The Press: The Enemy Within
By Michael Massing
The New York Review of Books
15 December 2005 Edition
The past few months have witnessed a striking change in the fortunes of two well-known journalists: Anderson Cooper and Judith Miller. CNN's Cooper, the one-time host of the entertainment show The Mole, who was known mostly for his pin-up good looks, hip outfits, and showy sentimentality, suddenly emerged during Hurricane Katrina as a tribune for the dispossessed and a scourge of do-nothing officials. He sought out poor blacks who were stranded in New Orleans, expressed anger over bodies rotting in the street, and rudely interrupted Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu when she began thanking federal officials for their efforts. When people "listen to politicians thanking one another and complimenting each other," he told her, "you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated." After receiving much praise, Cooper in early November was named to replace Aaron Brown as the host of CNN's NewsNight.
By then, Judith Miller was trying to salvage her reputation. After eighty-five days in jail for refusing to testify to the grand jury in the Valerie Plame leak case, she was greeted not with widespread appreciation for her sacrifice in protecting her source but with angry questions about her relations with Lewis Libby and her dealings with her editors, one of whom, Bill Keller, said he regretted he "had not sat her down for a thorough debriefing" after she was subpoenaed as a witness. The controversy revived the simmering resentment among her fellow reporters, and many Times readers, over her reporting on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. In the Times's account, published on October 16, Miller acknowledged for the first time that "WMD - I got it totally wrong." Bill Keller said that after becoming the paper's executive editor in 2003, he had told Miller that she could no longer cover Iraq and weapons issues, but that "she kept drifting on her own back into the national security realm." For her part, Miller insisted that she had "cooperated with editorial decisions" and expressed regret that she was not allowed to do follow-up reporting on why the intelligence on WMD had been so wrong; on November 8, she agreed to leave the Times after twenty-eight years at the paper. 
These contrasting tales suggest something about the changing state of American journalism. For many reporters, the bold coverage of the effects of the hurricane, and of the administration's glaring failure to respond effectively, has helped to begin making up for their timid reporting on the existence of WMD. Among some journalists I've spoken with, shame has given way to pride, and there is much talk about the need to get back to the basic responsibility of reporters, to expose wrongdoing and the failures of the political system. In recent weeks, journalists have been asking more pointed questions at press conferences, attempting to investigate cronyism and corruption in the White House and Congress, and doing more to document the plight of people without jobs or a place to live.
Will such changes prove lasting? In a previous article, I described many of the external pressures besetting journalists today, including a hostile White House, aggressive conservative critics, and greedy corporate owners.  Here, I will concentrate on the press's internal problems - not on its many ethical and professional lapses, which have been extensively discussed elsewhere, but rather on the structural problems that keep the press from fulfilling its responsibilities to serve as a witness to injustice and a watchdog over the powerful. To some extent, these problems consist of professional practices and proclivities that inhibit reporting - a reliance on "access," an excessive striving for "balance," an uncritical fascination with celebrities. Equally important is the increasing isolation of much of the profession from disadvantaged Americans and the difficulties they face. Finally, and most significantly, there's the political climate in which journalists work. Today's political pressures too often breed in journalists a tendency toward self-censorship, toward shying away from the pursuit of truths that might prove
unpopular, whether with official authorities or the public.
In late October 2004, Ken Silverstein, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, went to St. Louis to write about Democratic efforts to mobilize African-American voters. In 2000, the Justice Department later found, many of the city's black voters had been improperly turned away from the polls by Republican Party officials. Democrats were charging the Republicans with preparing to do the same in 2004, and Silverstein found evidence for their claim. Republican officials accused the Democrats of similar irregularities, but their case seemed flimsy by comparison, a point that even a local Republican official acknowledged to him.
While doing his research, however, Silverstein learned that the Los Angeles Times had sent reporters to several other states to report on charges of voter fraud, and, further, that his findings were going to be incorporated into a larger national story about how both parties in those states were accusing each other of fraud and intimidation. The resulting story, bearing the bland headline "Partisan Suspicions Run High in Swing States," described
the extraordinarily rancorous and mistrustful atmosphere that pervades battleground states in the final days of the presidential campaign. In Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Oregon and other key states, Democrats and Republicans seem convinced their opponents are bent on stealing the election.
The section on Missouri gave equal time to the claims of Democrats and Republicans.
