'Has the press become, less skeptical, less insurgent?'
SHOWCASE | October 17, 2008
A transcript of a panel discussion held Oct. 7 in conjunction with the presentation of the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence. (Part one of two.)
(See also John Walcott's acceptance speech and an article about the panel.)
Tom Rosenstiel: What we're going to try to do in the next hour and a half or so is talk about the landscape for watchdog reporting and the kind of traditions that Izzy Stone represented and, hopefully, at the end we will have enough time to talk about what, if anything, can be done to improve matters, not just to critique them. And we'll try and have some time for questions at the end. And when we do those questions, rather than speak from your seat, where, four rows behind, the question is lost, we'll ask you to come to the microphone.
John, in your talk, which I personally thought, was quite thoughtful, you said there were a lot of holes, so what we're going to do now is try to find some of those holes. This is a question that several of you may actually have wanted to weigh in on, but Walcott says that the “temptation to play it safe” in the media is greater than it's ever been in his experience. Is that really true? Has the press become, less skeptical, less insurgent? Or is that the kind of thing we always think is sort of a condition of life? Chuck, you have sort of dedicated yourself to try and work from a different perspective. What do you think?
Charles Lewis: I actually kind of agree with the sentiment John said, I, you know, I've been looking at deception in the twentieth century and where the press was, and actually, this is a common problem which is part of the conversation. The media is frequently late on most issues involving power. [It] usually takes years to sort out the truth. We don't really have real-time truth. What John and his colleagues did is the exception to the rule, generally speaking. So, I think this is not just a Washington problem, but it is especially exacerbated here in Washington. It's always been a problem in Washington as, I think, it's gotten worse. And I think, as news organizations smaller and the business interests of companies have become more significant. There are compromises that are made with folks who are closely regulated, such as the broadcast industries, that have increased their ownership radically in the last twenty years. And that's not the only reason it's happening, but access, of course, that terrible problem that has besieged journalists since the beginning of time, the moth-and-flame problem. I don't think that's gotten any easier, and when you have an administration that keeps score, about who their friends are, and puts people off the bus, and other administrations have done this. Each one seems to get better at it. And then finally the susceptibility in this punditocracy, or whatever the word is. The David Barstow stories in the New York Times, I think, were really telling. You had, fifteen or more generals working, all getting contracts, all getting rich, and going on Cheney's private jet to Guantanamo and having talking points emailed to them, but told to the public that they were former generals. And the susceptibility of the media, particularly in this fast-moving, warp-speed world that you and Bill wrote about, it's gotten worse. Information's moving faster, chances, in an information age of standing down and checking the information, is almost hopeless now. And who's going to do it, by the way? So yeah, I think it's a really serious problem, I think it's out of control, basically.
Tom Rosenstiel: Okay, you mention business consolidation, access and communication strategies, the susceptibility of a media that is moving at more rapid pace. Jane, are there other --first of all, do you agree with the premise that the press is sort of more gullible, less skeptical than at some other time? If you do, are there other factors you would add to it?
Jane Mayer: I'm not sure I think that that's the issue. I think that what we have seen is the professionalization of the spin machine to a point where it's outmastering the press in a way. When I covered Reagan for the Wall Street Journal with John Walcott, who was one of the only people in the bureau who actually had sources, it was, you know, they tried to manipulate us and they did, on most good days, win that battle, but not everyday, and one of the things that changed was, when I was at the Wall Street Journal covering Reagan, once a week or once every other week, anyway, we had access to the Chief of Staff, Jim Baker, or we got to see Deaver, or we got to see the people who were in charge of, you know, running the country and making these decisions, and there's no access like that to the Bush Administration. And so, when you can see the real people, they tend to talk and make mistakes and play off against each other, and you can get stories. It's that they're such a professional handling operation by now. It's really hard to get past it and I think you have to be very sophisticated, very determined, and pretty savvy to get around it. You know, a lot of the, I think, people who are new to reporting and maybe in the blogosphere, and in the television networks and cable, are just not, you know, up to it; it's really hard to do at this point, to penetrate that.
Tom Rosenstiel: Okay, we've got daunting factors here: consolidation, speed, the game of access, professional spin machine, cutbacks in newsrooms. Florence, are there any other factors we've forgotten here?
Florence Graves: Well, one of the people whose work I have been particularly influenced by is Michael Schudson's work. And he's a professor at the University of California, San Diego. And he also teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia. And he's written several books. He's a sociologist, but he's written several books on the media, and one of them is “The Power of News” and another one is “Watergate and American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past.” And when I was doing some thinking about all of this for some writing that I was doing, actually one of the articles was in the Nieman Reports. One of the things that he said that I found confirmed what I thought but didn't know that someone else had actually studied it. And he wrote in one of his books “the muckraking theme has been powerful in American journalism for a century -- even though its practice is the exception, not the rule.” And he says, his theory is, and he has a whole book on Watergate, is that we live with the image of Watergate. We live with the picture of that's who we are, that's who the press is, that's what we expect from the press. When, he says, in fact, Watergate was really the exception rather than the rule. And, that, he says, and I think this is really something especially profound, he says, “the press as a whole during Watergate, was, as before and since, primarily an establishment institution with few ambitions to rock establishment bonds.”
