Sunday, November 27, 2005

Understanding Media Failure

The Press: The Enemy Within
By Michael Massing

New York Review of Books
Volume 52, Number 20
December 15, 2005


The past few months have witnessed a striking change in
the fortunes of two well-known journalists: Anderson
Cooper and Judith Miller. CNN's Cooper, the one-time
host of the entertainment show The Mole, who was known
mostly for his pin-up good looks, hip outfits, and
showy sentimentality, suddenly emerged during Hurricane
Katrina as a tribune for the dispossessed and a scourge
of do-nothing officials. He sought out poor blacks who
were stranded in New Orleans, expressed anger over
bodies rotting in the street, and rudely interrupted
Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu when she began thanking
federal officials for their efforts. When people
"listen to politicians thanking one another and
complimenting each other," he told her, "you know, I
got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are
very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated." After
receiving much praise, Cooper in early November was
named to replace Aaron Brown as the host of CNN's
NewsNight.

By then, Judith Miller was trying to salvage her
reputation. After eighty-five days in jail for refusing
to testify to the grand jury in the Valerie Plame leak
case, she was greeted not with widespread appreciation
for her sacrifice in protecting her source but with
angry questions about her relations with Lewis Libby
and her dealings with her editors, one of whom, Bill
Keller, said he regretted he "had not sat her down for
a thorough debriefing" after she was subpoenaed as a
witness. The controversy revived the simmering
resentment among her fellow reporters, and many Times
readers, over her reporting on Iraq's weapons of mass
destruction. In the Times's account, published on
October 16, Miller acknowledged for the first time that
"WMD--I got it totally wrong." Bill Keller said that
after becoming the paper's executive editor in 2003, he
had told Miller that she could no longer cover Iraq and
weapons issues, but that "she kept drifting on her own
back into the national security realm." For her part,
Miller insisted that she had "cooperated with editorial
decisions" and expressed regret that she was not
allowed to do follow-up reporting on why the
intelligence on WMD had been so wrong; on November 8,
she agreed to leave the Times after twenty-eight years
at the paper.[1]

These contrasting tales suggest something about the
changing state of American journalism. For many
reporters, the bold coverage of the effects of the
hurricane, and of the administration's glaring failure
to respond effectively, has helped to begin making up
for their timid reporting on the existence of WMD.
Among some journalists I've spoken with, shame has
given way to pride, and there is much talk about the
need to get back to the basic responsibility of
reporters, to expose wrongdoing and the failures of the
political system. In recent weeks, journalists have
been asking more pointed questions at press
conferences, attempting to investigate cronyism and
corruption in the White House and Congress, and doing
more to document the plight of people without jobs or a
place to live.

Will such changes prove lasting? In a previous article,
I described many of the external pressures besetting
journalists today, including a hostile White House,
aggressive conservative critics, and greedy corporate
owners.[2] Here, I will concentrate on the press's
internal problems--not on its many ethical and
professional lapses, which have been extensively
discussed elsewhere, but rather on the structural
problems that keep the press from fulfilling its
responsibilities to serve as a witness to injustice and
a watchdog over the powerful. To some extent, these
problems consist of professional practices and
proclivities that inhibit reporting --a reliance on
"access," an excessive striving for "balance," an
uncritical fascination with celebrities. Equally
important is the increasing isolation of much of the
profession from disadvantaged Americans and the
difficulties they face. Finally, and most
significantly, there's the political climate in which
journalists work. Today's political pressures too often
breed in journalists a tendency toward self-censorship,
toward shying away from the pursuit of truths that
might prove unpopular, whether with official
authorities or the public.

1.

In late October 2004, Ken Silverstein, an investigative
reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles
Times, went to St. Louis to write about Democratic
efforts to mobilize African-American voters. In 2000,
the Justice Department later found, many of the city's
black voters had been improperly turned away from the
polls by Republican Party officials. Democrats were
charging the Republicans with preparing to do the same
in 2004, and Silverstein found evidence for their
claim. Republican officials accused the Democrats of
similar irregularities, but their case seemed flimsy by
comparison, a point that even a local Republican
official acknowledged to him.