Troubled by this outcome, Silverstein sent an editor a memo outlining his concerns. The paper's "insistence on 'balance' is totally misleading and leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge," he wrote. In Missouri, there was "a real effort on the part of the GOP...to suppress pro-Dem constituencies." The GOP complaints, by contrast, "concern isolated cases that are not going to impact the outcome of the election." He went on:
I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should...attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. "Balanced" is not fair, it's just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.
This is not to deny that the best newspapers run many first-rate stories, Silverstein said, or that reporters working on long-term projects are often given leeway to "pile up evidence and demonstrate a case." During the last year, he has written articles on the ties between the CIA and the Sudanese intelligence service; on American oil companies' political and economic alliances with corrupt third-world regimes; and on conflicts of interest involving Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha. When it comes to political coverage, though, Silverstein told me, newspapers are too often "afraid of being seen as having an opinion." They fear "provoking a reaction in which they'll be accused of bias, however unfounded the charge." The insistence on a "spurious balance," he says, is a widespread problem in how TV and print organizations cover news. "It's very stifling."
As Silverstein suggests, this fear of bias, and of appearing unbalanced, acts as a powerful sedative on American journalists - one whose effect has been magnified by the incessant attacks of conservative bloggers and radio talk-show hosts.  One reason journalists performed so poorly in the months before the Iraq war was that there were few Democrats willing to criticize the Bush administration on the record; without such cover, journalists feared they would be branded as hostile to the President and labeled as "liberal" by conservative commentators.
The Plame leak case has provided further insight into the relation between the journalistic and political establishments. It's now clear that Lewis Libby was an important figure in the White House and a key architect of the administration's push for war in Iraq. Many journalists seem to have spoken with him regularly, and to have been fully aware of his power, yet virtually none bothered to inform the public about him, much less scrutinize his actions on behalf of the vice-president. A search of major newspapers in the fifteen months before the war turned up exactly one substantial article about Libby - a breezy piece by Elisabeth Bumiller in the The New York Times about his novel The Apprentice.
In reporting on the government, the Los Angeles Times, like other papers, faces another serious constraint. As a result of budget cuts imposed by its corporate owner, The Tribune Company, the Times recently reduced its Washington staff from sixty-one to fifty-five (of whom thirty-nine are reporters). Doyle McManus, the bureau chief, says the paper is stretched very thin. Since September 11, 2001, he has had to assign so many reporters (eight at the moment) to covering news about national security that many domestic issues have been neglected. The Times has only four daily reporters to cover everything from health care to labor to the regulatory agencies, and it has no regular reporter in Washington dealing with the problems of the environment. "It's nuts for a California paper to have its environmental job open this long," McManus says. The Chicago Tribune, he said, has a full-time agriculture writer whose beat includes agribusiness and its activities in Washington. Despite the huge national political influence of agricultural interests, the Los Angeles Times, like most other big US papers, lacks the resources to report on them regularly.
The same is true of most of official Washington. At no time since before the New Deal, perhaps, has corporate America had so much power and so much influence in Washington. Between 1998 and 2004, the amount of money spent on lobbying the federal government doubled to nearly $3 billion a year, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group. The US Chamber of Commerce alone spent $53 million in 2004. During the last six years, General Motors has spent $48 million and Ford $41 million. Before joining the Bush White House, chief of staff Andrew Card worked as a lobbyist for the big auto companies. To what extent have such payments and activities contributed to the virtual freeze on the fuel-efficiency standards that have long been in effect in the US and which have helped to produce the current oil crisis? More generally, how have corporations used their extraordinary wealth to win tax breaks, gain no-bid contracts, and bend administrative rules to their liking? On November 10, The Wall Street Journal ran a probing front-page piece about how the textile industry, through intensive lobbying, won quotas on Chinese imports - an example of the type of analysis that far too rarely appears in our leading publications. "Wall Street's influence in Washington has been one of the most under covered areas in journalism for decades," according to Charles Lewis, the former director of the Center for Public Integrity.
Of course, corporations are extensively covered in the business sections of most newspapers. These began growing in size in the 1970s and 1980s, and today The New York Times has about sixty reporters assigned to business. The Times, along with The Wall Street Journal, runs many stories raising questions about corporate behavior. For the most part, though, the business sections are addressed to members of the business world and are mainly concerned to provide them with information they can use to invest their money, manage their companies, and understand Wall Street trends. Reflecting this narrow focus, the business press in the 1980s largely missed the savings and loan scandal. In the 1990s, it published enthusiastic reports on the high-tech boom, then watched in bafflement as it collapsed. Of the hundreds of American business reporters, only one - Fortune's Bethany McLean - had the independence and courage to raise questions about the high valuation of Enron's stock. The criminal activities in recent years of not only Exxon but also WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, and other corporate malefactors have largely been exposed not by the business press but by public prosecutors; and the fate of the companies involved, and of those who were damaged by their lies, has been only fitfully followed up.
