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The Press: The Enemy Within

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 Washington. 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.

  1. 1

    Her comments on her case are available at JudithMiller.org.

  2. 2

    See “The End of News?,” The New York Review, December 1, 2005.

  3. 3

    See the discussion of conservative new commentators in “The End of News?

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