That's how I've often seen it during my career in Washington. And I think, personally, as an outsider, it was hard for women my age to get into investigative reporting, that sometimes as an outsider, you see it even more clearly. Does that make sense?
Tom Rosenstiel: Yeah. It's interesting that the Pulitzer Prizes didn't actually have a category for investigative reporting until 1960.
Florence Graves: Right.
Tom Rosenstiel: It's not as though this has been something that we've celebrated throughout our history. Gil, I know you wanted to weigh in on this.
Gilbert Cranberg: Yeah.
Tom Rosenstiel: The fact is that -- is sort of the notion of the press as a kind of insurgent watchdog overstated?
Gilbert Cranberg: Yes, very much overstated because when you most want a courageous press, you don't get it. When feelings run high and you have the press in full herd mode as it was in the run up to the Iraq war and you don't get the kind of skepticism that is absolutely essential. Think back at the time of the uprooting of Japanese Americans at the outset of World War II. This was a horrendous event. These people were put in camps, taken away from their homes and the press did not make an issue of that. The Tonkin Gulf-- incidentally, I.F. Stone, as admirable as he was, didn't say a word about the treatment of Japanese Americans, most of whom were American citizens. Is Myra McPherson here? Oh, there you are. I see you nodding. Okay, you pointed out that you couldn't find any instance where I.F. Stone raised his voice about the treatment of Japanese Americans.
The same thing happened during the McCarthy years. Did I mention the Tonkin Gulf resolution? Same thing. So, what happened in the run up to the Iraq war was not an exception. It happened before and it'll happen again. I was struck by the question to John Walcott from a member of the audience. Why? Why was the press -- why was Knight Ridder out there virtually alone? Where was the rest of the press? His answer was he didn't know. Well, I think that's an extremely important question and the fact that we don't know means it's going to happen again. What we need very seriously is a full scale review of what happened while the people are still in place, while their memories are fresh, and when key stories did not appear.
For example, as the piece that Walter Pincus wrote and the initial reaction of the editor of the Washington Post was “Kill it!” Finally, with Bob Woodward's intercession, it ran on page 17. Why? What was his thinking? I had personal experience at that time, after Colin Powell spoke to the UN - which was a seminal event that turned public opinion around totally to support the war. I did what I.F. Stone recommended. I was sort of a disciple of I.F. Stone. I actually read the speech. I didn't watch it, I read it, and it leaped--
Tom Rosenstiel: How twentieth century of you.
Gilbert Cranberg: Pardon me?
Tom Rosenstiel: How twentieth century of you.
Gilbert Cranberg: [laughs]
Tom Rosenstiel: [laughs]
Gilbert Cranberg: Well, the holes in that speech leaped off the page. So, I wrote a piece immediately after Powell's speech and I sent it to Columbia Journalism Review because his speech relied so heavily on unnamed sources. I thought CJR would be an appropriate outlet. They were not interested. They told me no. I could not get that piece published in any newspaper with any kind of a national reach. It appeared in three papers: The Des Moines Register, my own former paper, Sarasota and Lakeland. These are not journalistic powerhouses. It's the same mindset that resulted in an unwillingness to take on questions about Powell's speech. I could read you some excerpts from editorials; the trouble is it might make you want to throw up.
Gilbert Cranberg: What was said at that time about Powell's speech.
John Walcott: Let me add something to that. Just a second, Tom. If you haven't read it, David Foster Wallace, the novelist who committed suicide not long ago, did a marvelous graduation speech at Kenyon in 2005, I think. The central point of it is that we put ourselves at the center of everything we see. I think one distinction -- I deliberately didn't mention this when I was talking earlier -- one distinction between the way we looked at this march to war and the way the Washington Post and New York Times did was driven by the fact that we don't own newspapers in Washington or New York. We're not writing for those people.
We were writing, and it was very much on my mind the whole time, for the mothers and the fathers and the sisters and brothers and the sons and the daughters of the people who were going to be sent to fight this war because we own the paper in Columbus, Georgia where Fort Benning is. Lexington, Kentucky, near Fort Campbell. In Fort Worth, Texas, near Fort Hood. Wichita and Kansas City near Fort Riley. That's who we were writing for and that's who we were thinking about. Is the administration making a case that justifies sending those young men and women into what the administration was arguing were going to be clouds of sarin gas and heaven knows what else. Whereas in Washington, it was all about what was going on inside the Beltway. I think it's a different perspective.
Tom Rosenstiel: Yeah, that's a very interesting point at a time when coverage of national affairs is being essentially abdicated to a handful of national outlets for whom the audience is not a community but more of an abstraction. I feel a little like Woody Allen in Annie Hall when you say, 'Does anybody know why the run up to the war went the way it does?' because I have Marshall McLuhan here, behind, to bring in the movie line in Michael Massing. But in asking this question, Mike, I want to play devil's advocate a little bit. What else would we expect? Let's recall that the Democratic Party, the opposition party, was in support of this war. The public supported it. When the President says, 'Let's go to war,' the press tends to be jingoistic and we're imbued with, we imagine, a pragmatic realpolitik philosophy as journalists. We were thinking, 'Okay, the war is going to happen.' So, why should we expect the press to behave any differently than it did?
