Those who offer suggestions to the Washington media need not worry that their advice will be taken. The mental grooves here are worn too deep, and self-importance serves to set them in concrete. The only cause for hope is that time still passes. In journalism, as in physics, bad ideas generally don’t concede; they succumb to a new generation. As the current Washington guard inches towards its golden years, there is at least a possibility that something new will push through the concrete. We might be wary of high tech “cures” for aging. Do we really want another 200 years o f John MacLaughlin and George Will?
So for the record, as it were, here are nine suggestions the media will ignore.
1. Tell the Story, Not the Script
The script is what the players want you to tell. The story is what happened. The Washington media, in their dogged obedience, almost always follow the first.
Take a congressional hearing. The next day’s story in The Washington Post will be a Big-Shot-Says story, guaranteed. Expert said “Blah” at the hearing. Colonel said “Boo.” That’s the script.
The story is why the committee held a hearing on this subject in the first place. Who chose the witness list? Who was left out? Who was relegated to the final time slots when reporters have packed up their notebooks and the klieg lights have gone off? Which committee members showed up, and why? (At a congressional hearing, what doesn’t get said often is more important than what does.)
2. Mention the Money
Money is the single biggest factor here, the polar field through which most issues must pass. Yet the media rarely mention it. Money ends up in a cognitive ghetto, disconnected from the daily flow of events, discussed only in a few isolated stories about political contributions. Out of sight, out of mind. The implicit message: “It matters but it really doesn’t.”
Why not note the fact of money routinely? W hy not say, in every story, something like this: “Senator Slick, who received $500,000 from the oil industry last year, today called for oil drilling in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge.” This is not cynicism; it is reality, which the Washington media are supposed to report. Sunlight does not sanitize by itself. Repetition is necessary.
3. Stop Those Dumb Quotes
The news pages in Washington have become increasingly like the sports pages in that they are full of inane and say-nothing quotes. The locker room classics—e.g “We didn’t show enough intensity out there tonight” — have their counterparts in ritualistic quotes from the Washington players. Recently, in a story on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote to approve John Ashcroft as attorney general, The New York Times quotes President Bush as saying, “I just hope there are no further delays.” And all this time I thought the president wanted more delay.
Such quotes pad out stories and produce the vacant, numbed-out quality that pervades the Washington beat. Reporters need to set a higher bar. If they quoted only statements that are genuinely insightful or revealing, the news would be better—and Washington would be too.
4. Authority is Not Reality
The proliferation of ritual and say-nothing quotes is a symptom of something more basic in Washington reporting—authority journalism. The reporter does not seek to find out what is, but what some big shot says. One might call it the Bob Woodward Syndrome.
Authority journalism has spawned the Big-Shot-Says story, in which the mere opening of the mouth becomes front page news. It also has spawned the ritual of the dueling authorities, in which the reporter quotes one, quotes another on the opposite side, and then calls it a day with no effort to determine the merits of the respective arguments.
The question is not what authorities say. Authorities can be wrong. They can work from outdated assumptions and ignore inconvenient questions. Economics in particular serves as a tendentious set of assumptions disguised as objective science. As authorities, economists are about as dependable as psychologists—you can find one who will say just about anything. That is one reason reporters rely on them so much.
Reporters need to get past the “economist says” mode. Among other things this would help free them from the sneering contempt for new ideas which has become a leading trait of the big-shot media. New thinking rarely comes from experts.
And a note to the business page reporters. Those “Wall Street analysts” you rely on so much are not dispassionate observers. They work for investment houses that have positions in stocks and bonds. They spin the economy the way the flacks for the Republican and Democratic leaderships spin Congress. So please stop quoting them as authorities. They are players.
5. Vet that Study
A form of authority journalism that is particularly sneaky and insidious is the “study.” Practically every day brings a “Study Says …” headline, and often several. Study says efforts to combat global warming will ruin the economy. Study says poverty is on the increase, and on and on.
Such studies are reported as papal authority. Expertise has spoken, ‘iet expertise is not infallible, and often it is on the take. I once asked a technician at the Congressional Budget Office what he did on the job. “I tinker with assumptions until the boss gets the answer he wants,” he said. The study-meisters at most Washington trade groups and opinion tanks would admit the same, if honest. You think these groups are going to release a study that goes against their own position?
Every “Study Says…” story should examine the key data and assumptions. If the study does not lay these out clearly then it does not deserve to be reported. The assumptions are not always esoteric. Media reports of a study of a welfare-to-work program in Minnesota, which heralded this program as a glowing success, neglected to mention that the program had been changed drastically since the study was done. By the same token, an econometric model that assumes, say, full employment, becomes suspect from the word go.
