Normative conceptions of the role that news media organizations should play in democratic societies prescribe two related, yet at times contradictory, functions for the press: (1) The news media should provide a forum for competing ideas so that the public can make informed, intelligent decisions; and (2) the news media should play an active role in ferreting out the truth. The sad reality is that in the coverage of social conflicts, especially in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the media do an inadequate job of performing either of these functions. In fact, the media may incorrectly interpret and act on social conflicts in ways that are dysfunctional to conflict dynamics, leading to tragic consequences.

To shed light on these processes, this Article begins by discussing normative ideals for news media in democratic systems. These ideals are most crucial during times of domestic and international conflict, which especially illuminate the shortcomings of media practice. These deficiencies are illustrated through the discussion of the role the media played during the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks and the build-up to the war in Iraq. The American media’s wholesale acceptance of Bush Administration claims about al-Qaeda connections to the Iraqi government, as well as about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) program, constitutes a dereliction of duty. The mainstream media’s failure to thoroughly investigate these claims contributed to public misconceptions about Iraq, and paved the way for what, in retrospect, has been largely acknowledged as both a human tragedy and a foreign policy disaster for the United States. This Article provides a discussion of some of the systemic explanations for this failure, followed by an assessment of what became of these normative journalistic ideals. In turn, the discussion moves to a consideration of how current media practices impact the nature of social conflict, and concludes with a proposal for how media practice could be improved.

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