January 23, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?: Part DXV

Matthew Yglesias writes:

TAPPED: January 2004 Archives: DROPPING THE BALL. The New York Times manages to totally botch the story of Republicans stealing memos from Democratic Senators:

The Senate's sergeant-at-arms said on Thursday that he was nearing an end to an investigation into how several confidential memorandums written by Democratic staff aides about dealing with judicial nominations ended up in the hands of Republican staff members.

. . .

He said through a spokeswoman on Thursday that he expected to issue a report soon to the Judiciary Committee. The progress of Mr. Pickle's investigation was reported most recently by The Boston Globe on Thursday.

That's a hell of a way to bury the Globe's big scoop -- [the New York Times] manage[s] to never tell us what the content of the report was -- which, as you may recall, was this:

Republican staff members of the US Senate Judiciary Commitee infiltrated opposition computer files for a year, monitoring secret strategy memos and periodically passing on copies to the media, Senate officials told The Globe.

From the spring of 2002 until at least April 2003, members of the GOP committee staff exploited a computer glitch that allowed them to access restricted Democratic communications without a password. Trolling through hundreds of memos, they were able to read talking points and accounts of private meetings discussing which judicial nominees Democrats would fight -- and with what tactics.

This business where a huge story gets ignored in the national press just because the story was broken by a smaller, regional outlet and the big boys don't want to admit they got scooped is one of the minor tragedies of the American media...

Matthew Yglesias has got it wrong. I don't think that's what's going on here. I've heard too many reporters tell me that they have to cut the administration and the Republicans a break in their stories or they'll have their access and sources cut off. I've had too many editors tell me that other editors are doubting their own judgment, and in close (and maybe not so close?) calls deciding to give the administration and the Republicans a break because of what the reaction to being "overly critical" will be. We have deep, systematic flaws in our press corps. And it's not just an unwillingness to admit that a regional paper got a scoop.

Posted by DeLong at January 23, 2004 08:46 AM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post
Comments

so the law of unintended conequences strikes again.

Woodward and Bernstein made it possible for "mere" reporters to become highly compensated celeb journalists.

People entered the journalism field in order to become highly compensated celeb journalists.

With becoming a highly compensated celeb journalist the goal, the dictates of careerism start guiding decision-making.

And after 30 years of this, you get the media full of people who are afraid of being seen too critical and losing access to their sources....

Posted by: howard on January 23, 2004 09:06 AM

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So what the reporters want is to be spoon-fed their stories by WH operatives? And if they report the actual truth instead of the spin they'll be cut off and have to dig up their own information and do their own writing?

Let's not call them reporters anymore. Let's just call them typists, because that's all they are doing.

Posted by: Chuck Nolan on January 23, 2004 09:13 AM

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It's not so simple. The modus operandi of press reporting on government officials is to groom contacts, receive leaks, repeat pronouncements, etc. My own opinion is that even so, the process is biased in favor of Republican administrations.

The alternative method was used by I.F. Stone: just examine official documents and statements, and make no effort to cozy up to officials themselves. More effective in the long run, but it's less "exciting."

Posted by: Stephen J Fromm on January 23, 2004 09:16 AM

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In 1995-96 I lived in Vietnam for 9 months. 1995 was the first year that US reporters and news bureaus were permitted to set up shop in the country--and they had to walk a fine line. Kristin Huckshorn from the San Jose Mercury News, who was the paper's bureau chief in Hanoi, told me that every time she wrote a negative story about Vietnam, she got a nasty, interrogating phone call from vietnam government officials. Reporters learned to balance out every hard-hitting story they wrote with about nine softball-type stories.

Adam Schwartz, a terrific Dow Jones reporter, did not have his visa renewed after a year in Vietnam. . .that was Vietnam's version of restricting access. After that he wrote something to the effect that the lack of honest reporting hurts a country's business climate. If you can't get the straight story, ultimately you can't make good business decisions.