There is no reason that major media outlets such as The Washington Post or The New York Times can’t have professionals on call to dissect studies before the paper holds them forth as the latest voices of authority and expertise.
6. Yesterday Matters
The U.S. media have the attention span of seven-year-olds. If something was said or done more than 48 hours ago, it ceases to exist. One result is a near total lack of accountability. Big shots and experts here can be wrong repeatedly and get away with it because no one ever asks them to explain.
This shouldn’t be such a problem. All it takes is access to Nexis or a decent search engine. Back in 1993, in the Senate debate over the first Clinton budget, Phil Gramm of Texas warned that “people will pay more taxes, the economy will create fewer jobs, government will spend more money, and the American people will be worse off!”
Well, Phil, what happened? Big shots here mouth off like that every day. Why don’t reporters ever go back and ask them to explain why they were wrong? And in the case of experts, why do reporters keep quoting them no matter how many times they are wrong?
Then, too, history is more than simple accountability. It also provides context for the day’s events. The point may seem trite. Yet the news from Washington each day typically reads as though the nation’s capital materialized out of the swamp at 6:00 a.m. the day before How about letting the political “observers”—the Larry Sabatos and Marshall Wittmans et al.—rest their vocal chords once in a while and call a historian for comment instead?
History is especially important with regards to the economy, since economic history tends to be more instructive than the theory. So call historians instead of economists on occasion, too.
7. Observe the Ordinary
The prestige media resemble more and more the local 11 o’clock news. They are driven by conflict and scandal—the Washington equivalents of the 50-car-pileup story. The overseas news is this way chronically. A riot in Bangladesh appears suddenly out of nowhere, and then disappears until there’s more “unrest.” In Washington, the Department of Transportation plops onto center stage in the commotion over Firestone tires. T hen it disappears until there is more scandal or gore.
If we don’t have some sense of the ordinary, we cannot possibly grasp the occasional commotion and “unrest.” Reporters might try writing about Washington as though they were foreign visitors. Every culture— even that of the bureaucracy—can be interesting if you view it through fresh and curious eyes.
8. Legality Is the Problem
Washington reporters seem to believe that an abuse isn’t worthy of telling unless it is technically illegal. Thus the Clinton campaign scandals. No one explained why this money was worse than the other campaign money that pours into the political maw. It was just done in a bumptious manner that violated the law. (Also it involved recent immigrants instead of smooth WASP lawyers.)
The trouble with that standard is that the maw writes the law. Congress makes the campaign finance rules— and its own ethics rules—to ban the things it doesn’t care about and to keep legal the things it wants. A congressional staffer can’t take $50 from a newspaper for writing an op-ed. Yet a member of Congress can take thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the executives of the corporation that owns that same newspaper.
This is not a defense of Clinton. His promiscuity as a fundraiser matched other areas of his life. Still, the worst abuses in Washington generally are legal. There’s a difference between an act of corruption and a prosecutable offense. (While we’re on the subject, is it really worse to put up a contributor in the Lincoln Bedroom than it is to, say, open up the Alaska Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling for the benefit of that contributor? Just possibly, with the Lincoln bedroom as a sop, the taxpayers were getting a break.)
9. Words Matter
Reporters first and foremost are keepers of language. They need to call things what they are, not what some ax-grinder calls them. Take the term “special interest.” Somehow reporters have swallowed the ideological pap that defines a “special interest” as someone who argues for the general interest—who wants to keep the air clean enough to breathe, for example. By that Orwellian reasoning, the corporations that pollute the air for monetary gain become a magnanimous public interest.
There’s an unsavory history on this particular point. In 1936, Avery Brundage, then head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, dismissed demands to boycott the Olympics in Hitler’s Munich on the grounds that these were the work of the ‘Jewish special interest.” He then proceeded to permit the exclusion of two Jewish sprinters from the 440-meter relay team—in the public interest, no doubt.
Or take the term “conservative.” If reporters went back to the origins of the modern conservative tradition—to Edmund Burke, de Tocqueville et al.—they would encounter some surprises. They would find that a Ralph Nader, with his suspicions of material progress, his alertness to the destructive tendencies of human nature, his desire to protect against the leveling juggernaut of the global economy, is a conservative in temperament. Ditto most environmentalists.
By the same token, many “conservatives” have a euphoric faith in material progress and in the ability of human ingenuity to solve all problems that is a hallmark of the liberal tradition. Market Utopians such as George Gilder and Jack Kemp are prominent examples.
A little more care regarding words would convey to readers that reporters are actually alive to the world and are not mentally embalmed in convention and cliche. This would be no small step.
