American journalism is in trouble, and the problem is not just financial. My profession is in distress because for more than a decade it has been chasing the false idols of fame and fortune. While engaged in those pursuits, it forgot its readers and the need to produce a commercial product that appealed to its mass audience, which in turn drew advertisers and thus paid for it all. While most corporate owners were seeking increased earnings, higher stock prices, and bigger salaries, editors and reporters focused more on winning prizes or making television appearances.
Some long-term reporting projects have been undertaken, and multiple-part series published, simply because they might win prizes. Over the past ten years, The Washington Post has won nineteen Pulitzer Prizes. But over that same period, we lost more than 120,000 readers. Why? My answer, unpopular among my colleagues, is that while many of these longer efforts were worthwhile, they took up space and resources that could have been used to give readers a wider selection of stories about what was going on, and that may have directly affected their lives. Readers have limited time to spend on newspapers. The number has been twenty-five minutes, on average, for more than thirty years. In short, we have left behind our readers in our chase after glory.
Editors have paid more attention to what gains them prestige among their journalistic peers than on subjects more related to the everyday lives of readers. For example, education affects everyone, yet I cannot name an outstanding American journalist on this subject. Food is an important subject, yet regular newspaper coverage of agriculture and the products we eat is almost nonexistent unless cases of food poisoning turn up. Did journalists adequately warn of the dangers of subprime mortgages? I don’t think so. (CJR’s answer to that question is on page 24.)
We have also failed our readers in the way we cover government. The First Amendment not only guaranteed freedom of the press from government interference, it also gave American journalists the opportunity—I believe the responsibility—to find and present facts on issues that require public attention. Our press is not protected in order to merely echo the views of government officials, opposition politicians, and so-called experts. Too often, though, that’s what occurs.
One of my basic concerns is that American journalism has turned away from its own hard-won expertise, and at the very time when readers are looking to us to explain the context of what is happening and what will happen next.
Most newspapers and the broadcast media have cut the number of reporters on beats. Meanwhile, young reporters are increasingly shifted from beat to beat, never having enough time to master complex subjects such as health care, public education, or environmental policies. As a result, more of their stories are based not on reportorial expertise, but on pronouncements by government sources or their critics.
Reporters are shifted around in part because of decreasing resources, and in part because within the profession, reporters are encouraged to become editors, editors to become publishers, and publishers of small papers pushed to manage bigger ones. This results in less expertise at the most important level—where reporters gather information.
Meanwhile, we have turned into a public-relations society. Much of the news Americans get each day was created to serve just that purpose—to be the news of the day. Many of our headlines come from events created by public relations—press conferences, speeches, press releases, canned reports, and, worst of all, snappy comments by “spokesmen” or “experts.” To serve as a counterpoint, we need reporters with expertise.
Consider the worst of recent examples. I believe the Bush administration sold the March 2003 invasion of Iraq to the American people beginning with a public-relations campaign that started in August 2002. Vice President Dick Cheney kicked it off with a series of speeches on the growing threat from Saddam Hussein, and it continued almost daily, with key members of the administration giving speeches, statements, or press conferences. The result was that the threat from Saddam Hussein—his alleged nuclear weapons, the idea that he would give chemical or biological weapons to terrorists—dominated news coverage right up to the time the first missiles hit Baghdad on March 19, 2003.
Manipulation of the media was taken to its highest form by George W. Bush’s administration. It built, however, on what went on before.
In 1922, Walter Lippmann, in his book Public Opinion, wrote:
The enormous discretion as to what facts and what impressions shall be reported is steadily convincing every organized group of people that whether it wishes to secure publicity or to avoid it, the exercise of discretion cannot be left to the reporter. It is safer to hire a press agent who stands between the group and the newspapers.