SOLOMON: The Narrow Separation of Press and State
It was a remarkable comment that passed without notice. After interviewing the new White House chief of staff, a network anchor bade him farewell. "All right, Andy Card," said CNN's Judy Woodruff, "we look forward to working with you, to covering your administration."
If major news outlets were committed to independent journalism, Woodruff's statement on national television Jan.19 would have caused quite a media stir -- as a sign of undue coziness with power brokers in Washington. But it was far from conspicuous.
Woodruff's remark was matter-of-fact. Warm collaboration is routine. Many reporters work closely with each new crew of top government officials.
Leading journalists and spinners in high places are accustomed to mutual reliance. That's good for professional advancement. But the public's right to know is another matter.
"The first fact of American journalism is its overwhelming dependence on sources, mostly official, usually powerful," Walter Karp pointed out in Harper's Magazine a dozen years ago. Since then, the problem has grown even more acute. A multitude of journalists advance their careers by (in Woodruff's words) "working with" movers and shakers in government.
Reporters with outsized reputations for investigative vigor -- Bob Woodward, for example -- may be the most compromised. Behind the scenes, the tacitly understood tradeoffs amount to quid pro quos. Officials dispense leaks to reporters with track records of proven willingness to stay within bounds.
"It is a bitter irony of source journalism," Karp observed, "that the most esteemed journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the 'best' sources."
While some fine journalism, assertive and carefully researched, gets into print and onto airwaves every day, the islands of such reporting are drowned in oceans of glorified leaks and institutional handouts. But democracy is only served when journalists keep searching for information that officials hide.
On the surface, concerns about scant separation of press and state might seem to be misplaced. After all, don't we see network correspondents firing tough questions at politicians? Isn't the press filled with criticism of policymakers?
Well, kind of. We're encouraged to confuse partisan wrangles with ample debate, or -- in the case of certain TV shows -- high decibels with wide diversity. To a great extent, mainstream media outlets provide big megaphones for those who already have plenty of clout. That suits wealthy owners and large advertisers. But what about democratic discourse?
In general, news coverage of political issues is about as varied as the array of views propounded by the hierarchies of the Democratic and Republican parties. When there's bipartisan agreement on particular topics -- such as the wisdom of keeping 2 million Americans behind bars or the value of corporate globalization -- the media space for debate tends to be very limited. Consensus among major-party leaders has a way of circumscribing the mass-media arena.
With huge conglomerates more enmeshed in media ownership and advertising than ever, news operations are under heightened pressure to promote corporate outlooks, dovetailing with rightward trends in governance. It's true that business has always dominated government policymaking. But in recent times, mitigating interests -- often known in mediaspeak as "special interests" -- have been increasingly expunged from serious consideration.
"What is new about the situation today is that a seemingly irreversible mutation in the American system has occurred," syndicated columnist William Pfaff wrote in mid-January. "At some point, quantitative change does become qualitative change. The point when that change took place was probably 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that money spent in support of a political candidate is a form of constitutionally protected free speech. Moneyed interests now finance not only the winners of national elections but also most of the losers."
Pfaff's column appears most prominently in the International Herald Tribune. Based in Paris, he has a clear-eyed view of big money's leverage over U.S. politics: "This is part of the enlarging domination of American life by business corporations and their values, which are those of material aggrandizement, a phenomenon accompanied and promoted by the circuses and gladiatorial contests provided by the most important U.S. industry of all, entertainment, which now showcases elections and even wars as entertainments."
We need wide-ranging news media. And that's unlikely as long as most "journalism" resembles stenography for the powerful -- and very few eyebrows get raised when a network anchor tells a key official of an incoming administration that "we look forward to working with you."