Seymour Hersh is pretty worked up about the state of American journalism, and to be fair, the leathery, dogged investigative journalist has a point.
In an interview in the Guardian — yes, those guys who brought us the revelations of Edward Snowden — Hersh lambastes his colleagues[i], The New York Times and TV news as patsies of the administration and government. “Obsequious,” is how he terms their approach.
“Our job is to find out ourselves, our job is not just to say – ‘here’s a debate’ our job is to go beyond the debate and find out who’s right and who’s wrong about issues. That doesn’t happen enough. It costs money, it costs time, it jeopardises, it raises risks. There are some people – the New York Times still has investigative journalists but they do much more of carrying water for the president than I ever thought they would … it’s like you don’t dare be an outsider any more.”
Ba-zing. Naturally, the Guardian kicks off with some of his more sensational claims, that the stories around bin Laden’s death are fabricated, that Hersh would sack 90% of editors and close down NBC and ABC’s news bureaus. All fairly specious rants that we know won’t fix anything, so let’s lay them aside.
For the rest, and in the main, Hersh is right. Somewhere along the way, American journalism — and here I only single out Americanjournalism, as it’s what I’m most familiar with — lost its balls. And this is most clearly seen when one turns to Washington, D.C.[ii]
What Hersh gives vent to – the back-scratching insidership — is corroborated in Mark Leibovich’s damning, brilliant portrait of Washington, D.C., power mongers, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital, a book that is by turns hilarious, enraging, and sickening. I highly recommend it.
In the fawning world of “The Club” that Leibovich presents, lobbyists, lawyers, politicians and, yes, members of the press, compete for who can fawn their way up the ladder to wealth and fame (or infamy). The aggressiveness with which journalists once pursued those in power now drives a pursuit of celebrity a clamoring to get close to those in power. Leibovich exposes a political class more worried about their standing invitations to the rarefied salons of Georgetown than providing American readers and viewers with truth in a time of national crisis.[iii]
The book is so detailed in its outline of each personality and the extent of their corrosion, I can only imagine Leibovich hopes the book will cash his check out of the place, because surely he’s persona non grata there now. Either that, or he’s secured his own place in The Club’s hierarchy by becoming notorious. Either way, his party invites have probably dried up.
I would be hypocritical if I were to say that the ladder-climbing never happens at the local level, which is to say, among those who cover the state, county and municipalities. It does. But from what I’ve been able to glean from Leibovich, the difference between what happens down here and what they do is exponential in scale.
But anyhow, back to Hersh. To quote the Guardian:
“[Hersh] says investigative journalism in the US is being killed by the crisis of confidence, lack of resources and a misguided notion of what the job entails.”
This is, I think, a more central point to his thesis, and a more critical one.
Where the crisis began was back in the ’70s, in particular with Watergate. Suddenly, every cub reporter wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. Reporting became sexy. It had cache.
And that led to reporters’ perspectives becoming skewed; the notion of what journalism is, what it’s supposed to do, gradually shifted. It became, as Hersh notes, misguided. Even one of the Watergate duo could see it:
“What happens is you lose context so that if you’re covering city hall and what you’re really looking for most of the time is to catch the mayor saying something that’s a little untrue and turning it into a big story when, in fact, the sewer system of the whole city is falling apart and people can’t get their water and they’re getting poisoned, you’re missing the news.”
Carl Bernstein, in Watergate Revisited, American Journalism Review
This view was echoed by Katherine Graham in her autobiography, Personal History. We haven’t fully sloughed off the impacts, and I believe the audience of readers and viewers has come to expect this approach first and foremost from its media – we have, is some cases willingly and others by happenstance – miseducated them.
That kind of sensational, gotcha journalism is hard to sustain. The more it’s done, the more inured the audience becomes to it, and the greater must be the sensationalism in order to get them to sit up and listen. The busier their lives have become, the harder that has become to do. Same thing with junkies. Nothing will ever be as good as that first high.
And when that kind of sensational news is not continually delivered on a consistent basis, as it hasn’t been with the complex, long-term and expensive nature of such journalism (the “lack of resources”), readers got bored. Rather than withdrawal, they turn away. They don’t feel compelled to commit their limited time to non-sensational daily news.
The downside to Watergate was that it created a competition for readers’ attention through scandal. That demand has grown, yet the resources for the press has shrunk in the intervening decades. And we wonder why we’re losing readers. Hence, the crisis of confidence.
