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Goodbye to Newspapers?

Morgan Stanley tried to start a revolt of unprivileged stockholders last spring, urging them to withhold their votes from the candidates the Times Company had nominated to sit on its board. Graham acknowledged that he was not a disinterested party, since The Washington Post also operates under a two-tier structure designed to preserve family control of the business. The Post took its modern form in 1933 when Eugene Meyer (himself an extremely important figure in Wall Street) bought it at a bankruptcy sale. Graham is Meyer’s grandson, but while his family fortune may have been rooted in Wall Street, he is clearly disturbed about the modern money world’s rough hand on journalism. To support Morgan Stanley’s attack on the two-tier stock structure, he wrote, “is to run crazy risks” with the future of The New York Times. Eliminate the two-tier structure, and “a line of buyers eager to purchase the company would form within minutes,” Graham wrote. “No one could say no. The line would include private equity firms, high-ego billionaires, international media companies lacking a famous property and lots more.” The New York Times, he predicted, would be “auctioned off like a side of beef.”

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Wall Street at the feeding trough receives little attention in Neil Henry’s genial and rambling survey of journalism’s troubles in these electronic times. After a career at The Washington Post, Henry is on the journalism faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, and his book is concerned with the subjects that must worry young people starting out in the business: How does the Internet affect what we still call “the press”? Is “blogging” the journalism of the future? How can the journalist avoid being manipulated by the vast and deadly effective propaganda machinery of government and business?

He has no answers, and indeed no answers are possible yet to such questions. When new technology is changing everything, the only certain outlook is for a future entirely different from what anyone could have foreseen. Henry is content to let the sociologist Herbert Gans sound the downbeat note about journalism’s chances for a rosy electronic future:

The history of technological innovation does suggest that the cultural, social, and economic innovations expected from new technologies do not often materialize. Consequently, technology alone will do little to create a bright future for journalism.

How the Internet might replace the newspaper as a source of information is never explained by those who assure you that it will. At present about 80 percent of all news available on the Internet originates in newspapers, according to John Carroll’s estimate, and no Internet company has the resources needed to gather and edit news on the scale of the most mediocre metropolitan daily. Moreover, corporations like Google and Yahoo apparently have no interest in going into serious journalism. (Google has an automated news site, Google News, which sifts through hundreds of online newspapers and news agency reports; and Yahoo includes news agency reports on its Yahoo News site. But neither fields its own reporting staff or provides its own news coverage.)

At present the Internet is basically an electronic version of the ten-year-old boy on a bicycle who used to toss the newspaper on the front porch: an ingenious circulation device. Of course it is also an invaluable resource for research and fact checking. Today’s reporter with a laptop has nearly immediate access to material that once required lengthy and often futile searches in the paper’s “morgue.” It should only make reporting and editing better.

Blogging is a more interesting development, perhaps because bloggers are so passionate about it. It is a valuable restraint on careless and sloppy journalism, for the vigilance of the bloggers misses not the slightest error or the least omission, and the fury of their rage is terrible to bear. Committed bloggers insist that they are practicing journalism just as surely as a correspondent like John Burns is practicing journalism when reporting on the Iraq war from Baghdad for The New York Times. Anyone wishing to debate the point must be ready to argue all night and well into next week. What is indisputable is that practically every blogger can now be a columnist. With vast armies of columnists blogging away, it seems inevitable that a few may eventually produce something original, arresting, and refreshing and so breathe new life into this worn-out journalistic form.

Like so many who comment on journalism these days, the authors of When the Press Fails—three journalism professors—are angry about the press’s flabby performance at the time when Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz & Co. were stoking public appetite for war in Iraq. Everyone, including most journalists, seems to agree that the press did a rotten job, but whether a superb job would have defeated the neocons’ determination to have their war is another question. Following events fairly closely at the time, I thought nothing could stop them. For one thing, the lust for war had the public in its grip. For another, Congress, the one force powerful enough to resist presidential follies, though not always to prevent them, had ceased to function as an effective arm of government and was utterly useless for much of anything beyond cheering the President on. Senator Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, accurately described Congress’s position as “supine.”

