James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Thursday, November 15, 2007

If the 'press corps' says it, doubt it

“As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of changes in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”
--Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

Almost everybody, including me, is angry at broadcast news purveyors and newspapers these days.

The grumblers no longer are just right wingers who were taught as children to whine about the “liberal press” and who continue to do so even though almost all large news peddlers now are in the hands of six large conglomerates and, to a very large extent, serve the purposes of their hugely rich and right wing owners rather than the needs of the public.

In a recent speech before an overflow crowd at Wayne State University in Detroit, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. joined a long list of knowledgeable observers who say that irresponsible reporting allowed the Bush gang to invade Iraq. Some are saying, with equal truth, that the same irresponsible kind of reporting is helping the neocons infesting the White House to take us into another disastrous war in Iran.

Kennedy stated the obvious fact that the Bush administration has done tremendous damage to the earth's environment in part by putting industry lobbyists in many government positions created by past administrations and Congress to monitor and regulate the industries those Bush appointees slavishly serve.

The big applause came when Kennedy added that Bush has gotten away with his disastrous policies and appointments in large part because of “a negligent and indolent press that has simply let down American democracy.”

Kennedy could have spread the same truth across a much broader list of topics.

Irresponsible, incompetent and malicious reporting has given us, or helped the far right give us, a failed Congress, disastrous foreign policy, a failing judiciary, a broken economy, an electoral system on the brink of collapse and a list of presidential candidates that actually is, with perhaps two exceptions, a list of high-profile incompetents and egomaniacs who put their personal ambitions so far above the needs of the country and the American people that the latter seem hardly to exist in their minds.

It's not hard to find other accurate critics of news as we now know it. Failures of the press are reported almost daily on Internet news sites such as those operated by TruthOut and MoveOn and Veterans for Common Sense and many others.

Bitter criticisms sometimes are leveled against the bigger U.S. newspapers by columnists and guest writers in their own pages. The Washington press corps is mocked regularly in foreign news outlets – which routinely do a more thorough and honest job of reporting major events in the United States than do newspapers in Washington, San Francisco, St. Louis and Minneapolis.

The American public generally mistrusts and dislikes radio, television and newspapers, as many surveys have shown, even though individuals often have trouble identifying specific problems. The people simply know something is wrong.

Our press, once among the best in the world, is a feeble ghost of what it was 40 years ago, or even 15 years ago. (Which makes it one of a long and growing list of deliberately degraded American institutions that includes health care, manufacturing, banking, the justice system and education, just to mention a few.)

Unfortunately, very few of the critics ever write or talk about why the organizations that are supposed to keep us informed and to hone our skills as citizens have become something akin to the Roman Colosseum – designed not to inform but to entertain and distract.

Not all reasons for the degradation are as obvious as the average person might assume. It takes some inside knowledge, and brutal honesty, to grasp what's going on. Here are some of the major factors:

* Ownership of the country's major news outlets by a half dozen corporations that are controlled by right-wing super-rich people is a very important reason for the failures of our news systems, no question.

In most cases, though, public suspicions that the self-serving moguls give specific orders on what to ignore, what to cover and what to say about the people and topics are wrong. The big shots don't involve themselves overmuch in the details, though Rupert Murdoch and perhaps some others may give orders about which presidential or congressional candidates his/their newspapers back editorially.

Usually the influence is a tad more subtle, if unmistakable. The publishers and news directors have been chosen by the guys at the top. They understand the bosses' leanings, usually without having to be told. They also know they are to point their organizations more toward entertainment than toward hard coverage of serious issues. When it comes to hard news, other than, say, murder and natural disasters, less detail is better.

In general, in their contempt for their audience, the news bosses train the dimmer segments of their audiences to expect and want the fluffy, the sensational, the sex and gore. They create the expectation, then fulfill it. The egg comes first.

* Cost cutting. Owners of newspapers and other publications have cut staffs and other expenditures, such as travel and Washington Bureaus, to the bone. Newspapers have lost and continue to lose circulation and, therefore, advertising.

However, the unacknowledged fact is that much of that loss of readers and ad money is attributable to the greed and penny pinching of the owners and the downright stupid shift from covering hard news to trying to compete with television and the electronics industry in providing entertainment.

I once did a hard study of the factors that determined whether people in this country did or did not subscribe to a newspaper. From the days of pre-revolutionary America up through the late 1970s or early 1980s, those factors never changed. They included parenthood, home ownership, establishment of a career and various other facts of life that determine how deeply a person is invested in his/her community and the country. I firmly believe those factors still haven't changed -– but that newspapers have all but ceased to give readers and potential readers what they require.

“Investigative” stories about who drives school buses and how “faith” affects political views are fine, but they don't make up for coverage of what Congress and the state legislature are doing about school financing and why, or outweigh a lack of honest and complete information about the situation with a country that our leaders may want to invade, or the motives of those leaders.

Fail at the basic job of reporting, and the public has no real reason to buy your product. Advice columns and ever bigger sports sections don't cut it. These days, there is by far more accurate and honest reporting to be found on the Internet – as in reports from foreign newspapers, or compilations in such daily newsletters as those of TruthOut and TomPaine.com – than in most American newspapers.

