Never look a gift exposé in the mouth

If you wonder why I beat the drum so constantly for better media coverage of government, here’s a quote from Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense, about his time at the Pentagon: “You know, in 4 1/2 years [at the Pentagon] I never had a line outside my office of senior executives coming … to tell me all the problems in their service or in their organization. Some of the biggest problems that I acted on were first brought to my attention by an inquiry from Congress or an article in the press. I found out about [deplorable conditions at] Walter Reed from a series in the Washington Post by Dana Priest…. I found out about the problem with the lack of armored vehicles in Iraq through a USA Today story.”

Gates goes on to offer this advice to other agency heads: “So I would say when there is an article critical of us … don’t go into a defensive crouch … maybe you’ve just been handed a gift to solve a problem you didn’t know existed.”

My lament is that there are fewer and fewer Dana Priests in the media, as the industry fixates more and more on the political significance of the day’s Big Story. By the way, do you share the mixture of boredom and desperation that I feel as that story is discussed on cable news by the same talking heads making the same predictable comments, rarely if ever contributing a fresh fact?

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.