As if to prove his point, most Democratic senators with presidential ambitions, including Hillary Clinton, to her continuing mortification, voted for war. They were simply responding to the political necessity of a moment when patriotic demand for battle was running high. At such moments politicians almost always decide they would rather be president than right.

Finally, credit the administration with a masterful job of deception. It fooled its own secretary of state, Colin Powell. It even fooled itself about enjoying a swift flower-strewn triumph. Despite Congress’s humiliating performance, the idea that the press could have averted the disaster is slow to die. When the Press Fails does not endorse the notion but certainly flirts with it. It is “most interesting” that the press “remained a silent if often uncomfortable partner” in the “reality-bending exercise” with which the administration sold the war, the authors write.

The ideal of press independence does not mean that the resulting open public debate will necessarily shape or improve the course of policy. At the very least, publicizing credible challenges to dubious policies may give large numbers of citizens more timely information. And when those citizens hear their private and sometimes ill-defined concerns aired and clarified in the legitimating space of the mainstream press, they may begin to act as a public, instead of suffering in isolation with their own shock and awe as events unravel.

In such statements the book’s authors expect more of the press than it is built to deliver. Airing and clarifying Washington activities is surely healthy, but it is also a tedious process that may yield nothing better than public indifference. The Washington Post began airing and clarifying the Watergate affair in the summer of 1972, yet six months later Americans were still so uninterested that they reelected President Nixon with one of the biggest landslides in history. Were it not for the intervention of the little-known lower-court judge John Sirica, the Watergate scandal might have expired unnoticed.

While the authors may overestimate the press’s power, their analysis of the weaknesses of Washington journalism deserves close attention. Assignment to Washington is one of the highest prizes a newspaper has to offer, and not surprisingly the Washington press is an elite group: well-educated, well-paid, talented, at ease among the mighty, a bit smug perhaps about knowing secrets others don’t, but for the most part sensitive to an obligation to keep the public informed without fear or prejudice. Yet they failed this obligation during the Bush years, the authors of When The Press Fails contend, partly because of their tendency to defer excessively to power.

Their “deference to power” was not a newly hatched product of the Bush era, according to the authors, but a habit “deeply ingrained and continually reinforced in the culture and routines of mainstream journalism.” It is a habit that makes Washington journalists vulnerable to manipulation by the powerful and indifferent to dissent and protest. Dissenters and protesters are often dismissed as “mavericks,” suggesting they are not to be taken too seriously.

At its most primitive, deference to power becomes the relentless coverage accorded the smallest triviality at the White House. The president himself is covered exhaustively even when he is not doing much more than getting on and off airplanes, vacationing, or shaking hands with visiting grandees. At a more sophisticated level it often shows in the press’s language. The word “torture” was used sparingly in reports about Abu Ghraib. President Bush insists that United States does not countenance torture. Nor was the press quick to countenance the word. News stories and photographs of what sounded and looked shockingly like torture were commonly described in the press as “abuses.”

At its most damaging, deference to power means a readiness to tell the narrative of government as the powerful tell it. The Bush people have talked of creating their own reality. The writers of When the Press Fails refer to this Bushian “reality” as a “script” and criticize the Washington press for accepting it as reality, even when, as during the Iraq war, “that script seemed bizarrely out of line with observable events.”

Contrary to popular impression, there was some very good journalism as the administration rushed toward war. There was articulate dissent, too, even at the Capitol when the war resolution was being rushed through Congress. The press simply did not give it much attention since, for one thing it came from people out of power—Senators Kennedy of Massachusetts and Byrd of West Virginia, for instance, both Democrats. To know of Senator Byrd’s warnings against the rush to war and his pleas for Congress to accept its constitutional obligations, one had to stay tuned to C-Span. In the Times and the Post, Byrd hardly existed. Though he is the senior member of the Senate and a human encyclopedia of its history, he was out of power and therefore easily ignored, whereas Ari Fleischer—voice of the White House—was inescapable on the networks.