Michael Massing: Well, that's a good question, Tom. I've thought about that a lot and there's so many threads here to pick up. The question of why the press behaved the way it did -- I did talk to a lot of journalists too in the wake after the war to see why the run up was handled so poorly and John actually got it. I mean, John, I would not agree with you about the laziness thing. I mean, maybe so, but a lot of journalists, most journalists are hard working. I really do fear the other factor you mentioned, the fear factor, was paramount. Within two weeks of the war, we all remember what happened to Susan Sontag when she dared to venture in the pages of The New Yorker that these hijackers were not cowards. That, in fact, they had courage to do something like that and all hell broke loose and The New Yorker was inundated. Frankly, I think The New Yorker got spooked by that experience.
I spoke to Dana Priest at the Washington Post and she said, 'If you wrote anything challenging the Bush administration, you would get hundreds of -- with email and the blogs and it's vicious stuff.' I mean, recently, I don't know how many of you read about Kathleen Parker, this columnist who's a conservative who criticized John McCain and she wrote a piece about people who wanted her children dead. When you get stuff like this, I really -- when journalists say that it doesn't affect them, I don't think they're being totally aboveboard, but the best ones do ignore it.
So, Tom, when you emailed us some questions, you said that Congress, or the Democrats, were not opposing this. How many people here know how many Democrats in the Senate voted against the resolution to authorize war? [inaudible audience response]
Very close. Twenty-three. One quarter of the Senate actually did oppose. And the reason I know this, because I was speaking on a panel about a year ago, and Jack Reed, the Senator, was there, and he says, “You know, a lot of us were opposed to this, but the press did not actually -- were not that interested in talking to us.” And I would just like to broaden the discussion. John [???] did an excellent job of talking about the Beltway side of things and sources, and how you work that. But this problem went way beyond that, because the war, on the one hand, we tended, in Washington and New York, to focus on, 'Did Saddam Hussein have links to Al Qaeda? And did he have weapons of mass destruction?' But there was a whole range of questions out there about whether this war was a wise thing or not. And our European allies, a lot of them agreed that they might have had weapons, but they thought it was unwise. And Arab opinion, and the whole idea of occupying a country in the Mideast, and that we were going to somehow build a peaceful democratic state – there were so many dissenting voices out there. John referred to the Washington Post editorial page, which was one of the worst offenders in terms of presenting one-note and largely hawkish view of this and after Colin Powell's speech, they did a famous four editorials, including Mary McCarthy -- bless her, departed -- but, 'I'm persuaded,' she said.
So in the light of all this, Tom's question, 'Can we expect otherwise?' I have to say that I am pessimistic on one level because, a good question is, now suppose – now the Bush administration is so damaged that it couldn't happen, but suppose they were to start beating the drums on Iran, and wanting to go there? Would the press do a good watchdog role? I don't know; we could actually have a discussion of that. But to me, Tom, the question is not so much, 'Can we expect it?' but, we must expect it. We have to demand it of the press. I totally – Gil said something that I was going to say, which is, it is in the times that you most need it that the press seems absent. And we just have to push it.
And so many journalists now are aware that they fell down. Bob Woodward himself has done a mea culpa that, you mentioned Walter Pincus, but Bob Woodward was involved with that; in one of his books, he's actually said, Why didn't we push this story that we had, on the eve of the war, that the intelligence was not so good? And Jill Abramson, the managing editor of the New York Times, admitted, in reviewing Woodward's book, that James Risen, one of her reporters, came to her with similar information, and they stuck it way back inside the paper and she didn't have a good explanation why, but I do think it's the fear factor. And, I think, Tom, you're right to raise the concern about, Can we expect otherwise? But I think we must, and the spirit of I.F. Stone would demand that we do that.
Tom Rosenstiel: Hold your applause until the end of the debate.
Michael Massing: That's not my mother applauding.
Tom Rosenstiel: Jane, there's a couple of questions that I want to ask you, following up on your point about the spin machine, the ability or the efforts to try and control journalists, because, yeah, there's cutbacks and a lot of pressures that go beyond what an individual reporter is actually feeling when they're working their beat. But you have worked in the daily press and now at the New Yorker in a slightly different side of this. Do you think that the arguments, from largely conservative critics, that the press is liberal -- which some people have argued is an insincere critique, designed to sort of work the refs, whereas others say, no, it's a heartfelt argument, about liberalism. Is that putting journalists on the defensive? Or is it putting editors on the defensive who are feeling that heat more directly? What's your sense on that? And John, I want to ask you that, too.
