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Where's the adversarial reporting?

DISCUSSIONS | May 26, 2006

Peter Almond

1981 Nieman Fellow; now a free-lance defense writer for the UK national press

 I'm no longer closely involved with US political news coverage, but from the distance of London, and as a daily reader of the International Herald Tribune (NY Times essentially), and until recently a regular contributor to politically-based stories for the Chicago Tribune and UPI, some observations may be helpful.

A basic question for media outlets is what they have to do to survive in an era of podcasts, Weblogs, Internet, etc. No mainstream journalists can improve their political coverage if they no longer have a paper/TV/radio station to write for. My old paper, the Cleveland Press, died in 1982, giving me no chance to practice my Nieman values there.

1. British experience of the fierce competition that sustains 11 national newspapers suggests that they survive only by bending and stretching a lot of Nieman values, particularly balance and accuracy in efforts to attract readers. The 'heavies', The Times, Daily Telegraph and Guardian of today are not the same as they were ten years ago. Indeed, the Times is now a tabloid, the Guardian has also reduced in size and the Telegraph focuses more on easily digestible 'people' stories than on straight policy ones. For instance, prominent stories on a woman raped by a foreign national just released from prison, and who should have been deported, has exposed major flaws in the Blair administration that are still going on and have significant impact on local elections.

It is significant that the struggling Daily Mirror tabloid increased its circulation by 30,000 last week after it ran a scoop that Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott had a two-year affair with his secretary, a story that damages his and Blair's political reputation. Ditto the Mail on Sunday, which paid in excess of $170,000 for an exclusive with said mistress.

2. Such strong adversarial press reporting is not apparent in the U.S. press, and may be costing readers as a result. The British press finds it strange that American political leaders are not subject to the intense media scrutiny their British counterparts receive. The result, as seen from this side of the pond, is that President Bush and his team have had an easy ride on all the major issues in recent years – ranging from Iraq, and particularly the conduct and policies of U.S. troops and Guantanamo Bay, to global warming and the refusal of the Bush administration to encourage Americans to adhere to stricter controls, technology transfer issues that damage U.S. allies such as the UK, and to Hurricane Katrina, in which British  donations and help were refused.

3. The US press does little to take on board foreign concerns about U.S. policy, particularly at regional and local levels. It reports them, but does not fulminate about them. One result is that (to my dismay) Americans are increasingly portrayed in Britain as ignorant, self-obsessed, unraveled and with attitudes and values they assume the rest of the world surely wants to adopt.

Maybe this is a start. 

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