One of the biggest problems with journalism is also one of the biggest problems with human nature: We’re a little slow on the uptake. Things change and we live in the past. What happened before isn’t always a predictor of the future. Like lab rats who expect a food pellet after two clicks of the feeding bar and suddenly discover that it now takes three clicks, we’re often mislead by our prior experiences.
I know I’ve been. I remember during the L.A. Riots in 1992 chatting with another Monthly alum who was worried that the violence would bring a backlash against liberalism—just as it had in the ’60s—and would propel Bush to reelection. Just this past year, I found it hard to believe that A1 Gore could lose the presidential race. After all, as we all know well, no incumbent party had ever blown it under such conditions. I remember thinking on election eve in 1994 that the Dems would probably lose about 26 seats in the House. The GOP had lost that number in 1982 during the recession and it seemed like a reasonable number to me.
Of course, the Gingrich crowd picked up more than twice that. I’m not in the fortune telling business and so I never put my thinking into print. (I just lost a slew of $1 bets.) But collectively journalists do think the future has to be the way it was before. In 1996,1 reviewed a book called Mirage: Why N either Democrats nor Republicans Can Balance the Budget, End the Deficit, and Satisfy the Public. In the ’80s Jean -Francois Revel, late of How Democracies Perish, was the guiding light for Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Reaganites who believed that authoritarian regimes could evolve into democracies but that totalitarian ones—like those of Eastern Europe—couldn’t. Today, of course, we have our own assumptions that seem inviolable: Africa will always be poor, the Democrats can’t win a Senate seat in Utah and the Clippers can’t snag an NBA championship. You 11 think after the tumult of the 20th century our minds would automatically be open. If communism can fall, then surely H.R. 789 has a chance of passage. But somehow we remain creatures of habit, lab rats expecting the pellet. The guiding ethos of the Monthly has been to be open-minded—okay, except about mandatory national service and means-testing entitlements. In my daily work in the news business I try to keep that in mind.
Someone far wiser than I once described reporters as “shy egomaniacs.” This shyness is not relevant to our immediate concerns. But anyone who dreams of raising the standards of journalism would be well advised to cater to the egomania of reporters.
In an ideal world, a foundation would endow a nightly televised roundtable on PBS to showcase the nation’s best reporting on how government really works. Suddenly, print reporters would vie for the chance to write in-depth reports on non-glamorous federal agencies like HUD or the INS. The reason: Writing high-minded stories would now reward their creators with a chance to regularly preen before the cameras.
Fortunately, modern technology provides a way to harness these same ego needs on the cheap. All it would take is for some institution with extra cash to establish a national, daily Web roundup of the nation’s most insightful and revealing reporting on government. Called, Tim Russert and Maureen Dowd should be reassigned to cover the FDA. say, “The Blue-Ribbon Report,” it would highlight, agency by agency, all the articles that did more than regurgitate the president’s day, complete with links to the actual stories or television transcripts. Before too long, self-obsessed reporters, whether in Washington or Walla Walla, would log on every day to see if their stories were considered best in show. Trust me, the editorial decisions of the compilers of The Blue-Ribbon Report would subtly shape news coverage.
Anyone who follows politics knows that I am trying to emulate “The Hotline,” a pricey subscription news service published by the National Journal. Five days a week, “The Hotline” publishes an exhaustive compendium of all the political news that appeared in print or was uttered on televised gab fests. As a political columnist, I will confess to an inordinate interest in how “The Hotline” treats my twice weekly epiphanies. Similarly, a reporter in Trenton who just broke a story on fundraising efforts for this November’s New Jersey gubernatorial race will preen with pride when his work is immortalized in “The Hotline.” Since everybody who counts (that is, of course, fellow reporters and news sources) is addicted to a daily “Hotline” fix, political correspondents derive positive reinforcement from devoting their careers to charting the world of campaign consultants and candidates who slavishly follow their dictates.
Can we really make reporting on government a fraction as glamorous as prematurely handicapping the field for the Democrats in 2004? Alas, probably not. Still, an endeavor like The Blue-Ribbon Report would pay far more real-world dividends than funding another round of journalism prizes for “the best six-part series on government malfeasance in a daily paper with a circulation less than 100,000.” The problem with yearly awards, whether they are the Pulitzers or a certificate of merit from the Journalism Association of Southern Missouri, is that they are designed to celebrate exceptional performance. Instead, what is desperately needed is a way to honor day-to-day reporting on the interstices of government.
Something akin to The Blue-Ribbon Report would have the side benefit of serving as a national tip-sheet for Washington big-think types. If, say, local reporters in Denver and Atlanta are writing stories about similar management scandals in the regional offices of the Labor Department, this online government news roundup would allow even the most inert national correspondents to see provocative patterns in the news. Right now, most out-of-Washington investigative articles disappear down the memory hole. How bracing it would be, for those of us who grapple with the what-the-hell-do-I-write-today challenge of newspaper work, to log onto The Blue-Ribbon Report and find a quick summary of everything that has been recently unearthed about the Border Patrol or the food-stamp program.