Jane Mayer: Well, I think it's certainly put editors and on the defensive for years. I mean, the development it's taken, if it started with, at least in my experience, with accuracy in media, and Reed Irvine, and this huge attack on CBS about the Vietnam War coverage, and continued on through the Reagan Era, but there's been a development in just the more recent years. You can get left-wing critics, too, now weighing in, who very consciously have molded themselves to try to create a counterbalance to that, and I think it has had some effect, whether they're working the refs or making these criticisms for political reasons, it's obvious. If you take a look at the last couple weeks, it's almost comical, where you've got the McCain campaign first saying that the New York Times was completely in the liberal tank and this was right before they were about the write a very tough piece about McCain and then, the minute that they came out with their piece about Bill Ayers, you've got a quote from Sarah Palin saying, “and the New York Times is almost always right.” You know, they'll work it whichever way it works for them. But I think what I was trying to get at was about the spin machine was, I think it's become such an assault on the media at such a basic level in this last administration, where you've got – Ken Auletta did a piece for the New Yorker where people in the Bush White House said, basically, reporters are no more legitimate than just the man on the street. What right do they have to question us? And what authority do they have to write? And they're basically saying that the press is an illegitimate institution.
And when I see things like that – and also, of course, they've created their own press. They've got their phony news organizations with their PR anchormen that really turn out to be working for the Bush administration, without explaining it to anybody in the audience. So I think this requires a new level of vigilance on the part of reporters, too. And I also feel like, I have to say, I think that somehow the press has got to win over the public to its side more. This is not a popularly held belief, I think, but we're getting clobbered by people who are political opponents, who want to make us the problem. I feel like most of us think we perform a function for the public, and a very important one, but somehow the public doesn't share our enamored feelings about ourselves. And maybe, somehow, we have to do a better job explaining why what we're doing is a public service for them.
Tom Rosenstiel: Well, let me ask this also more personally -- and John, also, after Jane answers it, I'd like to hear from you on this – what do you do personally? You're still a reporter, for the liberal New Yorker magazine, with Sy Hersh and all those other pinkos working there, what do you do when you go and call sources up in a conservative administration, how do you win their trust ?
Jane Mayer: You know, personally, I try to be very careful and assume that anything I say or do is on the record, with any interview I do with anybody. I don't get involved in politics, personally. I don't put bumper stickers on my car. I don't sign petitions. I don't – I try to go the extra mile to talk to the people who probably disagree with what they think my bias is. And if they won't speak to me, such as in the case of David Addington, who I was profiling, I then went and called his mother. I called his best friend in grade school. And people who liked him. You just do everything you can to humanize and understand the people who you're not expected to be sympathetic to. Otherwise you do get stuck in a little gulag with one point of view or another. And I think John's done a great job of writing stories that – they can't be authoritative unless you talk to all sides. So you have to do it.
Tom Rosenstiel: Well, John, you said you guys were vilified. How did you cope with that? And also, do you think that editors are somehow more susceptible to these pressures than reporters?
John Walcott: The answer to the vilification question, Tom, is easy: we ignored it. And I hope Kathleen Parker ignores it. And if you read the column that Dana Milbank wrote today about going to a campaign rally, I hope every reporter ignores it. Whether they're being yelled at because they're African-American or because they're perceived to be in the tank, that's all you can do. And there's no reason to pay any attention to it, frankly. So that part of it is easy. As I said earlier, for Jon and Warren and the others on the staff, I kind of made a joke out of it.
Tom Rosenstiel: Mm-hmm.
John Walcott: Defused it that way, because it was so ridiculous. Jane, of course, is exactly right, that you have to seek out all sides of an argument. But I'll reiterate something I said earlier because I think it's lost on a lot of reporters; most of the people that work for the United States government did not take an oath to support and defend the President of the United States. They took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And our government, as politicized as it's become, and as polarized as it's become, and as powerful as the message machine has become, and the message discipline has become, is still full of people whose highest allegiance is to the Constitution and the people of the United States. And you have to seek those people out. They also happen to be the people who are most expert in these things, the people who write the intelligence reports and don't just read them. They're hard to find. Talking about classified matters is a felony, so you work at night, you go to people's houses, you meet people in odd places -- not parking garages moving flower pots, but -- never tried that one. But, you know, it is hard work. But that's the antidote to this message machine that, I agree with Jane, has become more effective than I've ever seen before.
Tom Rosenstiel: I want to pick up, Chuck, on a point that you made about speed and I think sort of the architecture of the press. You have sort of a reporting press that digs stuff up, but for that to have an impact, it needs to somehow penetrate the other elements of the press. You mentioned the Times piece about the program that the Pentagon had to, essentially, spin the generals who were going to be on T.V. and plant them in places. In the month after that piece ran, and in the week after that piece ran, our content analysis, which examines 48 different news outlets every day, found that that piece was picked up exactly zero times on cable television in the following month.
And that story did not really generate momentum. It sort of stayed there in the Times and I think people recognize it as an important story, but it didn't sort of enter the dialogue. How important is it now for what the reporting press does to penetrate that 'commentariat' element of the press that is on cable and in blogs, et cetera?
Charles Lewis: Well, no, it's a crucial problem. You can't have a one-day story, generally, because it will fade in to the ether. It has to be a multiple-day story. Obviously, it's not in television's interest to particularly play up that story and so it wasn't shocking. But, I would have liked to have seen more play throughout the regular text or print press. But something Jane said is part of the problem here, the energy that's brought now, there's twice as much spent by this administration -- 450 PR people hired in the first four years, double what Clinton hired.
