DB: It’s difficult to overcome the drum beat of sound bites. There are some great young reporters so it’s not an age thing. What’s missing is a sense of fairness, equality and inequality, right and wrong that journalists traditionally brought to their reporting. Like so many other aspects of American life—business and government come to mind—what’s missing is a moral compass: Is this right or wrong?
TL: Do reporters think about that today?
DB: Not so much. Journalism has become a business. It’s no longer a calling. Everyone’s job seems to be in jeopardy. People are worried about their next paycheck.
TL: Has the specialization in journalism with all the training programs and fellowships backfired? Some think that this has encouraged journalists to write for their sources.
DB: Yes. Today’s journalists often forget the audience earlier generations wrote for - the average person. Now they write for Wall Street or Silicon Valley or Capitol Hill or cable television talking heads. Their questions are framed in economic terms not in moral terms—is this right or wrong. There used to be moral outrage in the newsroom, but now not so much. Where you really see this is in the use of language. Here is where journalists have literally lost their moral compass.
TL: Can you explain this a bit more?
DB: In stories on taxes, reporters often ask whether it’s fair to impose higher tax rates on someone who has worked hard and achieved success. The implication is that someone who doesn’t make much money has not worked hard. Nonetheless, reporters often ask, “Do you really want to raise taxes on someone who is successful?” That usually means those who have made a lot of money.
TL: So we are not framing or asking the right questions?
DB: Yes. We don’t know what we need to know unless we ask the right question. You listen to TV reporters, and they inevitably ask the wrong question so the problem is framed wrong or from a point of view. Americans are not dumb. But journalism is dumbing down the information it delivers. Sometimes it’s political. Sometimes it’s laziness.
TL: Can you give me an example?
DB: The classic example was weapons of mass destruction. The question should have been are there weapons of mass destruction, not where are they. By framing that way, people are misled into believeing the weapons exist. Once that theme was picked up, the media was off and running.
TL: Any other examples?
DB: Take end-of-life care. The question is “can we afford to spend $80,000 for treatment that extends life for two months?” Nobody asks that question. It’s usually framed in terms of rationing or denying care. Or to take another example. There’s a study by one Wall Street firm that shows that corporate taxes are really high. And then you read the fine print and see what income was excluded from taxes. But nobody looks at what taxes corporations actually pay. That’s the question to ask.
TL: How about Social Security?
DB: There were these huge surpluses. Where did the money go? To finance a war? Here’s another. Why are there caps on how much earnings can be taxed for Social Security. (Income over $106,000 is not subject to Social Security payroll taxes.) That’s not asked.
DB: Because it inevitably leads to an accusation of engaging in class warfare, even though the war was waged long ago and lost.
TL: Are news organizations interested in producing stories that tackle questions like that?
DB: Some are; some are not. It’s important to remember that however bad things may seem today, there is no comparison with the 1950s, when critical reporting on business did not exist.
TL: One time I heard you speak at a meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists and you said “make no mistake about it, we are lying to our readers.” Can you explain what you meant?
DB: This idea of pretending that the market, and by extension our insurance system, works in health care is a flat out lie. We don’t have an insurance problem. We have a health care delivery problem. Health care could be provided through other arrangements - and not necessarily by the government. Yet the entire debate is keyed to guaranteeing insurance, indeed the big issue now is forcing people to buy insurance.
TL: What is going wrong with America now?