This week Joe Klein wrote a post that did not attempt to hide his disdain for his critics. While he showed a willingness to outline his reporting process and address concerns raised in his comments, he did so in an extremely defensive, thin-skinned and condescending tone. He also made the following memorably clueless assertion: "Tell me where I've been misled by my sources." His commenters quickly pointed out his factually challenged reporting on the FISA debate. They also brought up a number of other great points (Jay Rosen and Jay Ackroyd in particular), and if you don't go through all of them let's just say it is safe to be skeptical of the whole environment elite media operates in.
Their criticisms suggest other criticisms as well. For instance, once the administration decided it wanted to go to war against Iraq (finding an actual reason was just a bureaucratic detail) the role of the media should have been to push back on the policy itself. When the war began the Pentagon flooded media outlets with its own experts - Klein refers to a "vast majority of [his] military and intelligence sources" - who were only too happy to sell the public on it. But in a democracy the media ought to function as a check on the government, demanding transparency and diligently probing for abuses. The New York Times' report and subsequent document dump is beginning to show exactly how most of the major outlets allowed the government to furnish experts. How does that provide any meaningful verification of the government's claims or expose holes in its story?
Once they buy in to this model they are no longer framing the news but having it framed for them, and become more like state run media than independent voices. They voluntarily constrict the perspectives offered, and opinions - even critical ones - remain within that narrow range. With the Iraq war there has been an almost complete marginalization of those who oppose it on policy grounds. We do not see them because the government will never provide them. All discussion is directed at whether a particular aspect of the policy is "succeeding", with the unspoken assumption that such success will mean success for the whole enterprise. If there is a failure, it is a failure in the planning or carrying out of the war, not the decision to go to war in the first place. We have seen an endless stream of government sanctioned "message force multipliers" reinforcing that position. It is, to put it mildly, not an effective check on creeping tyranny. When there is no outside confirmation, no attempt to identify and track down dissenting views, no suggestion of an alternate narrative - when none of this happens, the media is just a private partner of the government.
The response might be: "We exist as profit centers for parent companies. We will do nothing that meaningfully jeopardizes our consumer base or discomforts our advertisers. We will not sacrifice subscribers or viewers by consistently presenting unpopular descriptions of current events - even if they appear to be true. We would go out of business if we did so. We have no obligation to live up to your standards of purity, and if you think we do you need to grow up." Fair enough. But please - once you do so, describe yourself that way. Admit to the high pabulum content and tell us you are institutionally averse to challenging those in power.
Reporters should not postulate good faith on behalf of the government; they should do their own analysis, speak to adversarial sources and look for interpretations that challenge what they are being told. The day after Klein's post the L.A. Times ran a report by Richard B. Schmitt showing exactly how that is done. He reviewed records obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University (I hadn't heard of it either) and the data showed surveillance cases up but terrorism court cases down. He located his own experts, one of whom said "[h]ow does one measure the success? The short answer is we aren't in a great position to know." Maybe more Congressional oversight of the executive branch might correct that. A Justice Department spokesman said correlating surveillance with court cases is "apples and oranges." It may well be. Doing some poking around outside administration-approved channels certainly raised an interesting question though, didn't it? It shows what is possible when one actually practices journalism instead of snidely asserting so.