This is a vast oversimplification and would need considerably more space to adequately trace the full historical implications for the craft and industry of journalism.[iv]Continuing that oversimplification, though, we can hypothesize that with avenues of time, money and other resources for investigative journalism closing off as the industry shrinks and politicians and government agencies become increasingly sophisticated and bullish, this has led reporters inside the beltway to seek other avenues for their careers. For those who choose to remain, there’s an easier path than the muddy one of reporting the news. [v]
And so we come back around to Leibovich, and the fertile ground where punditry and rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful — importance through association — is such a powerful draw. After all, gathering talking points while sipping an expensive cocktail is so much easier than actual journalism. And punditry – with its collateral rewards for your personal brand – even easier than that.
So, there we have it – the new chattering classes. The Punditocracy.
Back to the actual art and craft of reporting for a second. I want to make a brief comment on a side branch that’s related to how our balls have diminished.
What’s shocking in pack journalism is how easily even the megaliths of the industry have been willing to give ground. Take, for instance, the 2012 presidential campaign where the biggies like the Washington Post and The New York Times (the Times, for Christ sakes!) was willing to turn a blind eye to some of journalism’s most basic tenets, even hand over the reporting reins to the candidates’ organizations. I mean seriously, if the big boys are just giving away the only authority we as an industry have got, the trust of our readers, what’s the point? We should all just call it a day, fold the paper in half, throw it under our arms and go home. It was pack journalism – pack groupthink– at its most Orwellian.
Even though the Post and Times revised their policies in light of this revelation with a sort of, ahem, yeah, maybe we should have given that some thought, the damage was done, the foot thoroughly shot through.
Again, what happened to their balls? While we’ve been bleeding printers ink on the floor of history, we’ve remained to slack and too passive while we’ve been politically targeted and outmaneuvered and undermined by political messengers[vi]set on branding the industry as The Enemy Who is Not to be Trusted. And we agreed, let them do it and thanked them for it. Lamestream media indeed.
OK, rant over. Back to the main trunk of the tree. Hersh is a respected purveyor of what journalism should be, and despite coming off as a cranky old man waving his cane and complaining that things ain’t what they used to be in his day, we can respect his argument; he’s done what he advocates. He’s not in it to make friends. He wants to tell the truth, plain and simple, without fear or favor, and his whole career is a demonstration of that work ethic.
Journalism is nothing if it isn’t pursued aggressively and doesn’t seek to hold the powerful to account. And the industry’s problems with resources and the changing milieu and velocity required by the Internet may make the pursuit of deep, multi-layered investigations too impractical to do on any kind of a consistent basis. We still have only a slim grasp of what this new digital technology means for the industry.
Right now, there are some insiders tittering and pointing fingers, and laughing at what I wrote like it was some ideological teenage manifesto, devoid of reality. Yeah, it bears some criticism, and it’s undeniably pie in the sky. I live in the real world, which is motivated in its turning by cold, hard cash. I too want to get paid.
But we’re facing a massive trust deficit from readers right now. And when they see the churning corrosion of Washington, it only illustrates for them some kind of modern Sodom and Gomorrah morality tale. No one, they think, can be trusted because they’re all in it together. And when the giants like the Times and Post are willingly gorging at the trough with all the other pigs, only adds to the narrative spun by the people with bigger, more sophisticated and well-funded PR messaging operations than we have.
What we can do is what we should have been doing all along, and what has always been essential to our audience – gathering, arbitrating and presenting information. News organizations can hold people accountable, can refuse to capitulate on some basic values, can recreate a firewall between those who gather the news and those who make it. We can re-embrace ethics, and not just as a Poynter-led navel-gazing exercise. Believe it or not, if we come together as an industry, we can push back, we can effect some change. Really.
Perhaps that should be “colleagues.”
[ii] The most visible of this, the annual snog-fest of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, about which I’ve always had my doubts, is only the tip of the monumental capitol circular reach-around.
[iii]To a degree, the balls have gone out of state reporting, as well. Just look at the now-tepid attempts of The Washington Post’s Maryland coverage, which is more an arm of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s communications department than a news-gathering operation. (Sigh to the breathless reporting that O’Malley’s March is once again playing a gig!)
[iv] Something I may reserve for a Ph.D in retirement.
[v] On a broader scale, most reporters have been driven out of the industry because of the economic impact on the media business. In regard to Washington, it’s fertile ground to switch careers, or, to put it more accurately, trade in on your “brand.”
[vi] The news industry has an agenda? Seriously? The industry’s in a shambles. We can’t even agree on a plan to dig ourselves out of this crisis, let alone pull ourselves together for long enough to organize a liberal cabal. Good grief.