The video news releases where a hundred million people were exposed to phony news -- faux news -- where, 'This is Bonnie reporting from Washington' and basically worked for the Bush administration, which the head of the GAO called illegal propaganda, which, of course, nothing happened from it. And, you know, in many ways, reporters have gone from pencils to pens to typewriters to electric typewriters to word processors, but they're still watching what those in power say. And the means of manipulation and distortion, because of the new media sources with the web and also the ease of television, the advent of cable, and the Internet together are part of what creates that speed. It's the information age. Leon Panetta, the former Chief of Staff to President Clinton, once talked about this problem: if a story breaks at 3:00, 3:15, or 3:30, the other side's going to be on TV and there's a war all over the airwaves. And then the reporter is forced to do the 'tweedledee, tweedledum,' 'on the one hand, on the other hand' relativistic type story, which is basically pabulum. The average reader's eyes glaze over on the second graph.
That's what passes for most reporting. It's volleyball, basically, and that is very irritating. And, oh yeah, the truth, where was that? And so it's a really serious problem and I think it's gotten much worse. And now that you have decimated bureaus, half the number of reporters are now trying to do twice as many stories, if they do them at all, now.
So I think it is extremely serious and I don't exactly have all the answers about how you change it, but I do think the profession and the business has got to recognize the game has changed. It's been changing for years. Each administration is more sophisticated. I'm sure the next one will be even better. But anyway, that's what I worry about.
Tom Rosenstiel: Michael, as the reportorial part of the architecture shrinks, what are you seeing?
Michael Massing: Well, I just -- one thing, I think we maybe need to -- I totally agree with Chuck. I interviewed, probably a couple years ago, Doyle McManus, the Washington Bureau Chief of the LA Times, was ruing the cutbacks that his staff was having in Washington on the ability to cover just the federal regulatory agencies. And when you look back now at how important it is with everything happening in terms of our financial system, just literally, not having reporters who can cover labor or the environment, he was going on and on about that. But I don't know, Chuck and Jane. I mean, it seems to me the government's ability to manipulate the press rises and falls according to, sort of, the power of an administration and its popularity. I mean, it seems to me the run up to the war was a time when we really needed it, but President Bush's poll ratings were so high and there was such a sort of congealing conventional wisdom that people shrunk.
Right now, does the administration have an ability to really get its message out even with all those PR people? I think when an administration is weak and there's a sense of the 'sharks in the water,' then the press is willing to be much, much more aggressive.
Tom Rosenstiel: So if that was the honeymoon, this is the divorce. Florence, you've got some statistics on --
Florence: I do.
Tom Rosenstiel: -- this coverage in Washington.
Florence: On what's happening in the coverage of the federal agencies. And, again, in research that I was doing on something for the Nieman Reports for an article, I came across an article that was done in American Journalism Review. It's a 2001 project on the state of American Newspapers and they surveyed wire services to determine which ones regularly covered certain federal agencies. This is what? Eight years ago? Seven years ago? And they had 19 agencies that they were looking at and the survey found that -- apart from the major departments, such as Defense and State, Treasury, et cetera -- that comparatively few reporters are now being assigned to cover, in many cases, any of these agencies.
And exactly the point that you were making in your address earlier this afternoon, they found no full-time reporter -- guess where? Veteran's Affairs, with a 46 billion dollar budget. And another one--
Charles Lewis: Yeah, but 46 billion is nothing now.
Florence: Well, I just forgot. [laughter] And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: zero reporters on a full-time -- you know, assigned to cover this agency. Two full-time reporters at the Department of Interior. Three full-time reporters at Agriculture. Environmental Protection Agency and the Social Security Administration -- three full-time reporters in the U.S. of A. I mean, it's pretty astonishing. When you think about that, you can see, I mean, they can get away with -- I don't want to say murder -- but, these agencies can get away with a lot. There's no one watching them.
Tom Rosenstiel: Well, Gil, I want to go to you on this; isn't it possible that we're measuring the wrong thing here? That, yes, we're seeing a shrinkage in traditional, mainstream newspaper reporters, but if I were to look at the number of foreign reporters who are covering Washington, the number of specialized websites and newsletters that are targeted at places, that there are watchdogs here. They're just different watchdogs. Is that possible?
Gilbert Cranberg: Sure. Well, I was struck by John Walcott's statement in his talk that this was not rocket science, what they did. This was doable by any journalism organization if they had the will to do it. The problem was they didn't have the will to do it. And why not? That's the bedrock question. Why didn't they have the will? That's what I think needs to be carefully studied. Try to figure out what happened or what didn't happen.
Jane Mayer: I don't think it's that mysterious. I mean, if you look at --The New York Times had stories by Carlotta Gaul early on saying that in Bagram Air Force Base, US soldiers had brutalized a detainee to death.
Tom Rosenstiel: Yeah.
Jane Mayer: The foreign editor could not get that story in the paper and Howell Raines wouldn't put it on the front page and he kept saying, 'I feel like there's something wrong with it' and it took weeks and weeks and weeks in arguing and they finally put it on the inside. Two years later, it became a front page series about the death of this detainee and a tremendous scandal and the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, 'Taxi to the Dark Side.' What changed was the political environment in which the editor was making the decision. I mean, in the beginning there was this rally around the flag thing which editors feel part of, too. I mean, right or wrong. I think you made the point in your argument, it's been always so and it's when you most need them that they cave.
