Our Journalism Echoes Our Politics
If the press reflects the times, which way will it go now?
Why won't the Maine press inquire deeply into major issues? In these days of economic collapse and competition from the Internet, of course, many news organizations are running with skeleton staffs with no time to dig into anything. But for years, on numerous issues, I have seen the indications get fewer and fewer that Maine reporters want to confront government officials or other authorities and get the real story.
Take, for example, the mass torture of mostly mentally ill inmates at the Maine State Prison's solitary-confinement "Supermax," a subject I've covered for years. I'd welcome competition on this story, and in years past I would have expected it. Inmate suicides, hunger strikes, a murder, beatings by guards, official secrecy - this is raw meat for a feeding frenzy of media attention. Not this time - mostly, there has been silence.
Politicians, too, are silent on many issues. I cover the State House, and I can say categorically no politician there has expressed more than token interest in how prisoners are treated. For sure, convicted criminals are not exactly popular, but they are not a special case. Politicians also show little interest in the state's scandalous treatment of those mentally ill people who happen not to be in the prisons. In years past, there would have been a few politicians - a few liberals, maybe - who would have seen a cause or two in these issues.
So, why, nowadays, are both politicians and press so neglectful of such issues? To try to answer this question is to illuminate the current condition of journalism in Maine and what has shaped it.
There's a tight fit, a symbiosis, between politicians and press. They feed each other. If daily newspapers and TV news covered prison torture or the treatment of the mentally ill as the scandals they are, politicians would embark upon reform. More powerfully, though, politics feeds the press. If political actors cried for reform, the press would be on the story. American journalism and politics have demonstrated this symbiosis since the revolutionary days of the fighting and scribbling Sons of Liberty.
In politically liberal or conservative times, reflecting what is permitted by the ideological spirit of the times, the managers and practitioners of journalism become more liberal or conservative. Over my long career, I've witnessed an expansion and contraction of journalism's boldness and power: from the end of a conservative era to liberal-radical activism and back to conservatism. Maine and national journalism have now contracted to the most conservative point I have seen - so far.
This wave in journalism was in synch with a political wave. Conservative politics means preserving the status quo and, on economic issues, those whom it rewards. Conservative journalism means going along with these things. It's a contemporary cliché to say journalism's future depends on how it meets the challenge of the Internet, which is killing newspapers while providing few places for newspapermen and -women to be employed, but journalism's future also depends heavily on political developments.
If Barack Obama's election launches a new progressive era, American journalism may become activist again. But if the election turns out not to bring real change to America, then the continued political conservatism combined with the effect of the Internet will cause journalism, I predict, to fall into a deep, deep coma.
In arguing for journalistic activism, I'm not asking for more bloggers' rants. I'm advocating accurate, fact-heavy reporting that questions, digs, and comes to fair, intelligent conclusions about society's problems. An activist press is "the reason a free press is important," as legendary Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus writes in a recent Columbia Journalism Review essay.
Right now, with some wonderful exceptions, the press is not important.
A very brief history
Beginning in the 1960s, mirroring the activist politics of the time and reacting to the postwar press conservatism that hid huge social injustices, alternative media exploded, even in the out-of-the-way state of Maine. Many new publications gave voice to the marginalized: women, gays, African Americans, poor people, the young, Native Americans, disabled people, peaceniks, environmentalists, even prisoners.
Daily newspapers, too, became activist. In the '70s the Washington Post's Watergate investigative series inspired reporters around the country. During that period, I traveled to a radical journalism convention in Washington with - it's hard to believe now - a pack of Press Herald staffers. At another such convention, in New York, I heard the renowned New York Times reporter Tom Wicker declare - to cheers - that the biggest myth of journalism is that news is what officials say.
Throughout this era, the Portland newspapers produced many remarkable investigative pieces. My prison stories are, in a way, a continuation of a series the Maine Sunday Telegram published in the '70s, which paralleled the political activism taking place then on behalf of prisoners.
The country's turn to the right, however, which accelerated after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, began a new phase: Gradually, nationally and in Maine, journalism got feebler. As Pincus writes, for journalism "it has been downhill ever since" Watergate. In Maine, substantial alternative weeklies like the Maine Times, founded in 1968, got fainter and eventually disappeared. Many small but consequential political and other special-interest publications also faded away.
As corporate power expanded, the managers of the dailies increasingly became the heads of big, conservative corporations. They saw little need for the investments of time - and money - that investigative reporters require. For some time now there has been no full-time investigative reporter at a Maine daily. No daily-paper reporter covers state government with the impact of the Press Herald's Bob Cummings, who through his articles in the '70s caused the return to the public of hundreds of thousands of acres of forest stolen by the 19th-century timber barons.
A few reporters in Maine still dig a little, but nowadays most of them rewrite news releases or cover news conferences - managed news. I respect Maine Public Radio more than I do most "establishment" news media, but I joke with my wife that when we wake in the morning and turn on the radio the first words we'll hear will be "Governor John Baldacci said . . ." It's no joke.
This increasing journalistic conservatism tracked the state's politics. Since Democrat Kenneth Curtis, a liberal who revolutionized state government, left office in 1975, every Maine governor has been corporate-conservative - Democrat, Republican, or Independent.
For a long time, the majority legislative Democrats, while liberal on abortion and gay rights, have been almost as conservative on economics as the Republicans. Baldacci is more conservative than some leading Republicans. Thus, many injustices - on taxes, health care, delivery of state services to the needy - don't get remedied in the corporate-lobbyist-dominated State House. When the right-wing Maine Heritage Policy Center congratulates Baldacci and Democratic legislators on their budget, it means something.
In a feedback loop, when no aggressive reporters are looking over their shoulders, the authorities, governmental or corporate, become emboldened to ride ever more rough-shod over the press and public. Press critics have observed how poorly the national media questioned the Bush administration's promotion of the Iraq invasion and how little they examined the financial boom that led to the current bust. In Maine, the dailies ignore the tax favors to the corporations and the rich that are financially hamstringing state government.
The Internet choke-hold
And now there is that big other - though nonpolitical - conservative force, which has abruptly twisted the journalistic contraction into a choking. The collapse or cutbacks of daily newspapers occasioned in part by Internet competition for news and advertising (to some extent, self-competition) has hit journalism like someone with multiple sclerosis having a stroke.
The Internet makes news more available than ever, but the reporting feeding news sites is dying because original reporting is largely dependent on the dailies, and nobody has figured out how to make money with Internet news operations that employ lots of reporters. About 16,000 newspaper jobs evaporated nationally in 2008, scores in Maine. The Portland papers have closed their bureau in Augusta, sending reporters there only on a per-story basis. As recently as 2005, 10 reporters were based at the State House, and in 1979 there were 15. Now there are six.
Maybe, indeed, Obama's election presages a new age. When I feel optimistic, I see the new activism appearing on Web sites financed by foundations, contributions, and tax money, like public broadcasting. But history teaches that the future depends on what we do, all of us as citizens and some of us as journalists, to create it.
© 2009 The Phoenix