How journalism failed America at a most critical time

In the days prior today’s bailout vote, you could surf through Google news and find any number of stories that told us that the U.S. economy is in a crisis, and that spending $700 billion to bail out Wall Street bankers was unavoidable.

Or you could turn on the television and watch just about any news show and hear the same thing.

What you rarely found or heard was any serious questioning of whether the crisis was anywhere near the proportion George W. Bush said it was, or if the bailout was really necessary, or if the bailout would work, or if, maybe, the bailout might make things actually worse.

All of these are legitimate, skeptical questions that at a time when the nation’s attention was nearly focused solely on questions around the economy, the mass of mainstream media failed to cast a doubtful eye on anything government officials and elected representatives were telling them.

Oh, occasionally, Ron Paul got a little air time, but for the most part, if you wanted to find any commentary or reporting that was anything other than an Amen Chorus for Bush and Paulson, you had know where and how to look.

Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Cay Johnston put it this way:

Journalists, and specially Washington journalists, are generally behaving like lapdogs and generally only asking detail questions around the central premise. This should concern us all. This is the same kind of behavior that we saw during the run up to the War in Iraq, when there was no shortage of critical facts and skeptical sources, but only the usual stalwarts in journalism reported skeptically.

Johnston went on to note that when Tom Brokaw opened the previous Sunday’s Meet the Press with, “Our issues this Sunday: The American financial system in deep crisis.”  Not, “The president says,” but rather a bald statement of fact.

Why, at a time of great decision — just like the run up to the invasion in Iraq — when America needs more, not fewer, skeptical voices, did U.S. journalism lap up whatever gruel they were fed?

I blame Walter Lippmann.

In the 1920s, Lippmann sought to weed out of journalism some of the excesses of jingoist reporting that he witnessed during World War I.  He elevated objectivity to a professional moral code, that reporting and writing should be neutral. It was not the role of the reporter to interpret.  He should merely regurgitate the facts as observed or offered up by official sources.  Lippmann did not trust a singular human to exercise critical thinking about complex issues.

His objectivity code smacks of a certain elitism — that first, only official sources should be allowed to speak, and only specially trained professional journalists could be trusted to transmute their words and deeds to an easily led (or misled) public (“manufactured consent”).

While Lippmann’s formulation of objective journalism has not completely quashed advocacy journalism, or watchdog reporting, it has become the standard practice of the work-a-day reporter.

No where is it more insidious than inside the beltway.

Think back to the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Any number of White House and Pentagon officials could be found quoted — often anonymously — in the leading publications on the tactics, strategy, necessity and urgency of the war, but few contrarian voices were heard.  The arguments against the war were left to anti-war celebrities on television shout shows, lefty blogs and scattered protesters.  There was nothing like an expert calling bullshit on most administration assertions in mass media reporting.

Whether you supported the war or not, the complete lack of alternate voices in much of the reporting of America’s newspapers should cause you concern.

Many critics of the war before and since have referred to Bush’s push for invasion as “the rush to war.”

That phrase echoed through my mind much the past week as Bush and Congressional Democrats hastily set to work on a $700 billion bailout of New York’s financial institutions.  It is no stretch to call it a “rush to bailout.”

The original proposal was a three-page document; Democrats had doubts, so they (working with likeminded Republicans) tried to fashion more complete legislation, but did so through secret meetings (some) and not a single public hearing. No expert witnesses were called, and no outside voices who distrusted the “rush to bailout” were called to testify.

Yes, the press just lapped it up.  In fact, you risked being labeled a crank if you even questioned the necessity of the bailout.

It smelled — it smelled of politicians eagerly doing favors for some of their biggest donors, and for the elite press corps protecting their elite patrons.

Just as prior to the Iraq war, there were some lonely voices raising alternate view points. The McClatchy News Service did one story — but only one, that I can find — mildly doubtful of the Bush narrative.

“It’s more hype than real risk,” said James K. Galbraith, a University of Texas economist and son of the late economic historian John Kenneth Galbraith. “A nasty recession is possible, but the bailout will not cure that. So it’s mainly relevant to the financial industry.”

Unless you were either smart enough or engaged enough to seek out alternative versions of reality, you wouldn’t know that economists such as Galbraith had serious doubts about the extent of the crisis, or that some experts doubted a bailout was necessary, or that a bailout would work, or that the bailout rush was smart (yes, that is a WaPo link, bless their souls — one somewhat skeptical story), or that the bailout would profoundly change the role of government and private capital, or that the bailout might make matters worse.

You would think that a press corps that believed itself badly burned by Bush on Iraq would be a little more skeptical of the president now. It might demonstrate just how firmly entrenched Lippmann’s brand of official source journalism is in most reporters’ minds.

It should be asked, even, whether the dearth of skeptical reporting helped feed a sense of hysteria, even to the point of propelling today’s 777-point DOW drop?

And has the reporting so far helped Americans better understand how the current financial conditions might directly effect them? I’ve had friends, closer to retirement than I am, express fear about losing value in their 401(k)s without a hint of recognition that the bailout may actually have caused those assets to lose more money and result in a slower recovery.

It could be argued that the American people, who pressured representatives to reject the bailout, saw through the clamor and clouds, but if you spend time reading comments on newspaper web sites, angry constituents reacted more viscerally than logically.  If you support the reform, you should be concerned that the lack of depth in news coverage also failed to clearly communicate why the bailout was necessary and wise.

Lippmann may have done the republic and a journalism a service by offering an antidote to the excesses of yellow journalism, but maybe its time for editors to recognize that their reporters are smart enough (or should be) and readers perceptive enough to allow those gathering the facts and doing the writing to provide context and meaning to events and what officials claim. That may not be objective, but it will lead to a better informed, more responsive public.

7 thoughts on “How journalism failed America at a most critical time

  1. […] How journalism failed America at a most critical time. Howard Owens on how badly the American (and I’d add Canadian) people are being served at a time of wild financial news. Where, he asks, was journalism’s much-vaunted skepticism when it was needed? Somewhat related: Drudge shows how to do news, by Alan Mutter. […]

  2. Words are our power and at such a criticical time as this you would think that the left-wing illuminati subscribers would get a clue and learn to exhibit a higher quality of words and actions that line up. I am so put off by the foolish concept of being an ignorant consumer-voter that I need these people to “show me the way.” I am not only capable of making decisions for myself but I am very capable of pursuading others as well.

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