Gilbert Cranberg: Well, I think this is not a problem for journalists to solve. It's a problem for social psychologists. They need to get into these news organizations and talk in depth to the decision makers, to the editors and the subeditors who decided, 'No, this is not an appropriate subject for us to deal with, on the front page especially.'
Tom Rosenstiel: Michael, John mentioned in his talk the fact that the influence of a few key news organizations, the New York Times, Washington Post, that not all players are equal here. Is that a fair representation of what you were saying?
Michael Massing: Yeah, I think so.
Tom Rosenstiel: I think we know a fair amount now about the dysfunction of the New York Times. It involved Howell Raines and the other political sort of forces there. Are there still key players in the 21st century who have particular influence over the public agenda or is that weakening? Is that an excuse that we use because people didn't pay attention to the things we care about?
Michael Massing: That's a very good question and it's odd in a sense because on the one hand, the mainstream media, as we've said, is being attacked from left and right and it's sort of almost like the space is shrinking. And yet, with all the cutbacks that have gone on at many papers, particularly these regional, these once very good regional papers, like the Boston Globe and Newsday and the Baltimore Sun and so on, these sort of elite organizations have in some ways become more important, and the New York Times and Washington Post in particular, I mean, it's remarkable the way-- I don't know if anyone disagrees, but the way they stand out, and they continue, in spite of all the slings and arrows that they take, to set the agenda so that Knight Ridder can pump out all this good material. I mean, John, in one way, it was an advantage, right? You weren't in the limelight and so, it allowed you-- As you were saying, your editors or your publishers were so stalwart that it didn't matter, but it did allow you to go off and do this and not have, for instance, it's one thing for the administration to do it, but did you see Bill O'Reilly went after you or not? You mentioned Bill O'Reilly, but--
John Walcott: He did once or twice, I think.
Michael Massing: Yeah.
John Walcott: I don't watch the Bill O'Reilly, so.
Gilbert Cranberg: He watches you, apparently.
John Walcott: I'd rather have it that way.
Michael Massing: And the blogosphere is if a tree falls and nobody hears it, I mean, if no one hears it, does it fall? I mean, if the blogosphere is out there and you could have people, it's interesting to think-- Like now, suppose you had a site where somebody put out this information about the aluminum tubes, and we probably will have things like that happening in the future. And yet, if it doesn't make it, if this doesn't get picked up, who becomes the megaphone? Who is the amplifier on that?
Tom Rosenstiel: Does anybody disagree that as the reportorial part of the press shrinks, that the few major institutions that are still in that game become actually relatively more important ironically at a time when there are more outlets?
Gilbert Cranberg: Yeah, the technology also is going to negatively impact what the press can do. Reporters nowadays just don't write a story. They'll update the story during the day. They'll be asked to do blogs. They have less time to do basic reporting, and this is on top of all the cutbacks. So, I think the future is bleak. But this is a very appropriate time where we're celebrating I.F. Stone, to get back to basics. I.F. Stone showed the way! He said, 'You dig!' and what I.F. Stone did is what John Walcott and his colleagues did. They found people in the lower ranks of government. That was the way Stone operated. Stone studied documents. That's still basic reporting. It's still darn important.
Tom Rosenstiel: Well, that's where we want to go. We'll talk about the future in a second. I think it's a good moment to go to this survey that the Nieman Watchdog group did of 145 Nieman Fellows. I'm not sure where I'm supposed to point this, but the first question that they asked people was grade the American news organizations for their reporting in the run up to the war. That's the question, that's the answer.
Gilbert Cranberg: I think that's a generous grade!
Panelist: Grade inflation.
Tom Rosenstiel: Yeah, grade inflation. A D? As a parent, I'm in favor of grade inflation.
Tom Rosenstiel: Okay. The Nieman group asked the fellows, 'What would you recommend?' and we're going to talk about that in a minute, but let's see what some of the recommendations that they offered. This is a small-- 'Quit letting spin drive the coverage,' 'Jon Stewart is our hero' and 'quit the internal need to balance one side's transgressions with the other side's view.' That's a point that John made, as well. Murrey Marder says, 'The American press must face the fact that it has swallowed a totally illusionary concept of blind reliance on authoritative sources. This is a substitute for reporting.' Many people have made this point about, go to the secondary level. [???] talks about this, Jim Risen talks about this. All the best reporters that I know make this point.
It's a tragedy that really professional reporters from topnotch news organizations have been offered early retirement packages because of the change in economics of traditional fourth estate. I believe some sort of pooling arrangement is necessary. I should add here that when we surveyed newspaper editors earlier this year and asked them what was the cutbacks in their own newsrooms, they said the worst thing that was happening was the loss of institutional memory, the loss of the sort of knowledge and source contacts that you were talking about, John.
There were some positive things that they saw to the changeover in newsrooms too: 'Check spin reality by developing more rank and file administration sources.' 'Staff the White House with a competent stenographer. Otherwise, boycott the daily spoon feedings. Steno reporters have to do their jobs.'
