Thursday, April 26, 2007

When Journalism Became Transcription and Reporting Disappeared

David Sirota on journalism and last night's Bill Moyers special (transcript).

To call the media's complicity in the Iraq War a conspiracy is an insult to conspiracies, because it wasn't hidden - as Moyers shows, it was all out there for everyone to see. The problem was, Beltway reporters didn't want to see it. As New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller famously admitted, in the lead up to war most self-respecting Washington journalists who wanted to stay on the White House Christmas card list refused to ask tough questions because "no one wanted to get into an argument with the president."

In interview after interview after interview, we hear top journalists and opinionmakers declare that they believe journalism is no longer about basic, hard-scrabble reporting or getting scoops. As the Washington Post's Walter Pincus says, most reporters today actually try to avoid getting scoops because they "worry about sort of getting out ahead of something" and - gasp! - making their friends inside Official Washington mad at them. So rather than, say, do the real work of reporting news, journalism has become a profession that is almost entirely about PR, transcription and packaging Establishment spin for news copy. This is why, for example, many of the highest-profile political "journalists" like Joe Klein and David Broder never bother to actually report anything anymore - but instead spend most of their time pontificating on horse race polls and campaign gossip, expecting us to believe that's real "news."

This is what journalism has become today - and the worst part of it is that people who follow this Russert-Beinart method of sitting in comfortable Washington offices not picking up the phone or doing primary research is actually being rewarded as we speak. Moyers, channeling a fantastic piece by Jebediah Reed in Radar Magazine, notes that most of the people who regurgitated the Washington Establishment's debunked case for war have actually been rewarded with even more prominent positions in the media. And while these desperate-for-attention media icons like Bill Kristol and Tom Friedman are happy to throw themselves in front of cameras for almost any opportunity to promote themselves, they categorically refused to talk to Moyers for his PBS special.

I don't blame them for not talking to Moyers. They should be ashamed of themselves and what they've done to their profession. And to this country. They probably aren't. They also probably don't want to be exposed as the White House water carriers they are. Not that they haven't been already, but people might actually see Moyers' show.

[...] Bill Moyers and the folks I've gotten to know at McClatchy Newspapers who Moyers highlights show that that long tradition still exists. But the fact that they are such rare exceptions to the rule also show that the incentive system in journalism today is to reward not the people who challenge power, but the people who worship it. And though Tim Russert and Peter Beinart and Bill Kristol and Tom Friedman can kick back in Washington with their six figure salaries and tell themselves that they are really Important People, what we have seen is that they are part of a new journalistic culture that is threatening to destroy what once was a truly noble profession and undermine our democracy.

They've pretty much already done it. The question now is how will they atone for their sins? Do they even want to? Or will they just stay administration whores for money and fame?

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