* The people who make up news staffs have changed. I've written about this before, so will keep the general comments short. As staffs have been cut, seasoned news people have been pushed out of most news rooms around the country. The younger, and cheaper, reporters and editors often have more formal education that some of those who left – lots of masters degrees around these days – but they are far less well tutored in the techniques (and ethics) of reporting than those who have gone.

They also tend to be less motivated by curiosity and a desire to get beneath the surface of things than were their predecessors. They were raised in the belief that things are mostly OK as they are, and those who govern do a pretty good job of it. Generally, they're upper middle class people who weren't interested in technical careers and thought journalism would be more fun, and bring them more personal attention, than accounting, law or sales.

* Apart from the at-home news staff there is the political press corps, especially the Washington corps, that herd of self-indulgent but surprisingly timid and easily manipulated suckers who gave us George W. Bush, Iraq, the “war on terror,” the dismantling of most of our government's regulatory bodies and the current crop of inadequate presidential candidates. And that's just the more obvious part of the list.

This takes some explaining, but if you really care about this country, it's government, it's foreign and domestic policies, you should know something about the herd, even though to know the herd is to despise it.

Throughout my 30 years on the staff of an inland metropolitan daily newspaper, I argued periodically with my bosses that, with very rare exceptions, no reporter should be allowed to stay in Washington for more than three years. The bosses never seriously considered my point, of course. (And, no, I never had the least desire to be assigned to Washington.)

A very big weakness affecting a large majority of reporters assigned to Washington is that the come very quickly to believe that they, themselves, are important people. They will deny it, but privately they think of themselves as “insiders,” smarter than most and so much better informed than even their bosses at home that almost everyone other than government players is an object of scorn.

Government officials, members of Congress and congressional staffers, know that, laugh at the silly buggers and use them without mercy.

Call one of the puffed-up twerps by name, make some personal comment about, say, his last big article for the home newspaper or the spouse's birthday, and the guy (or, much less often, woman) is sure that he, too, is a player. He'll eat from the hands of all the real players who treat him that way. And if he's around for long, he'll go with the stories one plants with him, or withhold information that should be made public, in order to maintain his status and “access.”

That's the norm these days, and has been for about 20 years.

Access, by the way, is the common excuse for every kind of failure to do the job, regardless of how egregious. (The Washington reporters are even weaker than sports reporters in this area, and that's saying a great deal.)

If you read widely for news, you've seen stories in the past year or so in which reporters for corporate outlets, having been caught, excuse themselves for withholding information from the public, or for using items they knew to be partially or wholly false on the grounds that if they didn't play along they'd “lose access” to some important source or another.

Hell, the White House bunch won't even ask obvious questions that scream for answers for fear of “losing access.”

It's a very bad and bitter joke. Think: What good is “access” if to maintain it you fail to do your job? To the reporters in question, maintaining the illusion of their own importance is more important than that job.

Truly excellent reporters –- think of aged but still crusty Helen Thomas of the Hearst organization and the superb freelancer Seymour Hersh -– never consider themselves insiders. They are, in fact, proud of their status as outsiders. And yet Hersh gets more genuine “inside” information than any ten of the co-opted fools.

He can do it because he knows how to dig, and persist in digging, for elusive facts. It's a very difficult job, and only a minority of people called reporters actually know how to do it. Also Hersh and a very few others have established the fact that their word is always good. People in all places on the political spectrum trust them, even if they dislike them. And if people trust you, they will tell you things they won't tell others.

The herd doesn't understand those very basic elements of reporting.

Also, the herd animals are afraid to publish stories that are more than a little different from what every other member of the herd is writing. What if they're wrong? (Of course, if one has done his/her reporting, the story won't be wrong.) What if the others snub them for going outside the corral? What if Congressman Jack Ash's chief of staff doesn't like the story?

Which candidate is to be taken seriously, and which should you ignore and belittle? Check with the herd, write what it writes. You don't get serious reporting by staying with the herd, but you probably do keep your job with Murdoch.

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an article on Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff's treatment and manipulation of reporters. It was very telling.

Clinton and her staff people chew out reporters who do stories they don't like -– and accuracy has nothing to do with the complaints. They will call reporters in the middle of the night to berate them, the Times reported. They also call top-level editors to complain about perfectly legitimate and accurate stories if they somehow reflect badly on Clinton or well on her opponents. They regularly threaten to remove a reporter's “access” if the reporter doesn't write what Clinton wants to see, and only that.

It is, as the Times pointed out, exactly the method used by the Bush White House to control what the public sees, and it works as well for Clinton.

It wouldn't work if even a large minority of the press corps refused to knuckle under. But don't expect the current bunch of snivelers to grow spines any time soon.

And that being the case, every one of us must look beyond the corporate press, let alone what passes for news on broadcast outlets, to learn what is going on –- in our cities, our counties, our states, but especially in Washington and the U.S. government and in politics.

And, please, don't assume Hillary Clinton, or Rudy Giuliani or anyone else is the unbeatable “front runner” or that some other candidate is “unelectable” because the dimwits in the herd say so. Frankly, folks, they know and understand less than most of you who think independently.