What’s wrong with the news?

September 12, 2007

"There is a funny idea in Washington that you have to have access to those in power to do journalism."

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"There is a funny idea in Washington that you have to have access to those in power to do journalism."


Story Transcript

CHARLES LEWIS, JOURNALIST: The part of the problem is the 24-7 news cycle. So many things are happening so fast, and reporters have to file so many stories a day now in so many different forms—video, audio, text—that there’s actually not as much time for reporting, in a funny way. The other problem is those in the positions of authority and power are much better at walling off access to themselves. The public relations industry is much more heavily layered, much more sophisticated, and much more adept at controlling its message. There is a funny idea in Washington that you have to have access to those in power to do journalism, and I have done quite well, thank you very much, and so has the Center for Public Integrity and several other, you know, well, basically muckrakers, latter-day muckrakers, who don’t need the access. There’s an outside-in strategy, and there’s an inside strategy. Outside works fine, thank you very much. And if you listen to what they say and you study what they do and you try to see how they match up, you’ll notice disparities inevitably. And that’s watchdog journalism, and that’s what you do. And very few people take the time to go to the hearings, read the testimony, read the statements, see what the policies are, look at the legislation, what it really means, look at the contributions see who’s benefiting and who isn’t benefiting, see what is in the State of the Union Address and what isn’t, and who benefits from each sentence and each paragraph, really not just follow the money but get behind the policies and pronouncements. And the problem is reporters are clustered in two or three places: The White House, the Congress, and maybe the State Department or the Pentagon, and that’s it. And there’s a small problem: there’s 114 federal agencies and millions of federal employees. And that’s just the US government alone in one city. There’s so much more that’s not being covered. And so journalists cover a tiny percent of reality every day. And it’s kind of disturbing. In the United States alone, there’s 50,000 journalists. It’s hard for me to tell what they’re doing from their reporting. Our mantra at the Center for Public Integrity was always watch what they do, not what they say. As investigative reporters we figured what they said, you might have to wear boots, hip-waders or something, to get through it; we always assumed that. And we always watched what they did. We went through the records. We pulled it all out. What we found over time is it didn’t matter what we found. You know, we could do a report that looked at all the federal government defense contracts for five years, $900 billion worth of records, and we could find that Halliburton getting exclusive contracts was not an aberration—they’re 40 percent of the contracts, $360 billion were no-bid contracts. Welcome to the real world of Washington, DC, and defense contracting. And there was a big yawn, and no one cared, and the rest of the media hardly covered it. And what we started to see was if you have phrases like “No Child Left Behind” and “The Patriot Act” and this and that, you have certain things you say, the way you frame it, any administration—earlier ones, before Bush, did this as well—you frame the message. The message becomes what becomes perceived as truth. You can’t get a straight answer from anybody anymore. I mean, it’s one thing for us to be frustrated and understandably critical about access journalism. On the other hand, if someone is doing something outrageous, no matter what the context, and you can’t find somebody to talk to, even the PR spokesman for God’s sake—forget the official, the CEO, or the senator or the president—I’m talking about just a flak won’t even talk. Access is limited both to geography in the world and in terms of physical proximity to where news is happening. And access to those in power and all the things they should be accountable for is also substantially limited. And I think it’s far more limited today than any time in recent history. Part of the problem is that political reporting is not done on the level it used to be done on. In most local stations, news about government or politics is less than one percent of their total news. And in an election cycle, most of the news about politics is paid media. It has become a revenue source. Local TV throughout America makes well in excess of $1 billion every election cycle, when we have an election. Most people in America, in the world, do not know there were 650,000 commercials about the 2004 presidential campaign. That means that the din was so loud and so fairly monstrous—you know, listeners should get workers comp for having to endure that kind of crap. Can you imagine if you lived in Iowa or New Hampshire? I bet you were probably damaged. You’ll probably have to get therapy. I mean, to see that kind of crap on the air day after day, much of it negative, how many of those people read The New York Times versus are subjected to the ads on the airwaves? Obviously the latter is the most common encounter with information. I’m not letting reporters off the hook. Could they have been more critical in the 2004 election? Yes. You know, 50 percent don’t vote in presidential elections, at least; a hundred million people stay home, half the country, in any election; usually it’s 70 percent that stay home in most elections. And it’s not just elections; it’s coverage too. And that’s where the vast ignorance is, and that’s when the body politic does stupid or unexplainable things. They’re not informed properly.


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