target is The New York Times, which surprises me, since Claire Sterling advanced the KGB theory in a page-one story of nearly 6,000 words for the Times back in 1984.

Joscelyn doesn't mention that, though he does allow that after 1983 "the Times and the elite media [began] to honestly investigate" the shooting. Instead he praises Sterling for her earlier reporting in Reader's Digest, which in turn inspired an NBC documentary in 1982. (Apparently, NBC doesn't count as "elite media.")

Halfway through his article, you hit this sentence:

While the Times would give roughly equal weight to Sterling's research and the Soviet Union's formal disavowal, it would be much less neutral in its assessment of the NBC documentary that aired a month later.

It's tempting to dwell on the revelation that the Times gave "roughly equal weight" to both sides of a debate—how biased!—but let's skip ahead to the review the paper gave its rival. Its chief criticism, according to the Standard story, is that NBC offered "disappointingly scanty evidence" for its theory. Joscelyn has presumably seen the show, but he doesn't list any reasons to reject this critique. Now that we know the KGB connection was probably real, I guess we're supposed to accept on faith that every argument for it in the last two and a half decades was completely convincing.

Missing from all of this is any sense that the nature of the plot has been an open question for the last 24 years, or that reporters facing a matrix of disinformation could come to different conclusions. It's telling that Joscelyn says the Times began to "honestly investigate" the charges after 1983—that is, when it gave more space to his preferred theory. He never explains why its earlier investigations were not "honest," as opposed to not being fully accurate.

I'm not defending the Times so much as I'm attacking the sort of lazy, ideologically driven appraisals that frequently pass for media criticism these days. The KGB tale's stock has risen and fallen and risen again since 1981. Sometimes its standing changed in response to real events: When the shooter declared that he was Jesus Christ reborn, for example, his earlier confession that he was working for the Communists became somewhat less credible. Other times, political bias may have overwhelmed the facts. I'd love to read a serious history someday of how the Bulgarian theory fared in the American press. I don't think Joscelyn is the man to write it.