While doing his research, however, Silverstein learned
that the Los Angeles Times had sent reporters to
several other states to report on charges of voter
fraud, and, further, that his findings were going to be
incorporated into a larger national story about how
both parties in those states were accusing each other
of fraud and intimidation. The resulting story, bearing
the bland headline "Partisan Suspicions Run High in
Swing States," described

the extraordinarily rancorous and mistrustful
atmosphere that pervades battleground states in the
final days of the presidential campaign. In
Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Oregon and
other key states, Democrats and Republicans seem
convinced their opponents are bent on stealing the
election.

The section on Missouri gave equal time to the claims
of Democrats and Republicans.

Troubled by this outcome, Silverstein sent an editor a
memo outlining his concerns. The paper's "insistence on
'balance' is totally misleading and leads to utterly
spineless reporting with no edge," he wrote. In
Missouri, there was "a real effort on the part of the
GOP...to suppress pro-Dem constituencies." The GOP
complaints, by contrast, "concern isolated cases that
are not going to impact the outcome of the election."
He went on:

I am completely exasperated by this approach to the
news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report
but when it comes time to write we turn our brains
off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid
we should...attempt to fairly assess what we see
with our own eyes. "Balanced" is not fair, it's
just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and
shirking our responsibility to inform readers.

This is not to deny that the best newspapers run many
first-rate stories, Silverstein said, or that reporters
working on long-term projects are often given leeway to
"pile up evidence and demonstrate a case." During the
last year, he has written articles on the ties between
the CIA and the Sudanese intelligence service; on
American oil companies' political and economic
alliances with corrupt third-world regimes; and on
conflicts of interest involving Pennsylvania
Congressman John Murtha. When it comes to political
coverage, though, Silverstein told me, newspapers are
too often "afraid of being seen as having an opinion."
They fear "provoking a reaction in which they'll be
accused of bias, however unfounded the charge." The
insistence on a "spurious balance," he says, is a
widespread problem in how TV and print organizations
cover news. "It's very stifling."

As Silverstein suggests, this fear of bias, and of
appearing unbalanced, acts as a powerful sedative on
American journalists--one whose effect has been
magnified by the incessant attacks of conservative
bloggers and radio talk-show hosts.[3] One reason
journalists performed so poorly in the months before
the Iraq war was that there were few Democrats willing
to criticize the Bush administration on the record;
without such cover, journalists feared they would be
branded as hostile to the President and labeled as
"liberal" by conservative commentators.

The Plame leak case has provided further insight into
the relation between the journalistic and political
establishments. It's now clear that Lewis Libby was an
important figure in the White House and a key architect
of the administration's push for war in Iraq. Many
journalists seem to have spoken with him regularly, and
to have been fully aware of his power, yet virtually
none bothered to inform the public about him, much less
scrutinize his actions on behalf of the vice-president.
A search of major newspapers in the fifteen months
before the war turned up exactly one substantial
article about Libby--a breezy piece by Elisabeth
Bumiller in the The New York Times about his novel The
Apprentice.

In reporting on the government, the Los Angeles Times,
like other papers, faces another serious constraint. As
a result of budget cuts imposed by its corporate owner,
The Tribune Company, the Times recently reduced its
Washington staff from sixty-one to fifty-five (of whom
thirty-nine are reporters). Doyle McManus, the bureau
chief, says the paper is stretched very thin. Since
September 11, 2001, he has had to assign so many
reporters (eight at the moment) to covering news about
national security that many domestic issues have been
neglected. The Times has only four daily reporters to
cover everything from health care to labor to the
regulatory agencies, and it has no regular reporter in
Washington dealing with the problems of the
environment. "It's nuts for a California paper to have
its environmental job open this long," McManus says.
The Chicago Tribune, he said, has a full-time
agriculture writer whose beat includes agribusiness and
its activities in Wash-ington. Despite the huge
national political influence of agricultural interests,
the Los Angeles Times, like most other big US papers,
lacks the resources to report on them regularly.