Contrary to the impression that the entire Washington press was sleepwalking, there was also some good investigative reporting. Michael Massing, whose articles on poor press coverage of the run-up to war appeared in these pages, credits several reporters for The Washington Post and The New York Times with reporting that challenged the administration’s case. But too often, Massing found, their reports were tucked discreetly inside the paper.*

Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank at the Post, for example, wrote that the United States was preparing to attack Iraq on the basis of allegations against Saddam Hussein “that have been challenged—and in some cases disproved—by the United Nations, European governments and even US intelligence reports.” The story was squirreled away inside on page A13. Pincus told Massing the Post‘s editors “went through a whole phase in which they didn’t put things on the front page that would make a difference.”

Massing gave especially high marks to Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and John Walcott of Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau for sustained coverage that never accepted the administration’s “script.” But here was another flaw in Washington journalism: Knight Ridder’s reporting on the reality behind the “script” had no influence at all on the rest of the press; because Knight Ridder had no paper in Washington, its reporting was not read there.

This may reflect something worse than a Washington press corps asleep at the switch. John Walcott, Washington bureau chief for Knight Ridder, speaking recently of his bureau’s Iraq coverage, said the Washington press had had a problem worse than timidity and too much coziness with power:

There was simple laziness: Much of what the administration said, especially about Iraq and al Qaida, simply made no sense, yet very few reporters bothered to check it out.

It also took a little courage to irritate a White House pack famous for telling the world only what served their purpose and whim. Challenging the “script” invited punishment by White House enforcers. Knight Ridder reporters were barred from traveling on the secretary of defense’s airplane for three years because their coverage had differed from the “script.” Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote that Saddam Hussein had not been shopping for uranium ore in Niger, as the President told Congress, and his wife’s career at the CIA was destroyed by administration leaks.

Through the conservative right’s vast talk-radio amplifier, journalists who challenged the “script” were accused of bias, unpatriotic motives, indifference to the lives of American soldiers, and even treasonous intent. Talk radio can now deliver casual round-the-clock slander with impunity since, for one thing, there is not much public support for aggressive reporting anymore. For years, there has been an effective campaign by political conservatives to depict the press as a false messenger spreading negativity and poisoning minds with leftist bias. Books on the theme become best sellers. Political “hosts” on round-the-clock news stations repeat the message tirelessly.

One result has been a widening disconnection between public and press. It is evident in the public’s changed view of the working journalist. Once a cultural hero, he was glamorized in the movies by Clark Gable and she by Rosalind Russell. They were salt-of-the-earth, wise-cracking, sassy, but high-principled types. So were James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Robert Redford, and Dustin Hoffman, all of whom did cinematic newsroom duty too. To be a journalist was to be a kind of proletarian hero worthy of Hollywood star power.

In American Carnival, Neil Henry sketches the modern “journalist” in all his “mishmash of guises,” and suggests why the public has withdrawn its affection. It has been a long time since Americans thought of a journalist as a working-class guy teaching a spoiled rich dame how to dunk a doughnut. To the average person today, Henry writes, “a Journalist is the television talker who is paid a considerable retainer to regularly make noise on cable news programs.” The person hosting the program is a Journalist, too, drawing down big money “not to seek out and report the news but to entertain an audience with a certain glibness and an argumentative personality.”

Today’s Journalist in Henry’s sketch is the TV commentator at a murder trial pronouncing guilt and talking of the maximum penalty before the evidence is in. Or she is a network TV star with a multimillion-dollar salary briefly pretending to understand the problems of working-class people. And there is “the inveterate Washington Beltway insider with shifting loyalties and ethics who works as a Pentagon spokesperson, political campaign adviser, or presidential speechwriter one year” and hires out next year as a network reporter or magazine correspondent worthy of trust. If in television, the Journalist is someone who may need “the eye tuck, the hair transplant, or the Botox injection” to create a false appearance of youth essential to reporting the truth persuasively.

Henry is clearly unhappy about all this. His assemblage of self-servers, frauds, political double-dippers, gasbags, mountebanks, spoiled reporters, and unprincipled swine make up that vague organism called “media.” How the press and journalism became entwined in this squalor is a long and complicated tale, but there seems to be no escape. Indeed, the press seems to have become only a minor player in Henry’s carnival, and there is even some question whether many people care. Nobody phones the paper expecting to find a hero anymore.

Anyone who did would probably get a recorded message on a computerized phone-answering machine system, as Henry did at several papers he called at random. He had a hard time reaching anybody at all. It was lonely on that telephone.

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