There are few journalistic endeavors more laudable than holding government to the highest standards of performance, rather than simply grading the incumbent administration on its public-relations skills. But if you want more serious reporting, you have to reward it. Since no one is ever going to get rich from doggedly covering the Food and Drug Administration, a few gold stars, or glowing mentions in our mythical Blue-Ribbon Report, could go a long way toward encouraging a new generation of reporters to dig beneath the surface of government.
Not long ago I went to a wake in a New Jersey suburb and met arguably the most powerful person in American journalism. When I noted this, she was appropriately modest. But it’s true. From a desk at the Associated Press in midtown Manhattan, she decides each day which five stories will be tagged as major news. When they go out over the AP wire, they frame and shape the coverage. If they don’t make the wire, they might as well not have happened. Yes, the dowdy old AP is still calling the tune.
Of course, Reuters plays a similar role, as do the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and the New York tabloids; Newsweek and Time help validate big stories. But the group is very small. Fewer and fewer people are actually gathering the news; more and more are processing and analyzing it. Many print reporters must now file repeatedly for the Web versions of their publications, or yak on cable T V (myself included). Meanwhile, many T V reporters, who once had at least a couple of hours to report, must now go on camera repeatedly when big news breaks. The result of all of this is that the same Washington stories get told and retold, packaged and repackaged. While there is fresh ground being broken in health and business journalism, reporting about government hasn’t progressed. It’s still conflict, scandal, and personality. Anything that doesn’t fit that has a hard time getting reported. Health and business stories don’t need conflict; a new treatment or investment will do. But new government initiatives usually need something else to get them over the hump. Recognition that a housing program or environmental decision will affect millions of people is not enough anymore to qualify as news.
The old beat system had its drawbacks; it bred coziness and laziness. But staff cutbacks and short attention spans have left something worse—a kind of amnesia about Washington. Even when a newsletter or small publication digs up an interesting story about, say, HUD, it’s usually ignored by the rest of the press. If it hasn’t been “certified” a big story by the wires and TV, it’s hard to get editors interested. Meanwhile, more phony stories are getting picked up and spread as truth. For instance, when President Clinton left office, he did some stupid things he has justifiably caught hell for in the press—like the Marc Rich pardon and the loony and greedy idea of registering for gifts. But it was simply untrue that staffers looted Air Force One of goodies and shattered glasses. And the White House was not “trashed” by departing staffers. But it took four days before reporters caught up to these facts—four days of letting the Drudge Report and The Washington Times throw a little more dirt on the Clintons without substantiation.
It used to be that saying a story was “too good to check” was a kind of inside joke among reporters. They checked it anyway. Now, it’s a way of doing business. Yes, there is still terrific work being done by various reporters covering politics and government. But amplifying the AP story list and “analyzing” juicy scandal rumors make up much too large a share of the overall coverage.
The Washington Monthly believes that personnel policies are a key ingredient to making the government, or any other big organization, work. Why not alter the personnel policies of the big media organizations to focus more on policy than on trivia?
My idea is to reassign political reporters to policy beats for the first year of the Bush administration. By “political reporters,” I mean the top-dog reporters of every Washington news organization. David Broder and Dan Balz at The Washington Post. Maureen Dowd at The New York Times, and Tim Russert at NBC. People like that.
Two things need to be said about this group of people: One, they tend to be extremely talented; and two, it’s usually a waste of their gifts to have them strain, in non-election years, to write windy meta-analyses of the political landscape. Because they enjoy great prestige within their news organizations, windy meta-analysis enjoys great prestige while the mere coverage of what goes on in specific policy areas, and how these policies affect real people, isn’t very prestigious at all. (If my tone here sounds a little surly, it’s because I spent six years covering regulatory agencies for The Wall Street Journal, and I certainly never made anyone swoon at a Washington cocktail party by announcing that I covered the Food and Drug Administration.)
Believe it or not, reporting wasn’t always this way. The job category, “national political reporter,” didn’t even exist before the 1960s, when news organizations, chastened by the insider campaign scoops in Theodore H. White’s Making of the President books, created it. Some of the people occupying these slots right now—Broder is the best known example—are from the occupation’s very first generation. Temporarily siphoning this talent away from big-picture politics would hardly be a threat to hallowed journalistic tradition. Rather, it would improve the way news organizations cover what government actually does. The reassigned reporters would use their clout to get more column inches and air time on substantive issues, and their egos wouldn’t permit them to do halfhearted work. In addition, a valuable message would be sent to reporters already covering these beats—and, perhaps more important, news consumers— that this work deserves attention. No doubt there would be some conflict on occasions when longstanding beat reporters felt bigfooted by media stars. More likely, though, the potential bigfeet, knowing themselves to be policy novices, would realize they’d have to form fruitful collaborations with the beat veterans. And when they returned to the politics beat, they’d have a better appreciation for a In elections exist in the first place.