Brad, your words are chilling. . .are we looking at the Vietnamization of U.S. reporting--and all that portends? This administration, with its penchant for crony capitalism and controlling information, is profoundly anti-business and anti-entrepreneurial. If they're not careful, they're going to be accused of destroying capitalism.

Posted by: sylny on January 23, 2004 09:34 AM

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Mr. Fromm is quite right to bring up I. F. Stone as a counter-example.
This Columbia Journalism Review Article from 1992 is instructive, though it is written in the context of campaign coverage:

"Unlike today's journalists, Stone, who was his own boss, didn't have an editor looking over his shoulder asking, "Who cares about Vietnam?" In 1960 few of Stone's colleagues were willing to be seen talking to him, let alone socializing with such a political outcast. Finally, until surgery restored his hearing in the mid-1960s, Stone was practically deaf, unable to play the game of find-the-sound-bite that keeps today's reporters so busy....Stone's powers of analysis were unique, but his method is available for emulation: read everything, remember what the candidates said (and did) over a period of years -- not just days -- and bear in mind that politics doesn't take place in a vacuum, or a television studio. Above all, don't confuse positions with interests, or media-generated excitement with a grass-roots political movement."

We need an I.F. Stone today. For a related take on this, read today's Talking Points Memo.


Posted by: cafl on January 23, 2004 09:48 AM

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http://archives.cjr.org/year/92/4/perot.asp

Link didn't show up in my comment above. In this post I have put it in my "URL" field and in the text.

Posted by: cafl on January 23, 2004 09:51 AM

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I was wondering what even happened to the Nixon dirty tricks squad. Now we know. Didn't Nixon have to resign for behavior that was similar to this?

Posted by: Harold McClure on January 23, 2004 10:33 AM

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This post prompted me to re-read Eason Jordan's op-ed piece about how CNN failed to report the torture, corruption and brutality of Saddam's regime in order to retain access. And Saddam didn't control the FCC. The Washington press corps thinks they are doing a great job, but I believe that they are not objective reporters of their own condition.

Posted by: Joe Doherty on January 23, 2004 11:03 AM

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From andrewtobias.com:

"From the network that didnít bring you the Ronald Reagan docudrama, now fails to come the 30-second ad that moveon.org was trying to pay $1.6 million to run."

http://www.moveon.org/cbs/ad/

"To me, the prospect of a complete rightwing lock on all three branches of government, if we should elect Bush/Ashcroft November 2, becomes even more disturbing when you consider the increasing concentration and clout of the conservative media. Most of talk radio . . . FOX . . . and now an increasingly cowed CBS? Bill Paley must be turning over in his grave."

http://www.andrewtobias.com/

Faux News: We distort, to deride

Is it time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine?

Posted by: Kosh on January 23, 2004 11:53 AM

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I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it. The benefits to a reporter, editor, and news organization to win market share in the face of everyone elses sycophancy would be huge.

And which news organizations, exactly, have had access & sources cut off by the administration? And wouldn't the press have every incentive to protect themselves by lambasting the administration for attempting to manipulate media coverage?

Besides, hasn't this administration already cut off the press? What else can the administration do? Not allow reporters to listen to Scott McClellan's best imitation of Mohammad Saeed al-Sahhaf?

Posted by: decon on January 23, 2004 12:23 PM

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Decon, don't be sorry. You're an idiot! We all automatically forgive you. You're God's Holy Fool, masquerading as a tough-minded skeptic.

Not only are the media concentrated, but most are owned by conglomerates of various sorts who have much more important goals than selling newspapers (or even advertising in the papers). Further still, politics isn't what sells papers. A lot of people prefer cheery fluff. (Though since recently USA Today greatly outperformed the stuffy big-time papers on the SOTU speech, I probably shouldn't denigrate fluff. The Post and the Times can be sub-fluff!).

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson on January 23, 2004 01:32 PM

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Funny, I can't find the Yglesias post from which Brad
quotes on the TAPPED archive page linked to. The
_Times_ story is indeed disgusting, as is the lack of
any followup to the _Globe_ except for the mention by
Krugman today. Apparently "Republican Operatives
Cheat" is too much of a "Dog Bites Man" story to be
worth coverage?

