The US press bites back

The recent Washington Post exposé by Dana Priest and Anne Hull of the egregious treatment of wounded troops at the military showcase Walter Reed hospital brought back memories of the aggressive watchdog coverage of the past for many.

The subsequent efforts by the Pentagon to belittle or even deny the facts led to the removal of two general officers from command and then the Secretary of the Army himself suddenly had people asking if maybe the press “found its backbone again?”

Were things about to change after years of standing by uncritically recording dubious government propaganda that led the country into a war of choice and a president who assumed wartime executive power that could last indefinitely?

Obviously it’s too early to tell in this time of infectious uncertainty in the mainstream press that its economic model will keep it afloat.

Whether an aggressive press like that of the 1960s returns depends on a number of factors, the most important is regaining the public trust in the press as the mediator of information between the government and the people.

In this regard it has been standing on spongy ground for the past five years as it failed to aggressively challenge the Bush administration. Part of the reason for that failure was due to changing economic conditions. Years of declining circulation and dwindling stock prices caused even the largest newspapers to reduce staff and eliminate beats.

Developing an online capacity required shifting resources to 24/7 production. The result was fewer people to develop sources and dig out closely held information. Meanwhile a president muscled into office despite losing the popular vote with only minority support among the public was preparing to assert authority to fundamentally change public policy.

Unremarked by the press or the public President Bush was quietly adding to majority control of Congress a control of the bureaucracy of government unseen since World War II.Before the year was out career government workers in positions four, five, and often six layers deep in departmental bureaucracy had been replaced with political appointees of tested loyalty.

By the time of the attacks of 9/11, he had coupled majority support in the judicial and legislative branches of government to exert iron fisted and meticulous management of the flow of information to the public.

Strict discipline held public disputes at a minimum and dried up leaks the Washington press has come to depend on to challenge government assertions or questions plans and actions.
The first glimmers that an adversarial press might yet be rekindled was a spark struck in the summer of 2005 when Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer of the San Diego Union exposed the corruption of a local congressman by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and tied the corruption to leading Republican Congressional leaders.

Other reporters began to find similar sources outside Washington control and were able to document facts that opened administration policy decisions, including decisions related to the “war on terror,” to public scrutiny and questioning.

Then in August, 2005, Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans and the administration. Helpless, devastated families and anguished first responders, some of whom in this case were journalists, were in control of the flow of information. What they showed the world was a government unable, unprepared, perhaps even uninterested in responding to the catastrophe.

Events seemed to be setting the stage for the reappearance of the tradition of public interest journalism. It was at a time similar to these at the beginning of the 20th century that reporters like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffans first introduced the concept of investigative reporting and careful documentation.

Their investigations helped end an age of corruption ushering in the progressive movement in politics and journalism. When the press became enablers of the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, reporters like Wallace Turner in Oregon and Nathan Caldwell in Nashville and George Bliss in Chicago resurrected the watchdog role that had fallen into disuse during the years of the Great Depression and World War II and compelled the stewards of the Pulitzer Prize, the country’s highest journalism award, to establish a new category called “Investigative Journalism.”

Critics and analysts in the U.S. usually describe the place of the public affairs press as seated on a three legged stool. This metaphor assumes things work best when the three legs of the stool the government, the press and the public are in equal balance. The events of 9/11 destroyed this balance when it sent the president’s public support into the 60 percent range. Public opinion surveys now indicate that showing as they do a president standing at 39 percent.

An emboldened opposition in Congress is talking of plans to rollback the emergency legislation gives us another straw in the wind. The early start to the 2008 presidential campaign in which up to two dozens candidates seem likely to open a whole range of new and unexpected new channels of debate and discussion, new sources for reporters to probe and develop.

Finally, both parties are seeking to redefine themselves in a way that should put all that has happened since 9/11 on the table for post mortem. The US watchdog press might finally find its bark again.