It’s long been a mantra of this magazine that the press pays too much attention to the horse race elements of politics and policy, but not enough to substance.
The problem, though, is getting anybody to pay attention to the important policy stories. It’s easier and more exciting to write about the battle of personalities, interest groups, and spinmeisters, as well as the O.J., Monicagate, Elian Gonzalez or Florida recount debacle stories that grip the public imagination. When we are all following the 24-hour cable channels and Internet for the latest tidbits about the scandal du jour, who wants to read articles entitled “Whither the Social Security Trust Fund?” or “Our Failing Schools”? With ratings, career advancement, and circulation at stake, journalists too often view substantive stories as spinach that they’d rather not feed their audience. It’s not surprising, then, that in recent years they’ve become more like carnival barkers, luring the boobs into the news tent with the promise of, essentially, nudie shows, political scandals, and bathetic melodramas.
However, some journalists, such as the investigative duo of James Steele and Donald Barlett, now with Time magazine, have found a possible way out of this dilemma by putting a human face on policy issues. The principles at work in their investigative monuments can be adopted by other journalists, including those faced with the demands of regular deadlines.
In a story on bankruptcy reform legislation last year, for instance, Steele and Barlett didn’t limit their story to just showing how the banking and credit-card lobbies were giving millions to favored legislators to push a draconian bankruptcy bill that critics said harmed consumers. Instead, they led their article on campaign spending, “How the Little Guy Gets Crunched,” with the story of an eight-year-old girl with a degenerative muscular condition whose parents were too burdened with credit-card debt to pay for her medical bills. Yes, it’s melodramatic, and conservatives derided their assertion that the new bill— which was ultimately vetoed by President Clinton— unfairly restricted bankruptcy options for consumers. But they got readers to pay attention to a policy issue by illustrating it with a compelling human-interest story.
Barlett and Steele are basically using what I call the Gravedigger Gambit, in honor of the great Jimmy Breslin who helped develop it. Breslin, now with Newsday, often puts important news events in perspective by showing their effect on the lives of average folk caught up in them. In one celebrated column written about Jack Kennedy’s funeral, he focused on the gravedigger who had to get up early to prepare Kennedy’s grave. While the rest of the press pack was focusing on the pomp and ceremony of the sad day, Breslin was illustrating what President Kennedy meant in people’s lives in a dramatic, heart-wrenching way. He’s been able to do such stories quite often in the regular 800-word columns he’s written for over 30 years. This bottom-up approach to news and issues takes some extra work on the part of reporters used to just calling up Norm Ornstein for comment, but it pays off in dramatic ways.
Such devices can become hackneyed in the wrong hands, of course; but without compelling narratives, all the public-spirited journalism in the world won’t be able to compete for space or attention with the bread and circuses the media emperors now offer us.
Charles Peters has been ahead of his time on a lot of things, but especially with his insight that journalists should bring narrative storytelling to what works and does not work in government. Everybody knows that many of the political tenets of neoliberalism are part of the American mainstream, but I believe Peters’ quiet crusade to force reporters to think novelistically about seemingly unglamorous subjects is our best bet to get the media to do a better job of bringing the story of government alive to broad audiences.
For a while now, there’s been a kind of twilight struggle between those who wring their hands about the tabloidization of the national media and the folks in the national media who, indeed, do spend a lot of time telling stories that are interesting but not so very important. M y view is that journalism properly practiced can cover stories both high and low, from the war over guns to Tom and Nicole. It might be useful to think of such coverage in dinner-party terms: You shouldn’t have too many sweets or too many vegetables. The ideal mix is a balance between the two, and we should prepare the vegetables with the same care and flair that we bring to dessert.
There’s no question all of us can do more to explain how the vast institutions of government really work. But we can’t just do it to make ourselves feel better about chasing the latest speeding tabloid car. To his credit, Peters saw a solution to this conundrum: Assign reporters with an eye for human drama and detail to get inside the often opaque world of public policy.