I think it's the notion of how you arrange beats and staff people in Washington that's an interesting thing we should talk about. And that's it. So, we've got a little time left before we go to questions and we asked all of you to come prepared. Bob and Barry and Dan and I all wanted you to have some suggestions for what could be done, in the words of Lennon. Michael, we'll start with you since we finished with you.
Michael Massing: Okay. Well, I jotted down three things that I would like to-- They're sort of different in the realm of internal journalistic practice, although one of them is. I would like to prohibit this sort of access journalism where you hang out with a profile subject or you travel with the Secretary of State or hang out with the CEO of GE or something. I find inevitably that a lot of leading magazines do it. But profiles always become denatured and watered down because, a) you've developed a bond with this person and even when you are trying to be as objective as possible, you get co-opted and there's no way around it. You can get just as much information by talking to the mother of the person or classmates or just people that they deal with and what you lose in terms of access, I'm thinking of people who go on the plane with the Secretary of State and then write a profile. I would outlaw that.
Do I have a chance to just talk about two other things very quickly? Can we?
Tom Rosenstiel: Yes, you do.
Michael Massing: Okay. There's an interesting phenomenon that's developed that, again, McClatchy started, which I've actually written about and is becoming more common, which is allowing reporters to have blogs and what McClatchy did is they actually got their Iraqi reporters writing on their blog and somebody tipped me off to this and it was just fascinating, I got a whole different view of how Iraq looked because the actual Iraqis were talking to us. And it's remarkable, even in the best reporting out of Iraq, how rarely Iraqis are allowed to talk, like about actions of the US military. You almost never see that, the embedding process which is necessary in some ways, has created a big screen against that. I'm so often amazed at how reporting on the blog does not make its way into the newspaper. And there's even informa -- there's even material about how the story itself was gotten, and what got into it and what had to be left out because they either couldn't nail it down, or the access was limited and so on. And I'm reading this stuff and I know, like, five percent of the people who read the newspaper articles are going to read this, and there's like a separation of blogosphere and newspaper reporting that I'd like to see broken down. And more of that sort of contextual -- both analysis and the story behind the story -- brought into the newspapers. I think not only would it be enlightening, but it would actually bring in more readers because it's another way of reporting the news, it's very, very engaging and engrossing. And finally, I think we have to look at, okay, the blogosphere, we all know, is a new force out there, but it doesn't do reporting, but, we had this new example, ProPublica, which is this, been set up with some money from the west coast. Ten million dollars to set up an investigative reporting organization and we don't know yet how it's going because it's getting started. I think they made one mistake where they set up a bricks-and-mortar type of, they made it like a real news room, and that is a huge absorber of resources. What I'd like to see, when the LA Times was up for sale, it looked like it might be up for sale from Tribune, David Geffen and all these other people I'm sure who followed it, they thought they might buy it, it didn't happen. Somebody had the idea that David Geffen and these other people should set up a website and take all the talent that's being dropped from the LA Times and start a new organization, on the web, which could be done cheaply. And I had this idea of like, maybe, a consortium of people could raise money, for ten million dollars you could hire a hundred top editors and reporters. They'd work out of their home, like I do and like other people up here do, they don't have to go to a site. And they could start doing the type, not just investigative reporting, but analysis, report on the world in a way that, fill in the gaps, that is, that so many of which are opening up in our mainstream media.
Tom Rosenstiel: It's interesting when you think about ProPublica, John Carroll, former editor of the LA Times, said that, you know, that people might think that's a drop in the bucket, ten million dollars, because the New York Times editorial budget is probably somewhere closer or was at one point, closer to two hundred and fifty million dollars. But the investigative reporting budget, of the New York Times, might not be much more than ten million dollars. So it's, in scale, it's not an insignificant thing.
Chuck, you have actual experience with trying to create new models, so what are your thoughts on how to reinvigorate what advice to mainstream, uh, folks, or, non-mainstream?
Charles Lewis: Sure, first of all, non-profit investigative journalism has been around for thirty or forty years in the US, the oldest institution is the Center for Investigative Reporting, the last decade the largest was the Center for Public Integrity. There are actually several dozen non-profits doing investigative reporting around the world. This is all recent, and it's obviously not unrelated to what's happening. And I, you know, my last year at the Center for Public Integrity the staff was forty people, full-time, including Pulitzer prize winners and we had a hundred journalists in fifty countries available on a contract basis doing content across borders for ten years, from 97 until today, so can you do things with the new technologies that most media organizations including the New York Times actually don't do, the answer is yes. Can you get twenty people for six months and have them pull every contract in Iraq and Afghanistan and post it and reveal that Halliburton and KBR got the most money? You can; six months after the war started, we did that. So, did the New York Times do that? No. Could they have done it? No, they actually didn't have twenty people to do that. And they also don't pull contract data that extensively. We then looked at the Pentagon's contracts for five years, every contract, and we found that forty percent there was no competitive bidding. The web has got the viral qualities -- it's real exciting when you post that Halliburton information -- 350,000 unique visitors, 15 million hits and a hundred news stories within 18 to 24 hours. A little scrappy group, not one of the big institutions, so I actually don't see it all as totally dire. There are some equalizers here, their i-teams generally stop around 13 people. They're not generally global, so, and then you know, many of these non-profits are starting up in hyper local coverage throughout the nation. San Diego, Minneapolis, lots of other cities. One foundation was going to put up ten million and challenge the Philadelphia Inquirer at one point. So, uh, this is still evolving, it's moving at actually pretty high speed right now. And the possibilities that Michael is just mentioning, there's all kinds of possibilities. We're going to see new models emerge in the coming months. So, I, I'm actually pretty excited about it.