While business sections grow larger, the labor beat remains very solitary. In contrast to the many reporters covering business, the Times has only one, Steven Greenhouse, writing full-time about labor and workplace issues. (Several other Times reporters cover labor-related issues as part of their beats.) Greenhouse seems to be everywhere at once, reporting on union politics, low-wage workers, and corporate labor practices. More than any other big-city reporter, he has called attention to Wal-Mart's Dickensian working conditions. Yet he could surely use some help. When, for instance, General Motors recently announced that it was scaling back health benefits for its workforce, the story appeared on the Times's front page for a day, then settled back into the business section, where it was treated as another business story. As a result, the paper has largely overlooked the painful social effects that the retrenchments at GM, the auto-parts company Delphi, and other manufacturing concerns have had on the Midwest. More generally, the staffs of our top news organizations, who tend to be well-paid members of the upper middle class living mostly on the East and West Coasts, have limited contact with blue-collar America and so provide only sporadic coverage of its concerns.
This summer, Nancy Cleeland, after more than six years as the lone labor reporter at the Los Angeles Times, left her beat. She made the move "out of frustration," she told me. Her editors "really didn't want to have labor stories. They were always looking at labor from a management and business perspective - 'how do we deal with these guys?'" In 2003, Cleeland was one of several reporters on a three-part series about Wal-Mart's labor practices that won the Times a Pulitzer Prize. That, she had hoped, would convince her editors of the value of covering labor, but in the end it didn't, she says. "They don't consider themselves hostile to working-class concerns, but they're all making too much money to relate to the problems that working-class people are facing," observed Cleeland, who is now writing about high school dropouts. Despite her strong urging, the paper has yet to name anyone to replace her. (Russ Stanton, the Los Angeles Times's business editor, says that the paper did value Cleeland's reporting, as shown by her many front-page stories. However, with his section recently losing six of its forty-eight reporters and facing more cuts, he said, her position is unlikely to be filled anytime soon.)
On August 30 - the same day the waters of Lake Pontchartrain inundated New Orleans - the Census Bureau released its annual report on the nation's economic well-being. It showed that the poverty rate had increased to 12.7 percent in 2004 from 12.5 percent in the previous year. In New York City, where so many national news organizations have their headquarters, the rate rose from 19 percent in 2003 to 20.3 percent in 2004, meaning that one in every five New Yorkers is poor. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I - and many editors of The New York Times - live, the number of homeless people has visibly grown. Yet somehow they rarely appear in the pages of the press.
In 1998, Jason DeParle, after covering the debate in Washington over the 1996 Welfare Reform Act as well as its initial implementation, convinced his editors at The New York Times to let him live part-time in Milwaukee so that he could see Wisconsin's experimental approach up close. They agreed, and over the next year DeParle's reporting helped keep the welfare issue in the public eye. In 2000, he took a leave to write a book about the subject,  and the Times did not name anyone to replace him on the national poverty beat. And it still hasn't. Earlier this year, the Times ran a monumental series on class, and, in its day-to-day coverage of immigration, Medicaid, and foster care, it does examine the problems of the poor, but certainly the stark deprivation afflicting the nation's urban cores deserves more systematic attention.
In March, Time magazine featured on its cover a story headlined "How to End Poverty," which was about poverty in the developing world. Concerning poverty in this country, the magazine ran very, very little in the first eight months of the year, before Hurricane Katrina. Here are some of the covers Time chose to run in that period: "Meet the Twixters: They Just Won't Grow Up"; "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America"; "The Right (and Wrong) Way to Treat Pain"; "Hail, Mary" (the Virgin Mary); "Ms. Right" (Anne Coulter); "The Last Star Wars"; "A Female Midlife Crisis?"; "Inside Bill's New X-Box" (Bill Gates's latest video game machine); "Lose That Spare Tire!" (weight-loss tips); "Being 13"; "The 25 Most Influential Hispanics in America"; "Hip Hop's Class Act"; and "How to Stop a Heart Attack."