We should also broaden the definition of “government” to include the vast public arena outside the departments and agencies. Steve Waldman did this in his wonderful book about national service, The Bill—a story told with a feel for the flesh-and-blood realities behind the gray statistics and policy solemnities. The Washington Post’s Katherine Boo is the prevailing master of taking readers inside public programs; her Pulitzer Prizewinning series on care of the mentally retarded in the District of Columbia introduced readers to unforgettable characters while, at the same time, explaining where the system broke down. Covering government better means writing about what government, broadly speaking, really is: Institutions run by real people making their way in a world, in George Eliot’s phrase, of “dim lights and tangled circumstance.”
A systemic problem facing the press is that what’s new isn’t the same as what’s important. We need our top outlets to give us the latest, but it would be nice if they could also keep us focused on the things that matter. The press’ failure here spawns an unproductive cycle in which committees of “concerned journalists” and other hand-wringers issue fretting reports, and top outlets point defensively to a few stories they did. At the same time, the tendency to elevate trivial matters into ground-shaking events accounts for a justifiable portion of public officials’ contempt for the press. In its own way, this contempt—and the caution it breeds in survival-oriented officials—makes the job of reporting on public life harder.
What to do? My dream reform is simple. If I were Arthur Sulzberger or Donald Graham, I’d devote an inch or two at the bottom of page one each day to a small but legible presentation of key facts that are “Still True Today!’ M y own list would include “43 million Americans uninsured; 2 million teachers need to be recruited in the next decade, while average teacher salary is $38,000; number of abortions last year— 1.4 million.” Perhaps you’d have 20 key facts highlighted. The exercise would require leading papers to put forward what they think are the most important things citizens need to remain aware of even as the “news” changes each day. It might help set the agenda for their enterprise reporting. And the art department could make sure this recurring feature was fun and lively. The cable news networks could do something similar on panels they show before commercial breaks.
Who knows? If an owner-dominated publication like the Times or Post took a chance and started such a feature, the ripple effect might be huge. The Times inaugurated an op-ed page 30 years ago; now it’s a staple. A few years hence the same might be true of “Still True Today!”
Joshua Wolf Shenk
It was rude, once, to send a typewritten letter. Later, a social call by telephone seemed most impolite. The protests are thin reeds against the march of machines. I will make a stand anyway—against automated phone systems. I invite my fellow journalists to join me. We will be crushed, I expect. But this is an enemy we can learn something from.
In 1989, a loan company in southern California installed an automated phone system, but yanked it when customers protested. In the early 1990s, at my first magazine job, the quirks of the automated life still raised eyebrows. I remember the owner complaining, semiseriously, about the message, I will transfer you now. How could this machine call itself “I”?
Now, this seems quaint. We speak to machines, take instructions from them. When one machine stops working, we turn to another for help. With luck, and patience—don’t jab zero, for the machine will not understand what you pressed—we can get a human voice to read us scripts from a computer screen. And the march—toward automated systems, toward automated lives, toward what Milan Kundera describes as an element of the Kafkan, “the bureaucratization of social activity that turns all institutions into boundless labyrinths”— will continue.
Journalists know this problem well. Aren’t so many flacks like automated phone systems, only in softer clothing? For the senator’s schedule, press i. For a criticism o f the senator’s opponent, press 2. For a pithy criticism, spell b-a-c-k-g-r-o-u-n-d on your touch tone phone. Good reporters go around the machines, develop sources who will break the script, or find documents that show life happening. Good reporters commit themselves against lies, against automation. They serve citizens, not customers.
And when reporters write, they are human voices calling out in the boundless labyrinth—whether covering government, or the for-profit managers of very public utilities. We are as dependent, now, on the wires and consoles of private companies as we are on the roads and schools run by governments. Individuals, in these large systems, wield little power. Journalists can amplify them.
But not by talking louder, or talking bigger, or by sprawling over more sections and web pages. The daily New York Times these days feels like a labyrinth itself. During the Florida imbroglio, I felt like jabbing the: zero key: I had 16 stories every day, but I couldn’t tell what happened!
To fight the machines, journalists must be dogged in pursuit, mischievous in temperament, clear and idiosyncratic in voice. Our weapon is our humanity. The next four years will be a great test, as commerce continues to automate, and the White House is occupied by a man whose jumbled, awkward language recalls what Orwell had to say about politicians in his day. “One often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved.” When this happens, Orwell warns, the speaker “has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.”
Stand up, thin reeds, and join the fight.
The biggest change in our society since the early days of The Washington Monthly, in my view, has been the ascendency of market values to the point that they have eclipsed all others, including political and even artistic values. At the same time, there is a kind of mass amnesia about this. No one seems to remember that it wasn’t always this way—that, in fact, in the half century after the Depression, it was government that had the prestige and authority that the realm of business now enjoys.
