Media Culpa

Should a few slipshod, unethical, biased journalists cause you to distrust the whole lot of us? Yes. And that's probably a good thing for democracy.

June 2004By Comments

IF YOU BELIEVE WHAT YOU READ and hear these days, we are living through a sort of journalistic Dark Ages, an era of fabrication, plagiarism, and bias on an epic scale. Examples are everywhere but most prominently in the nation’s leading newspapers. In January Jack Kelley, a star reporter for USA Today, resigned after it was discovered that he had made up parts of eight major stories and stolen material that wasn’t his. Last year a young reporter named Jayson Blair resigned in May from the New York Times for likewise making up or stealing parts of stories for several years. Subsequently, his colleague Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer prize winner, resigned following the disclosure that his byline appeared on stories he didn’t really report in places he never went or visited only briefly. In the wake of the Blair fiasco, a dozen other newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, discovered similar problems. Then, in the fall of 2003, buttressing these images of the media as an ethical wasteland, came the premiere of the film Shattered Glass, a movie about a reporter who falsified all or parts of some two dozen stories for the New Republic in the late nineties. As a reward for his fabrications, the reporter, Stephen Glass, was paid a good deal of money for his own book, The Fabulist.

Those reporters were not, unfortunately, the only ones playing fast and loose with journalistic ethics. Here in Texas, the Houston Chronicle suspended columnist Mickey Herskowitz earlier this year for self-plagiarizing from a column he wrote for the Houston Post in 1990. In March Dave McNeely, the political columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, acknowledged giving five drafts of a highly charged political story about a probe of alleged campaign-finance violations by various Republicans, including Speaker of the House Tom Craddick and U.S. House majority leader Tom DeLay, to the chief investigator in the case, Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat. Doing so was both a violation of a basic rule of reportorial conduct and, to conservatives, yet another example of the media’s pervasive liberal bias. A few months earlier, the Statesman‘s editorial page editor, Arnold Garcia, had admitted to sending a cozy e-mail to Austin mayor Will Wynn offering to “shoot [him] a draft” of an upcoming editorial.

All of this has convinced the majority of the American public that there is something deeply wrong with its media. In polls conducted last summer by the Pew Research Center, a mere 36 percent of Americans think reporters “usually get facts straight,” 62 percent think reporters “try to cover up mistakes,” and 66 percent say the media always favor one side over the other. This impression is reinforced by constant attacks, from the likes of Rush Limbaugh on the right and Al Franken on the left, accusing reporters and editors of telling politicized lies. Here in Texas, two Web sites have popped up since February 2003—Texas Media Watch and TexasDigest—whose purpose is to point out the (presumed) politically inspired inaccuracies of the state’s press corps. We’ve been treated to the predictable gnashing of teeth and rending of garments on op-ed pages over the death of the good old days when journalists were decent guys and everyone trusted them. The conventional wisdom holds that journalism has really deteriorated in the past thirty years, ever since Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal, in 1972.

That’s a nice conceit, but I’m not buying it. The notion that there was some golden age of journalism in American history is simply wrong. Bias and inaccuracy (not to mention outright corruption) were, if anything, worse in the good old days. The reality is that, despite ethical lapses by a few bad apples and screams of partisan unfairness, and all of the prattle, celebrity obsession, silliness, and political pettifoggery that are features of a free press, journalism has rarely been better at doing what it is supposed to do.

Let me explain what I mean. As I watched the morbidly fascinating destruction of Blair and Kelley, it occurred to me that their sins were at least partly the result of breakneck competition between big media organizations. It also occurred to me that I knew the climate in which they operated and the freakish expectations they were supposed to meet. From 1988 to 2000 I worked for Time magazine, mostly as a correspondent. This was the age of wolf-pack journalism, a period marked by news stories so big they quickly became cultural landmarks: Monica Lewinsky, O.J., Oklahoma City, Columbine, Heaven’s Gate, various mothers killing their children, Elián González, the plane crash of JFK Jr., and, in Texas, the dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper. The newsmedia had certainly covered big stories en masse before, but the nineties institutionalized the phenomenon. Editors learned that they had everything to gain by throwing everything they had at these stories (Blair’s boss, the now-defrocked Howell Raines, famously referred to this as “flooding the zone”). Skyrocketing newsstand sales and TV ratings from media events like these were generating enormous revenue. At such times, American journalism becomes a giant cash cow. Editors leaned on reporters harder and harder to produce “exclusives” to justify the huge amounts of money they were spending—and making.