The magazine's editors put special energy into their April 18 cover, "The Time 100." Now in its second year, this annual feature salutes the hundred "most influential" people in the world, including most recently NBA forward Lebron James, country singer Melissa Etheridge, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, Ann Coulter (again!), journalist Malcolm Gladwell, and evangelical best-selling author Rick Warren. Time enlisted additional celebrities to write profiles of some of the chosen one hundred - Tom Brokaw on Jon Stewart, Bono on Jeffrey Sachs, Donald Trump on Martha Stewart, and Henry Kissinger on Condoleezza Rice (she's handling the challenges facing her "with panache and conviction" and is enjoying "a nearly unprecedented level of authority"). To celebrate, Time invited the influentials and their chroniclers to a black-tie gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time-Warner Building.
A staff member of Time's business department told me that the "100" issue is highly valued because of the amount of advertising it generates. In 2004, for instance, when Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was named a "Builder and Titan," her company bought a two-page spread in the issue. Because Time's parent company, Time Warner, must post strong quarterly earnings to please Wall Street, the pressure to turn out such moneymakers remains intense. By contrast, there's little advertising to be had from writing about inner-city mothers, so the magazine seems unlikely to alter its coverage in any significant way.
Time's "100" gala is only one of the many glitzy events on the journalists' social calendar. The most popular is the White House Correspondents' Dinner. This year, hundreds of the nation's top journalists showed up at the Washington Hilton to mix with White House officials, military brass, Cabinet chiefs, diplomats, and actors. Laura Bush's naughty Desperate Housewives routine, in which she teased her husband for his early-to-bed habits and his attempt to milk a male horse, was shown over and over on the TV news; what wasn't shown was journalists jumping to their feet and applauding wildly. Afterward, many of the journalists and their guests went to the hot post-dinner party, hosted by Bloomberg News. On his blog, The Nation's David Corn described arriving with Newsweek's Mike Isikoff, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and Times editor Jill Abramson. Seeing the long line, Corn feared he wouldn't get in, but suddenly Arianna Huffington showed up and "whisked me into her entourage." Huffington, he noted, asked everyone she encountered - Wesley Clark, John Podesta - if they'd like to participate in her new celebrity-rich mega-blog.
It was left to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show to imagine what the journalists and politicos at the dinner were saying to one another: "Deep down, we're both entrenched oligarchies with a stake in maintaining the status quo - enjoy your scrod."
A ruthlessly self-revealing look at journalists' obsession with celebrity was provided earlier this year by Bernard Weinraub. Writing in The New York Times about his experience covering Hollywood for the paper between 1991 and 2005, he told of becoming friendly with Jeffrey Katzenberg (when he was head of Walt Disney Studios), of being dazzled by the ranch-style house of producer Dawn Steel, of resenting the huge financial gulf between him and the people he was covering. He recalled:
Waiting for a valet at the Bel-Air Hotel to bring my company-leased Ford, I once stood beside a journalist turned producer who said, "I used to drive a car like that." Though I'm ashamed to say it, I was soon hunting for parking spots near Orso or the Peninsula Hotel to avoid the discomfort of having a valet drive up my leased two-year-old Buick in front of some luncheon companion with a Mercedes.
During the 1990s, the Times reporters, Weinraub among them, breathlessly recorded every move of the agent Michael Ovitz. Today, it does the same for Harvey Weinstein. The paper's coverage of movies, TV, pop music, and video games concentrates heavily on ratings, box-office receipts, moguls, boardroom struggles, media strategists, power agents, who's up and who's down. The paper pays comparatively little attention to the social or political effects of pop culture, including how middle Americans regard the often sensational and violent entertainment that nightly invades their homes. As in the case of factory shutdowns, journalists at the elite papers are not in touch with such people and so rarely write about them. 
.....[There's a lot more to this article, lots of opinions and facts, an interesting read. ...SRH]
 Her comments on her case are available at JudithMiller.org.
 See "The End of News?," The New York Review, December 1, 2005.
 See the discussion of conservative new commentators in "The End of News?"
 American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare (Viking, 2004); see the review by Christopher Jencks in this issue of The New York Review.
 For more on this subject, see my article "Off Course," Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 2005.
 See, for example, Human Rights Watch, "A Face and a Name: Civilian Victims of Insurgent Groups in Iraq," October 3, 2005.
 See the NPR show This American Life, "What's in a Number?" October 28, 2005.
 Human Rights Watch has issued many reports about the civilian victims of US military actions, including "Civilian Deaths/Checkpoints," October 2003, in which it observed that "the individual cases of civilian deaths documented in this report reveal a pattern by US forces of over-aggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas and a quick reliance on lethal force."