Florence Graves: Including yours, huh?
Charles Lewis: No, I didn't-
Florence Graves: No I mean new models.
Charles Lewis: Yeah.
Tom Rosenstiel: Yeah. Florence, you're in the business of teaching people how to do this well.
Florence Graves: No.
Tom Rosenstiel: No, not anymore?
Florence Graves: No we don't teach.
Tom Rosenstiel: Oh, you don't teach?
Florence Graves: No, it's an independent reporting center.
Tom Rosenstiel: Okay.
Florence Graves: Based at Brandeis. And we use students, but we pay them, so we get to choose who we want to work with us.
Tom Rosenstiel: Does that mean once you start getting paid you stop learning?
Florence Graves: No, but it means you don't get credit.
Tom Rosenstiel: So what's your-
Florence Graves: So you can choose who you want.
Tom Rosenstiel: Gotcha. What is your -- what are the solutions or reforms that you would suggest, for how to invigorate the skeptical reporter?
Florence Graves: I think there's a lot of inv -- just as Chuck was saying -- that there's a lot of investigative reporting out there. Your series proves that there's a lot of investigative reporting out there. I don't think there's enough, given the size of this country, given the size of the world, given that we're now all interconnected, given the huge -- the fact that very few people really cover Wall Street and that's now very clear to us. So, I think there's more and better investigative journalism today than there used to be, but I think it's, compared to what? But the culture, the world, the budgets have grown so enormously, in just the past twenty or thirty years that the media, I think, have not kept up in being able to really cover a lot of this. And, none of these organizations, my small -- pre-ProPublica, that didn't have ten million a year, and Chuck's fantastic Center for Public Integrity, none of us are going to be the answer, and I think, but, I do think, but we're part of the solution. We can make a dent. I think the biggest problem that we have and that your stories illustrate, is traction. It is very difficult to get traction for a lot of these stories, if they aren't in the New York Times, or in the Wall Street Journal, or the Washington Post, and if they don't hit broadcast, it's, the people out there in, you know, what they call the Hinterlands here in Washington, they don't get access to this stuff. They're listening to a lot of people and I say this, related to many of them are listening to Rush Limbaugh, that's where they get their news. So you, you know, how does some -- how do articles like the ones that were in Knight Ridder, the work was done. How could it have gotten traction? That's the tough question.
Gilbert Cranberg: Well, even Knight Ridder didn't run many of those articles. The Knight Ridder papers. And, my, my former paper subscribed the Knight Ridder service, they hardly ran any of them. And that's a serious newspaper.
Tom Rosenstiel: Okay but --
Florence Graves: One, can I say, one solution so to speak.
Tom Rosenstiel: Yes, we're talking solutions now.
Florence Graves: Is to --
Tom Rosenstiel: We had forty minutes of what's wrong--
Florence Graves: All the problems, right. I think one thing that we're trying to do is to do impact journalism, we're trying to pick the stories that we do that have the potential to have a greater impact. And then, promote them. Heavily. To try to get them out into more of the mainstream media, and, you know I think you can also target kinds of stories. What is the purpose of the story that you're doing? What is the purpose of the journalism? Is it just to inform the public, or is there in some cases, a greater purpose where you're trying to put a spotlight on malfeasance, corruption, whatever, you think there should be a result as a result of the investigative reporting that you've done. And so I think there are ways of targeting certain audiences for certain stories, and another thing that we've started doing is footnoting our articles on the web. You know, the news organizations are increasingly doing shorter stories, not longer stories, the public is bored by, you know, all this detail. But, there are certain audiences that aren't bored with it, and those are the ones that are most affected by that particular story that you're doing, without the detail they have a hard time arguing that something needs to be done, or they are affected by the spin. I am going to take one more second to say that back in the 80's I had founded Common Cause Magazine to do investigative reporting because, in my view then, there was still more to be done than what the New York Times and Washington Post were doing. And I did a story on NutraSweet. And in his wisdom, my boss, Fred Wertheimer, allowed me, and it cost a lot of money, to print twenty page investigation in Common Cause Magazine, and I had argued, it was like an extra, like $30,000, that, you know, that an organization, non-profit, does not have. And I argued that, if we did not answer every single question that was going to be brought up by a lobbyist, if we did not answer them all, nothing would ever happen, because they would immediately say, 'She didn't address this, she didn't address that. She didn't take on this. She missed this, she missed that.' We covered it. Any question that we could think of that was significant. Now we could do that on the web. You could have run the shorter story and said, 'For more detail, see the web.' Someone suggested in a letter to the New York Times that they should have done that about their Sarah Palin story and the way she conducted government in Alaska. There were so many questions that were left unanswered. Why wasn't that story run in a much longer version on the web? Why don't they do that more? I don't know.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO.)