The same is true of most of official Washington. At no
time since before the New Deal, perhaps, has corporate
America had so much power and so much influence in
Washington. Between 1998 and 2004, the amount of money
spent on lobbying the federal government doubled to
nearly $3 billion a year, according to the Center for
Public Integrity, a watchdog group. The US Chamber of
Commerce alone spent $53 million in 2004. During the
last six years, General Motors has spent $48 million
and Ford $41 million. Before joining the Bush White
House, chief of staff Andrew Card worked as a lobbyist
for the big auto companies. To what extent have such
payments and activities contributed to the virtual
freeze on the fuel-efficiency standards that have long
been in effect in the US and which have helped to
produce the current oil crisis? More generally, how
have corporations used their extraordinary wealth to
win tax breaks, gain no-bid contracts, and bend
administrative rules to their liking? On November 10,
The Wall Street Journal ran a probing front-page piece
about how the textile industry, through intensive
lobbying, won quotas on Chinese imports--an example of
the type of analysis that far too rarely appears in our
leading publications. "Wall Street's influence in
Washington has been one of the most undercovered areas
in journalism for decades," according to Charles Lewis,
the former director of the Center for Public Integrity.

Of course, corporations are extensively covered in the
business sections of most newspapers. These began
growing in size in the 1970s and 1980s, and today The
New York Times has about sixty reporters assigned to
business. The Times, along with The Wall Street
Journal, runs many stories raising questions about
corporate behavior. For the most part, though, the
business sections are addressed to members of the
business world and are mainly concerned to provide them
with information they can use to invest their money,
manage their companies, and understand Wall Street
trends. Reflecting this narrow focus, the business
press in the 1980s largely missed the savings and loan
scandal. In the 1990s, it published enthusiastic
reports on the high-tech boom, then watched in
bafflement as it collapsed. Of the hundreds of American
business reporters, only one--Fortune's Bethany
McLean--had the independence and courage to raise
questions about the high valuation of Enron's stock.
The criminal activities in recent years of not only
Exxon but also WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, and other
corporate malefactors have largely been exposed not by
the business press but by public prosecutors; and the
fate of the companies involved, and of those who were
damaged by their lies, has been only fitfully followed
up.

While business sections grow larger, the labor beat
remains very solitary. In contrast to the many
reporters covering business, the Times has only one,
Steven Greenhouse, writing full-time about labor and
workplace issues. (Several other Times reporters cover
labor-related issues as part of their beats.)
Greenhouse seems to be everywhere at once, reporting on
union politics, low-wage workers, and corporate labor
practices. More than any other big-city reporter, he
has called attention to Wal-Mart's Dickensian working
conditions. Yet he could surely use some help. When,
for instance, General Motors recently announced that it
was scaling back health benefits for its workforce, the
story appeared on the Times's front page for a day,
then settled back into the business section, where it
was treated as another business story. As a result, the
paper has largely overlooked the painful social effects
that the retrenchments at GM, the auto-parts company
Delphi, and other manufacturing concerns have had on
the Midwest. More generally, the staffs of our top news
organizations, who tend to be well-paid members of the
upper middle class living mostly on the East and West
Coasts, have limited contact with blue-collar America
and so provide only sporadic coverage of its concerns.

This summer, Nancy Cleeland, after more than six years
as the lone labor reporter at the Los Angeles Times,
left her beat. She made the move "out of frustration,"
she told me. Her editors "really didn't want to have
labor stories. They were always looking at labor from a
management and business perspective--'how do we deal
with these guys?'" In 2003, Cleeland was one of several
reporters on a three-part series about Wal-Mart's labor
practices that won the Times a Pulitzer Prize. That,
she had hoped, would convince her editors of the value
of covering labor, but in the end it didn't, she says.
"They don't consider themselves hostile to working-
class concerns, but they're all making too much money
to relate to the problems that working-class people are
facing," observed Cleeland, who is now writing about
high school dropouts. Despite her strong urging, the
paper has yet to name anyone to replace her. (Russ
Stanton, the Los Angeles Times's business editor, says
that the paper did value Cleeland's reporting, as shown
by her many front-page stories. However, with his
section recently losing six of its forty-eight
reporters and facing more cuts, he said, her position
is unlikely to be filled anytime soon.)

for the rest of this story, go to

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18555
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