Posted by: Dave MB on January 23, 2004 01:50 PM

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Shameless blog flog:

I've posted on the Times' alternate-reality version of the Globe story on Reading A1 (http://blogs.salon.com/0003364/2004/01/23.html#a16), an adopt-a-journalist blog that's adopted the NY Times front page rather than an individual journalist. I have to say, the extent to which the Times has become, through at least a significant number of its reporters, a GOP spin machine suggests that more than fear—of loss of access, of editorial disapproval, of attacks from the mighty right-wing Wurlitzer—is at play here. The Times comes close to making it policy that you don't play on the front page unless you're willing, not just to cut the administration slack, but to echo and reinforce the Republican line. I'm inclined, as Brad is here, to understand what journalists write primarily through understanding the sociology of the class and through accounting for working conditions and instituional pressures, but I can't make out the political drift of the Times lately simply by triangulating those elements.

Posted by: Michael on January 23, 2004 03:42 PM

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The way to counter this is simple. Write the damn Times like I did this morning. And get your friends to write them. Don't you think Rove and Limbaugh do? If they get 60,000 emails a week from mouthbreathers and 3,000 from thinking people you know what's going to happen. Stop bitching and get to work.

Posted by: Mark Garrity on January 23, 2004 05:23 PM

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This administration, with its penchant for crony capitalism and controlling information, is profoundly anti-business and anti-entrepreneurial. If they're not careful, they're going to be accused of destroying capitalism.

You know...

The death of private savings, the emphasis on income redistribution to the upper classes, the policies which long-term retard the growth of business...

I mean, more and more it looks like this administration isn't capitalist, it's feudalist.

Posted by: agrajag on January 23, 2004 06:46 PM

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meant to put that first paragraph in quotes...

Posted by: agrajag on January 23, 2004 06:47 PM

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Jack Shafer's spin in Slate, with a link to Roll Call;
http://slate.msn.com/id/2094333/

Posted by: rilkefan on January 23, 2004 10:29 PM

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Name names, Brad. Say who they are -- write an essay on the reporters who have prostituted their objectivity for access. Show that what we think is a press corps is really a typing pool -- this is a terrifying thing you say, and the world needs to know the particulars and the reality of it, or people will consider you "partisan" and refuse to believe it, or at least refuse to believe the seriousness of it.

The reporters need to lose access. They need to become reporters again, and work for a living -- to research and uncover the stories.

Posted by: eyelessgame on January 24, 2004 09:47 AM

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decon wrote, "I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it. The benefits to a reporter, editor, and news organization to win market share in the face of everyone elses sycophancy would be huge."

You're making all sorts of implicit assumptions about the market for news. Suppose, for sake of argument only, we could put a metric on the "truthfulness" of news reports. For example, a news report that just contained self-serving statements froma politician would get a lower score than a newsreport that documented who the politicians donors were. (And so on.) Then you seem to be asserting that an organization with a higher score would do very well, if not the best, in market competition with other news organizations.

Yet there is no prior reason to believe this.

"And which news organizations, exactly, have had access & sources cut off by the administration? And wouldn't the press have every incentive to protect themselves by lambasting the administration for attempting to manipulate media coverage?"

If I recall correctly, at one so-called news conference at which Bush was allowed to pick and chose reporters and their questions ahead of time, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank and Mike Allen (again, IIRC...) were shut out, and they're much better reporters than average (if not infallible).

Posted by: Stephen J Fromm on January 25, 2004 09:10 AM

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It's a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation.

Posted by: Kingdon Jim on March 17, 2004 05:32 PM

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Misfortune shows those who are not really friends.

Posted by: Grindle Alex on May 2, 2004 12:57 PM

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Perceptions do not limit reality.

Posted by: Camerata Julie on May 3, 2004 12:28 AM

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Describing is not knowing.

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Posted by: Amy on June 2, 2004 01:53 AM

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Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.

Posted by: Grindle Alex on June 2, 2004 08:49 PM

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Unusual ideas can make enemies.

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