Monday, June 13, 2005

Bring Back Good Journalism

After the recent Deepthroat disclosure of W. Mark Felt, it seems natural to compare the journalistic standards of Bernstein and Woodward to those standards demonstrated in main stream media now. The comparision certainly comes up short; the Golden Age of journalism is over .

Essayist Russ Baker points out the following reasons why and how it can be revived in his article "Tomorrow's Woodwards And Bernsteins":
Financial: Today, with ownership of the media increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, everything is about generating larger and larger profit margins and better quarterly corporate reports. Putting a reporter on a six-month project with no guaranteed outcome is less “cost-effective” than having that person crank out a new article every day. Quality and quantity are often natural enemies.

Conflicting Interests: The large media corporations are often part of larger conglomerates with a strong interest in obscuring the most crucial revelations. Obviously NBC, a small unit within the huge military contractor GE, has a hard time doing stories about military contractors who dominate Washington decision-making, help promote unnecessary wars and waste a fortune in taxpayer dollars. Furthermore, the media corporations increasingly find themselves with pending business before the very same administration they ought to be giving fits to—such as when the FCC is considering changes in ownership rules that will benefit the company.

Intimidation: Years of criticism from the right-wing "noise machine" has made news organizations wary of tough, original reporting that could bring accusations of a liberal bias. In addition, this administration has masterfully played up mini-scandals about reporting techniques (including the "60 Minutes" use of improperly-authenticated documents about Bush’s National Guard service, and Newsweek’s reporting on allegations that U.S. interrogators threw copies of the Quran into the toilet.) These small tempests have served to distract the public from the larger questions about official wrongdoing: on the one hand Bush’s dereliction of military duty, and on the other the horrific mismanagement of prisons in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan.

They’ve also intimidated news decision-makers. Tales of pulled punches and initiatives not pursued continue to leak out of this country’s newsrooms. And we’ve seen an unfortunate increase in news executives’ zeal for prematurely confessing error and professing eagerness for self-reform.

Against this backdrop, old-fashioned muckraking appears doomed unless concerned individuals and institutions take bold action.

Here are a few ideas:

1) Mount a public education effort to teach the public about the importance of investigative journalism. Stress the differences between public issue investigations and gossipy exposes—a difference the public seems increasingly unable to comprehend.

2) Protect whistleblowers so that those with the inside information can come forward without imperiling themselves, their families and their careers. Acknowledge the indispensability of anonymous sources (but only real Deep Throats, not “senior government officials” who use the cloak of anonymity to float material sanctioned by their bosses.)

3) Recognize that good journalism and high profits just aren’t a viable fit. Investigative journalism is too essential, too elemental to freedom and self-governance to be left to the vagaries of Wall Street.

4) Support efforts to acknowledge the crucial role of journalism in a free society by finding alternative ways of paying for it.

At a time when public funding of journalism is retrenching—witness the crisis at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—we will almost certainly need to ask foundations and visionary individuals of means to step up to the plate. Thus far, such largesse has been minimal. But it’s getting too late in the day to hold back investing in the truth. The time is now for a Herculean commitment.


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