One small indication of how deep that change is might be the fact that in 1972,1 wrote a piece for The Washington Monthly called “Do Entrepreneurs Have More Fun?” arguing that people who start businesses create jobs and deserved credit for taking risks. In liberal circles at that time, this idea was unfashionable to the point of being iconoclastic.
I am ceaselessly amazed by the totality of the changes; how bright, idealistic kids assume, as a matter of common sense, that if something can’t survive in the market it deserves to fail; the belief that the poor must be causing their own problems because they are poor; the constitutional intolerance for the idea that today’s boom might end; and the blind belief in the power of business to solve all our problems.
Ironically, the newspaper business is one of the last holdouts—or at least parts of it are. You notice it as a writer. Newspaper editors might be a bit crude in their idea of a story, but the conversation about it will revolve around its inherent interest rather than its “buzz.” Whatever our complaints about our newspapers might be, the profession has not yet been overhauled and redefined according to market values the way so many other areas of the media have been. Newspapers are businesses, yes, but in large part the best of them are still about the work. I am not quite sure newspaper people realize this—after all, it has always been that way. But I think it’s time for a little more consciousness. I would like to see the market culture covered as a phenomenon whose blind sides can be identified and whose costs in vision measured. There aren’t many outside perspectives on it left.
As anyone who’s worked at The Washington Monthly can attest, Charlie Peters has a rather strong sense of history. Oh, let’s be blunt—the man never forgets anything. And so it’s no accident that one of the things the Monthly has done better than anybody else in journalism is intelligently apply history to current politics. But even though the Monthly has schooled a generation of journalists, this is one area where the dog ate their homework. The current political situation offers a sad illustration of our ahistorical press.
After the twisted tale of how it got in office in the first place, perhaps the most remarkable thing about George W. Bush’s administration is how many of its key players have been key players in government before. And almost as remarkable has been journalism’s rather slipshod reaction to this. The press has often implied that before making his appointments, George W did little more than check with Poppy. Maybe so, but afterwards, how much have journalists really done to learn about these folks?
Take Dick Cheney. (Please.) It’s simple to sum up the media coverage he’s gotten since coming back on the national scene. Steady and wise. Check. Knows the White House and the Hill like the back of his hand. Check. Led Department of Defense during the glory days of the Gulf War. Check. Former CEO of a large corporation. Check. The press hasn’t exactly plunged the depths lurking beneath this shimmering surface. Sure, there was the discovery that while a congressman Cheney had a surprisingly conservative voting record. That took five minutes of computer time. And there’s been a bit about his health. That took noticing when he keeled over with his fourth heart attack. (And nobody other than The New York Times reported much on how Cheney stonewalled on the details.) For each stage of Cheney’s career, it’s ridiculously easy to come up with substantive questions the media haven’t answered because they haven’t asked.
Consider for instance, his tenure as secretary of defense. Did he help plan all those briefs extolling the miraculous ability of Patriot missiles to knock down Scuds? Briefs we now know were totally false? What did Cheney ever do about the problem of “friendly fire” during the Gulf War which produced an unprecedented 27 percent of Allied casualties? And what was his stance on Gulf War Syndrome?
It’s nothing short of a press scandal that this exercise could be replicated with ease for most of those in George W Bush’s inner circle.
It’s important to note that I am not advocating more gotcha journalism. Finding out that Donald Rumsfeld was in the room when Nixon made some racist remarks—which the Chicago Tribune did and tried to make into a big story—is playing gotcha. Finding out what Rumsfeld did or did not do in his first Pentagon tour to open up the senior officer ranks to blacks— which no paper did—would be much more than that.
The point is that the press needs to remember that news is so much more than novelty. And what better time to pay attention to the relevant past than when confronted with a government with so much of one? Investigating and articulating the proven strengths and weaknesses of powerful people is the best thing the press can do to ensure that they use that power properly.
In 1997, the Federal Trade Commission sued to block the Staples-Office Depot merger, a union that would have fused the nation’s two largest office superstores chains into a $10-billion-a year colossus of W hite-Out and paperclips. The proposed union seemed like a lousy idea for consumers, and on the opening day of a hearing into the matter, it seemed even lousier. Lawyers for the F T C produced a series of devastating memos written by executives from both companies, which said, in effect, “Let’s hurry up and close this deal so we can jack up prices.” Staples newspaper advertisements were presented showing that in towns where the company had no superstore rival, prices were consistently higher than in towns where superstore competition thrived. It was, as lawyers like to say, a slam dunk. A few weeks later, a federal judge scuttled the deal.
