Last week, we awoke to a headline as sensational as anything the now-defunct News of the World might have printed: “Rupert Murdoch not fit to run a major company.” It was quite the fall for someone whose hope, reportedly, was “to conquer the world.” Murdoch’s protracted tumble from the top has exposed the incestuous relationships between the media, political and financial elite of England, and the corruption that imperils the very institution of British journalism. But here in America, where accountability journalism is also under siege, we would be wise to see the crisis across the pond as a cautionary tale.
The decimation of newspapers is, by now, well documented; in 2011 alone, over 3,700 newspaper jobs were eliminated. To stem profit losses, media conglomerates that once greedily bought up every paper in sight are now dumping them at an alarming rate. Take the Tribune Company, which slashed staff and destroyed much of the value of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and others, but doled out $100 million for performance bonuses for its executives. Never mind that those executives drove the company into bankruptcy.
Citizens of this digital era have access to more platforms and channels than ever. But the quality journalism that checks our leaders, that holds accountable the powerful and influential — that, indeed, defines democracy, is in jeopardy. Under the crushing pressure of commercialism, where speed is prized over thought, reporting deteriorates into a feeding frenzy of the 24-hour news cycle.
The void of accountability journalism has too often been filled by liars and charlatans peddling fairy tales: President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim; global warming is a worldwide conspiracy of greedy climate scientists; the financial crisis was the result of government regulation. The result is what John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney call “the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law.”
It’s not simply that newsrooms lack resources, or that aggregating sites that prioritize dancing kittens get so many hits (though both are true). It’s also that in a high-minded effort to impartially represent all sides of a story, reporters frequently give more credence to an argument than the facts warrant. But as the political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann recently wrote in the Washington Post, “A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” The role of journalists is not to give every party equal space, or accede to the red herring of false equivalence, but to pursue and publish the truth.
I am the editor of a magazine of opinion and news. We value intelligent arguments, and we value accurate reporting because, as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, we are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.
At the national level, several newspapers and magazines like ours — including some that are in danger of closure — continue to provide quality coverage where others have fallen short. But the same can’t be said of the empty pressrooms in state capitals and city halls across the country — and the implications are dangerous. “People do awful things to each other,” the veteran war photographer George Guthrie says in Tom Stoppard’s play “Night and Day,” “But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.”
Fortunately, there are rays of hope. It was, after all, superior investigative journalism by a newspaper — one that sees its watchdog role as a public good — that exposed the Murdoch empire’s web of corruption. As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has recounted, when veteran reporter Nick Davies received a tip about phone hacking, he doggedly chased it, not knowing where it would lead, and despite the risks — financial and otherwise — of pursuing an almost omnipotent corporation.
We can still see the embers of this kind of accountability journalism in the U.S. Last week, I had the privilege of presenting the 2012 Hillman Award for Newspaper Journalism — which honors journalism promoting the common good — to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution for its groundbreaking investigation that uncovered cheating on standardized tests in the Atlanta Public Schools. Corporate interests threatened to pull business if the cash-strapped paper ran the resulting series of articles. Still, the AJC bravely stuck with the story.
This type of reporting is increasingly rare. Yet as American and global media undergo a seismic shift, there is enormous potential to build up a new journalism in the public interest, and non-profit models like ProPublica are laying the foundation. But there is much more to do. A 2009 Columbia Journalism School report called “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” co-authored by former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. explores how the federal government can help sustain public and community media.
If we are to successfully combat the corporatization and gutting of media, we must develop new public funding sources for accountability journalism, and train the next generation of reporters to honestly and boldly seek the truth. This is not a radical proposition; other countries, including those at the top of The Economist’s index of free and democratic states — publicly fund independent journalism. But necessary change will not come until an engaged society demands it.