The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

AJR on Bush v press - further thoughts... those earlier today.

In no particular order:

Horse-and-buggy thinking from Leon Panetta:
On the media side, "instead of always looking for the angle or the scandal or the bad news, at some point the press has to develop greater objectivity in the way they approach their stories," he says. "If they do that, I think White Houses have to respond by giving them greater access."

Clapping for Tinkerbell. (Or Trent Lott regretting that the Dixiecrats lost in 1948.)

The point that
The vast media landscape has not helped the press' cause either. If anything, it's enabled administrations to tailor and target their messages more effectively.
is hardly a new one.

I seem to remember early on in Hedrick Smith's The Power Game - I've only ever managed early on in that tome! - one of the innovations of the late 1970s and 1980s he highlights is the use of satellite linkups to local TV stations in order to bypass unfriendly national news outlets.

But, of course, it's only one club in the bag: stenography at the Post and NYT, amongst others, has allowed Bush a pretty unfiltered megaphone a lot of the time with the prestige national media, too.

There's some acknowledgement of the complicity of the media in kneeling at the feet of USG spokesmen to gulp down whatever nourishment can be found at that altitude: Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau Chief Andy Alexander says
One of the reasons [for USG's success in controlling information] is that we have allowed ourselves in this town to get to a point where the national security adviser can have a background briefing with 50 reporters and not have herself revealed."

Alberto Gonzales-approved torture sessions secured media compliance, of course.

Andrea Mitchell of NBC
argues that leaks, particularly of dissenting views, can be helpful to good government. "There are policies that need to be exposed," she says. "There are times when the administration ought to know that there are things happening in this administration that are not good policy."

Despite appearances to the contrary, NBC have not been hiring from grade school: Mitchell
has covered national politics and the federal government since 1976.

None of the journos consulted see any reason cogent outside fairyland [1] for the current policy to change - under this or any subsequent administration. Even Mike McCurry agrees.

Robertson calls reasons for more USG openness from guys she quotes
noble...but awfully wispy and idealistic.

If an Executive Branch recantation is out of the question, what about some actual journalism? There are plenty of sources in DC - query how much they know, how journos can evaluate how much they know, and can untangle fact from spin.

Robertson doesn't - so far as I can see - highlight the need for the expertise of subject-specialist journalists, rather than one-size-fits-all political hacks. Integrating specialist expertise into A1 pieces is not, I suspect, easy; the juice in political stories comes from the pack of gossip-hounds who fixate on process, horse-race, inside baseball and the like.

On a story like social security 'reform', the detail is crucial - but also fiendishly complicated (I'd imagine!). Specialist and political journos are, I'd speculate, often temperamentally like chalk and cheese - Kerry's butler, Whiz or Swiss cheese on cheesesteaks, windsurfing: these bite-sized frivolities are what makes the world of political journalism go round: actuarial reports, not so much.

Unauthorised leaking can lead to orange suits: Robertson mentions the case of Jonathan Randel, a DEA analyst who got a year at Club Fed for spilling unclassified information [1].

And, for all that they're notoriously a bunch of liberals, it's Solidarity For Never amongst the journos:
If a reporter is thrown off the vice president's plane, [McCurry] asks, why doesn't the entire press corps say, fine, then none of us travels with you. "You don't ever see any kind of collective action like that."

(And then Robertson undercuts with a nice Deborah Orin story against McCurry.)

Rather than hang together, the hacks prefer to hang separately: divide and rule is easier for the White House than the Viceroys of India who long blunted the edge of native revolt by ensuring Hindu and Moslem pols argued as much with each other as with their British masters.

Ironically, in an age where media consolidation is the watch-cry of many, it's the beggar-my-neighbour, fissiparous tendencies of the press corp which condemn it to be picked off one by one by the USG media machine.

Robertson does not consider the business angle: as discussed her several times before, in a rag like the NYT, no editor or executive will lose his job by continuing with good old stenography. There may be a business model that works for actual journalism - digging out the facts, rather than regurgitating press releases and briefings - but I'm not aware it's been put into effect recently. If a Pulitzer Prize-winning series pulled in as much as much contribution to net profit for a paper as The Passion of the Christ, for instance, it might be worth the risk.

But ask the execs at the Toledo Blade - under the seal of the confessional, perhaps? - to quantify the contribution to net profit of their marquee Tiger Force series and I doubt whether you'd find a number that was both reliable and huge [2].

  1. I mentioned Randel's case on October 4 2003. He was convicted, not under any secrecy statute but under 18 USC 641 - theft of Federal property - as well as §1031 and §1343 - more here: the US Attorney
    defined information, including e-mail correspondence, as government property. Federal prosecutors in Atlanta placed a market value on the information Randel leaked, claiming it was worth at least $13,000...
    Randel's prosecution is described as extremely rare - but the rule of the Jim Crow South applies: lynch one, cow ten thousand.

    I can't trace any appeal; there is a completely different Jonathan Randel who's been in the news in the last few years.

  2. The Blade is one of the few newspapers folks will have heard of that is not part of a chain - I learn from a 2000 AJR piece:
    Its owners, the Block family, which also owns the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, bought it in 1926, and a scion of the family, John Robinson Block, is copublisher and editor in chief today. The paper has a strong idiosyncratic point of view and tends toward old-fashioned crusading on regional issues. Locals say Block tries to run the town, and he and his paper often get their way.
    The piece also includes the sentence
    In at least one show, Block says, WVKS called his penis size into question.

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