What was most striking about this trial was that it happened at all. Headliners like this case and the even higher profile Microsoft battle belie an alarming reality: The nation’s antitrust cops are utterly over whelmed. Staffing levels at the FTC, for instance, have barely budged since 1991, although the annual number of merger proposals has tripled. As a result, the government is suing less often, hoping adverse publicity will frighten other executives away both from anti competitive mergers and price-fixing conspiracies. As my former editor has noted often in these pages, that strategy has been used effectively by the IRS, but it doesn’t work as well in antitrust, where the penalties are typically nothing more than attorneys’ fees, which invariably pale next to possible profits.
At least during the Clinton years, the enforcers were trying. There’s no telling how the Bush administration will approach antitrust, though it’s a safe bet that executives will push the limits of the law as hard as they can. As well they should. Capitalism is a game that requires greedy competitors and plenty of conniving, which is also why it desperately needs a vigilant set of referees.
It could also, for these reasons, use more ink from newspapers and magazines like the Monthly, with stories that look beyond the scooplets about the FTC’s decision to investigate Cisco’s latest acquisition, or “events” like the FTC-Staples showdown. There should be more features examining the effect of big ness—both good and bad—on the economy and the retail landscape. With the New and Old Economy titans getting hitched—AOL-TimeWarner is only the highest profile example—we could also use a clearer idea of where all this convergence is leading. Just keeping an eye on the Bush administration’s trustbusters will yield some yarns.
It’s rich material. Though rife with abstract theory and inscrutable ratios, the downside of letting executives scheme as they please is higher prices or less consumer choice, or both. The FTC and Justice are essentially doing exactly what Alan Greenspan is doing—fighting inflation—with far blunter instruments. And unless you’re Bob Woodward, that guy won’t even talk to reporters.
I was a passionate advocate of more press coverage of government—until I went to work in the government. There, I concluded it was just as well the press ignored most of what went on.
In 1995, I took a break from journalism and went to work as a senior advisor to the CEO at the Corporation for National Service, the government agency that runs AmeriCorps, the program that enables young people to earn college aid in exchange for community service. Let me first offer one great big caveat: I think AmeriCorps is a terrific program, one of the best things the government does.
But, not surprisingly, once I arrived at the CNS I soon saw plenty of problems with the way AmeriCorps worked. Most stemmed from the highly decentralized nature of the program. AmeriCorps is made up of hundreds of little programs, each run by a local nonprofit group, and most of the money is distributed through state commissions appointed by the governor. Due to the lack of centralized control, there is a random distribution of high-quality and low-quality programs.
In theory, an aggressive press would be a perfect antidote. Local reporters would bring to public light the problems with local programs, and these could either lose funding or be fixed.
The reality of press coverage was quite different. We were in a dirty fight to save the program from elimination. Each year since 1995, the Republican Congress zeroed out funding for AmeriCorps (mostly just to poke Clinton in the eye). The House oversight: committee was constantly looking for the slightest wart that could be used as an excuse to eliminate the program.
With more than 400 grantees, it is impossible not to not have a few bad apples. One program, for instance, engaged in political advocacy, something that is explicitly against AmeriCorps policy, and was de-funded—but it offered “evidence” to program opponents that AmeriCorps was secretly a vast army of campaign workers for Bill Clinton. Another program overspent on administrative overhead by 40 percent— “evidence” that the entire program was a waste of money.
When dealing with bad AmeriCorps programs we felt like Clinton’s staff must have felt in 1992 dealing with “bimbo eruptions.” We’d hear about them and then, in a panic, move quickly to try to fix them and squelch any news reports.
We needn’t have worried. The press was so profoundly uninterested in the actual functioning of the programs that few of the bad ones were ever written about. (Few of the good ones were written about, either, but that’s another story).
Though this cut against everything I believed about the press’ role, as a government official I was hugely relieved that the press was ignoring us. Vigilant local reporting would have surely turned up enough examples to sink the program. We needed a few years of media blackout to get the kinks out.
Of course, this isn’t really an argument against press coverage of government programs, but rather an argument against the way the press covers these things, and, just as importantly, the way politicians use the information. The ideal would have been for the reporters to investigate local programs and write about them whether they were good or bad, providing a clear sense of proportion as they were doing it.
The problem is that the investigative mindset of reporters, which views only flaws as newsworthy, creates a perverse incentive within bureaucracies. Even those who are genuinely committed to improving the programs (and there are a lot of them) become antagonistic to real investigation. Why show the inspector general that worrisome conservation corps in Oregon if the results will only end up tanking the whole program? That’s the way one starts to think.
Of course my greatest anger is with the politicians who establish this kind of dynamic. If lawmakers rewarded government agencies that were forthright in disclosing problems—rather than punishing them— it would stimulate greater candor and greater bureaucratic interest in improving programs. The press could help, too, by covering not only the bad programs but also the ones working hardest to improve. That’s a level of nuance few reporters currently bring to the task.