My job was to feed the cow. I covered the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine shootings, the O.J. civil trial, Ken Starr’s probe of Bill Clinton, Heaven’s Gate, and Jasper while working as Time‘s Austin bureau chief during the late nineties. Of these, Columbine was probably the best example of the sort of pressure brought to bear on journalists these days. When I arrived in Littleton, Colorado, a media city had been set up on Columbine High School’s perimeter. By my estimate, at least a thousand reporters were covering the story. My assignment was to penetrate the so-called Trenchcoat Mafia, the loose cabal of friends to which the shooters supposedly belonged. There were only a handful of them that we knew about, and they quickly went to ground, hiding behind answering machines and caller ID as the vast hordes of reporters swept toward them.

I had never experienced quite this level of competition. Sitting in a hotel room on the outskirts of Littleton and frantically making hundreds of calls to try to find these kids and convince them to talk to me was one of the more harrowing experiences of my journalistic life. My editors were calling me, upset that, in spite of my remonstrances that I was doing all I could, they had just seen this or that Mafia member on TV. Less than two days in, I was already being scooped. Because my calls were not being returned, I drove to the homes of several of the kids, only to find huge lines of rented SUVs and TV crews burying notes in bouquets of flowers promising special treatment and, in some cases, money. After a week of abject terror and fear of certain failure, I finally got a phone call returned. It led to a 2 a.m. interview with a bona fide member of the Mafia at the very last moment before my deadline. Without that call, I would have failed miserably, and it would have been brought up at my yearly job evaluation. It was like this, to varying degrees, on all the big stories.

I tell you this not to rationalize or excuse the conduct of someone like Blair, whose bosses finally caught on to him while he was “reporting” just such a story: the Washington, D.C., sniper. Just the opposite. There are thousands of instances each year in which pack journalists face crushing competitive pressure and editors screaming at them to produce—and considering the incentive to stretch the truth, it is amazing how fundamentally right the media get the story. Littleton was messy, to be sure; the poor townspeople had their privacy invaded on an unimaginable scale. There was no shortage of bitterness and recrimination. But the reporters, in the end, did their jobs: They provided mostly accurate details of what was going on and offered explanations of what the shootings meant at a time when parents around the country were frightened of what might happen in their own kids’ schools.

As for the idea that these episodes of inaccuracy, bias, or plagiarism are somehow new to the profession, that is also simply not true. Americans have always distrusted the newsmedia, and with good reason. In the decades after the American Revolution, almost all newspapers were run by political parties. They were deeply biased and happy to fabricate lies about the opposition. By the time of the Civil War, papers like Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune began to exert political independence. Here is Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in 1835 about our noble profession: “The journalists of the United States [have] a vulgar turn of mind. The characteristics of the American journalist consist in an open and coarse appeal to the passions of his readers.” In the hypercompetitive New York city newspaper market of the early twentieth century—where Hearst fought Pulitzer and dozens of dailies competed for space—reporters and editors routinely bent facts in the name of selling papers. My point is that in a wide-open, chaotic, mercantile democracy, journalism—like any other business and like the people and events journalists cover—is messy, imperfect, and unpredictable. The public need not beat itself up over this; it’s just the way things are.

Considering that the journalistic watchdog often lolls about eating bonbons and sleeping, the real question we should be asking is: Does it bark when it’s supposed to? Clearly it does. Take the war on terror: In the same polls that found the press untrustworthy, seven in ten respondents gave reporters excellent marks in covering the war in Afghanistan. The coverage of 9/11 has been nothing less than brilliant, up through and including the revelations of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal, which was brought to you exclusively by the American media. Who doesn’t think the public is better off knowing the gory details? And while complaining about the media’s bias, fully 59 percent of Americans in recent polls also say the press helps keep political leaders in line. In a sea of fluff and mediocrity, these things stand out.

The critic must not be above criticism. It’s good that the media are distrusted. They are invasive, occasionally biased, and sometimes flat wrong. They also, quite often, perform exactly as Thomas Jefferson envisioned they would. Distrusting the media is probably—dare I say it—a sign of a healthy democracy.

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