The Narrow Separation of Press and State

It was a remarkable comment that passed without notice. After
interviewing the new White House chief of staff, a network anchor bade him
farewell. "All right, Andy Card," said CNN's Judy Woodruff, "we look
forward to working with you, to covering your administration."

If major news outlets were committed to independent journalism,
Woodruff's statement on national television Jan.19 would have caused quite
a media stir -- as a sign of undue coziness with power brokers in
Washington. But it was far from conspicuous.

Woodruff's remark was matter-of-fact. Warm collaboration is
routine. Many reporters work closely with each new crew of top government

Leading journalists and spinners in high places are accustomed to
mutual reliance. That's good for professional advancement. But the public's
right to know is another matter.

"The first fact of American journalism is its overwhelming
dependence on sources, mostly official, usually powerful," Walter Karp
pointed out in Harper's Magazine a dozen years ago. Since then, the problem
has grown even more acute. A multitude of journalists advance their careers
by (in Woodruff's words) "working with" movers and shakers in government.

Reporters with outsized reputations for investigative vigor -- Bob
Woodward, for example -- may be the most compromised. Behind the scenes,
the tacitly understood tradeoffs amount to quid pro quos. Officials
dispense leaks to reporters with track records of proven willingness to
stay within bounds.

"It is a bitter irony of source journalism," Karp observed, "that
the most esteemed journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by
making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the
'best' sources."

While some fine journalism, assertive and carefully researched,
gets into print and onto airwaves every day, the islands of such reporting
are drowned in oceans of glorified leaks and institutional handouts. But
democracy is only served when journalists keep searching for information
that officials hide.

On the surface, concerns about scant separation of press and state
might seem to be misplaced. After all, don't we see network correspondents
firing tough questions at politicians? Isn't the press filled with
criticism of policymakers?

Well, kind of. We're encouraged to confuse partisan wrangles with
ample debate, or -- in the case of certain TV shows -- high decibels with
wide diversity. To a great extent, mainstream media outlets provide big
megaphones for those who already have plenty of clout. That suits wealthy
owners and large advertisers. But what about democratic discourse?

In general, news coverage of political issues is about as varied
as the array of views propounded by the hierarchies of the Democratic and
Republican parties. When there's bipartisan agreement on particular topics
-- such as the wisdom of keeping 2 million Americans behind bars or the
value of corporate globalization -- the media space for debate tends to be
very limited. Consensus among major-party leaders has a way of
circumscribing the mass-media arena.

With huge conglomerates more enmeshed in media ownership and
advertising than ever, news operations are under heightened pressure to
promote corporate outlooks, dovetailing with rightward trends in
governance. It's true that business has always dominated government
policymaking. But in recent times, mitigating interests -- often known in
mediaspeak as "special interests" -- have been increasingly expunged from
serious consideration.

"What is new about the situation today is that a seemingly
irreversible mutation in the American system has occurred," syndicated
columnist William Pfaff wrote in mid-January. "At some point, quantitative
change does become qualitative change. The point when that change took
place was probably 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that money spent
in support of a political candidate is a form of constitutionally protected
free speech. Moneyed interests now finance not only the winners of national
elections but also most of the losers."

Pfaff's column appears most prominently in the International
Herald Tribune. Based in Paris, he has a clear-eyed view of big money's
leverage over U.S. politics: "This is part of the enlarging domination of
American life by business corporations and their values, which are those of
material aggrandizement, a phenomenon accompanied and promoted by the
circuses and gladiatorial contests provided by the most important U.S.
industry of all, entertainment, which now showcases elections and even wars
as entertainments."

We need wide-ranging news media. And that's unlikely as long as
most "journalism" resembles stenography for the powerful -- and very few
eyebrows get raised when a network anchor tells a key official of an
incoming administration that "we look forward to working with you."


Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of
Highly Deceptive Media."

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