'The Weak Slat under the Bed of Democracy'
When I was an adolescent, Canandaigua, my small hometown in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, got its first radio station, WCGR. You can hear it to this day, at 1550 on the AM dial.
Back then, beaming out a signal of 250 mighty watts, WCGR (announcers said it stood for "Watch Canandaigua Grow Rapidly"), broadcast music, news and farm reports to a radius extending about as far as you could throw a rock.
Nonetheless, I thought it was a wondrous and glamorous place - show business! -- and often climbed the stairs to their dusty studio, up above a Main Street storefront. The twin sons of the station's owner were schoolmates and my father bought on the air advertising time for his drugstore, so no one paid much attention to my hanging out.
One day, I came across some promotional 45 rpm records. They were interviews with celebrities - with spaces left for any given announcer at any given station to ask the pertinent questions, which were conveniently provided by the record company. In an instant, you could make it appear as if your local DJ was actually interviewing Nat King Cole or Bobby Vinton or Carol Channing.
"Carol, this is Seth Cathode at WCGR. Congratulations on 'Hello, Dolly!'"
"Why, THANK youuu!! It's the biggest thrill of my career."
Beat. Next fake question. And so on.
All of which came to mind last week when it was revealed that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, held a phony briefing on the California wildfires. FEMA staffers posed as reporters, pitching softball questions to deputy administrator Harvey Johnson. Parts of it were carried live by Fox News and MSNBC.
You can chalk this up to blatant stupidity on the part of those in charge, and given FEMA's recent track record, you wouldn't be far off the mark. You also could point to the fake press conference as metaphor, one more example of the suspension of reality and blatant disregard of truth this administration has fostered on a seemingly daily basis.
Just a day or two before the FEMA gaffe, the White House admitted that it had heavily edited Senate testimony by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding on the impact of climate change on global health. Presidential press secretary Dana Perino claimed Gerberding's statement didn't gibe with a report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group that's sharing the Nobel Peace prize with Al Gore. The lead author of the IPCC report said Perino's claim was "nonsense," and that Gerberding's planned remarks were totally accurate. They were eviscerated for political motives.
Still, it'd be unfair to place all the blame on the government for such transgressions against the truth. The press itself has to take some responsibility. Compare, for example, the questions at the fake FEMA presser with the recent admission by New York Times Magazine Editor Gerald Marzorati and reporter Deborah Solomon that Solomon had from time to time rewritten questions published in her magazine interviews after the interview took place or inserted new ones "retroactively" to better match an answer.
Small potatoes, perhaps, but we in the media too often have surrendered our responsibility to tell the truth squarely and give the public what it needs to know. A free republic depends on journalism, but too often, as the great reporter A.J. Liebling once said, the press is "the weak slat under the bed of democracy."
Monday's New York Times reported a study on coverage of domestic political news during the first half of this year, conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the Pew Research Center and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School.
The study found that two-thirds of all political stories, in print, on-line, and via TV and radio, concentrated on the campaign horse races but only one percent examined candidates' public records. The Times noted, "Only 12 percent of stories seemed relevant to voters' decision making; the rest were more about tactics and strategy...
"The campaign coverage has been sharply at odds with what the public says it wants, the study found, with voters eager to know more about the candidates' positions on issues and their personal backgrounds, more about lesser-known candidates and more about debates."
Granted, what the public tells a pollster it wants and the reality can be two quite different things -- witness the obsession with Hillary Clinton's laugh or Rudy Giuliani's choice of high heels. And, too, the first priority of media in a capitalist society is to print, or show and tell, what sells.
Nonetheless, we have a duty too easily forgotten or misplaced, one made clear with remarkable prescience by the late Walter Lippmann, the ultimate Washington inside reporter who famously described journalism as the last refuge of the vaguely talented (Exhibit A: you're looking at him).
Princeton University Press has just reprinted Lippmann's 1920 book "Liberty and the News," with an afterword by journalist (and former Bill Clinton advisor) Sidney Blumenthal.
Lippmann wrote, "In an exact sense the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis of journalism... Everywhere today, men are conscious that somehow they must deal with questions more intricate than any that church or school had prepared them to understand. Increasingly they know that they cannot understand them if the facts are not quickly and steadily available...
"All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster, must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts."
We've been denied too long. The results are painfully clear to see.
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
copyright 2007 Michael Winship