News We Can't Use
On National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" the other evening, I caught a story about President Barack Obama and the news media. The gist of it was that while Obama has promised to run an open and transparent administration, and while he's already loosened the stranglehold that former President George W. Bush put on the Freedom of Information Act, the traditional press was feeling excluded.
"I just also want to be sure the president and the people who work for him are being subject to people who are trained as journalists and who are asking the questions that perhaps some of the people watching things from out there in the country are not able to ask," said Bill Nichols, the managing editor of Politico.
This would be the trained press, Mr. Nichols, that bought - hook, line and sinker, I must say - the president as a great leader after 9/11; the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq; the "mission accomplished" speech on the aircraft carrier; the "Valerie Plame is a spy" leak; the ones who never challenged Bush at all until Cindy Sheehan's unbelievable guts and rage forced them to reexamine themselves; who never once protested over Bush's treatment of one of their own, Helen Thomas; and who bought into all the other lies, deceptions, obfuscations and secrets of the Bush administration years?
Would they be the same ones who covered the recent campaign as if they worked for People Magazine - Muslim terrorists, fist bumps, the invincibility of Hillary Clinton, illegitimate babies in Alaska, the Clintonista PUMAs (Party unity my ass) who would vote for McCain before they voted for that other guy, and all the rest of it - until serious people wanted to vomit?
And in the end, it was those serious people, millions of them wanting not only a change in government but a change in the quality of their information, who flocked to the Internet, to The Daily Kos and Nate Silver's statistics on FiveThirtyEight.com, to find out what was really happening. And these people knew months before Election Day that Obama had it in the bag.
Has it gotten any better since? Does the name Milorad "Rod" R. Blagojevich mean anything to you? Another example: on Inauguration Day, CBS's Katie Couric talked about how the cold affected cellos, and why Yo Yo Ma would be using one made out of sturdier material than wood to play for the president. Two days later, I read that the concert had been prerecorded, and he could have been playing on a cardboard cutout for all it mattered. Not to slam Couric above all the others, but it certainly brought me back to the time she was covering the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and a helium balloon escaped. It knocked down a lamp post and injured some people, so when it came time for it to appear on camera, CBS shunted in footage from an earlier year. Couric didn't say a word. Then she wondered why no one took her seriously when she became an anchor.
The mainstream media, with its conventional wisdom, its fear of losing access, the lie of "objectivity" ("And why do the Jews deserve to die, Mr. Hitler?"), and it's willingness to be a conductor for any propaganda the government decides to pass out, has got a long way to go before the American people can once again take it seriously.
It was Thomas Jefferson who said, "And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter." Still, if Jefferson was alive, he'd be vomiting, too.
There are serious journalists out there. We wouldn't know about the Bush administration's intention to attack Iraq without Seymour M. Hersh's reports in The New Yorker, or about Abu Ghraib, without Hersh and that 60 Minutes II news report. We wouldn't know about black site prisons if it weren't for Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, or about how wounded veterans were being treated shabbily at Walter Reed Army Medical Center if it wasn't for Priest, Anne Hull and photographer Michel du Cille. Priest has two Pulitzer's for her work, and she deserves them. Amy Goodman has none, and she broadcasts every single day, sometimes risking her freedom and/or her life to do so.
There is much more to be reported upon. The great journalist I.F. Stone used to avoid press briefings and staged events. Instead, he'd spend his time in the archives and record rooms, poring over documents. He got his scoops the old-fashioned way - with hard work and without a hair stylist.
Newspapers, magazines and television networks are enduring hard times today. There are many reasons: the greed of their owners, who tied themselves to Wall Street; the shrinking economy and the accompanying loss of ads; the ease and availability of breaking news and commentary on the Internet. Washington and state house bureaus are being cut. The only place for foreign news is on the BBC.
The way we get our news is changing, and new ideas of how to deliver it are being created as I write. But one thing is certain: journalism will never die. It is a calling for those who practice it, and it fills our desperate need to know what's happening in our complex world.
It will take time, money and courage before we come up with a new model, but we must and we will. Thomas Jefferson was right, and we must make him proud.