The best segment we’ve seen lately on the “Jim Lehrer News Hour” was an interview with Michael Getler, the Washington Post’s about-to-retire ombudsman.
Getler has been at the business of monitoring his own newspaper and responding to reader complaints for five years. Which makes it particularly revealing that, in his parting days, he is far more worried more about the press’s new timidity (including the largely unquestioning pre-war acceptance by his own newspaper of the Bush administration’s false assertion that Saddam Hussein was armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction) than he is about recent press scandals (think Dan Rather and CBS’s misadventures).
We suspect that Getler is right, in that the former will loom large in any eventual history of the press, while the latter — an overworked and elderly anchor who overstayed his welcome at a dying medium, and who got suckered by an overzealous producer — will, gradually, become a footnote.
Getler’s concern is that a country with a timid and frightened press is a country that is in for a world of hurt. But, of course, none of us will know whether Getler (or CJR Daily) has it right, until, as George Bush says, “we’re all dead.”
In the meantime, here’s Getler:
It’s very important that big news organizations do not pull their punches. They need to stay aggressive. They need to go after these hard stories. They can’t become too cautious. They can’t become intimidated either by the need for their own transparency, which is important, or by political or other commercial efforts to rein them in.
That valedictory is uncommonly like the 1960 parting words of President Dwight Eisenhower, who warned us about the unbridled and unmonitored power of “the military-industrial complex” as he walked out the door of the White House for the last time.
At the time, Eisenhower’s warning was pretty much ignored. Let’s hope Getler’s isn’t.