May 29, 2014
In October 2009, former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. and scholar Michael Schudson co-authored “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” a report commissioned by the Columbia Journalism School that examined the state of the business and its likely future. Although the authors found reasons for optimism about the long-term prospects for independent news reporting, among the more sobering sections in the document was one that examined trends in reporting by newspapers. The Internet, they wrote, helped accelerate a decline in print readership, and when advertising on newspaper websites couldn’t offset drops in print-ad revenues, the economic underpinnings of the business buckled. This led to bankruptcies, the shuttering of printing presses, and, for more than 100 dailies, an end to print publication on Saturdays or other days.
Moreover, the authors noted, between 1992 and 2009, the number of newspaper editorial employees dropped to 40,000 from more than 60,000. As a result, across the country fewer journalists were reporting on everything from city halls and social welfare to schools, arts and the environment. Overseas and Washington bureaus were padlocked, while the number of reporters covering state capitals full time fell by about one-third between 2003 and 2009. “A large share of newspaper reporting of government, economic activity and quality of life simply disappeared,” they wrote.
Since then, the vanishing act that befell the “legacy” newspapers has continued, with the very publication that Downie piloted from 1991 to 2008 — during which time it earned 25 Pulitzer Prizes — only adding to the upheaval and retrenchment. From 2008 through the fall of 2011, the paper’s roster of reporters and editors was slashed to 600 from 900. Early-retirement buyouts followed, and the exodus accelerated via defections to digital ventures. Then, in August 2013, the Post Co. threw its media brethren a knee-buckling curveball, when it announced an agreement to sell its storied flagship newspaper to Amazon.com founder Jeffrey Bezos. This left pundits to wonder: Would a long, proud tradition of exposing such misconduct as the Watergate scandal and revealing the existence of secret CIA prisons outside U.S. borders remain intact? Or would this esteemed broadsheet one day be reconfigured as another Kindle app, its commitment to exploratory and investigative reporting having gone the way of the typewriter?
For the moment, at least, the signs are encouraging: Last January, Bezos approved a budget hike designed to bolster a depleted bench, adding journalistic muscle to everything from political coverage to data-driven stories. And the ink-stained Old Guard could also take some comfort from another development: On April 16, the Los Angeles Register debuted with a seven-day-a-week publication schedule, making LA a rare two-newspaper town.
Any optimism over such developments should be tempered, however, by the stark realities that Downie and Schudson detailed nearly five years ago: “As almost everyone knows,” they wrote, “the economic foundation of the nation’s newspapers, long supported by advertising, is collapsing, and newspapers themselves, which have been the country’s chief source of independent reporting, are shrinking — literally.” Since then, the wrecking ball has only gathered momentum.
The lifeblood of democracy
If the long-term viability of newspapers is in doubt, there’s a practical question that needs addressing: Why should that matter to us?
Similarly, why should we care that more than half the states have no reporters in Washington covering their members of Congress and state-relevant subjects? Or that we have half as many television news staffers as we had in the 1980s? Or that the country’s population grew by roughly 50 percent from 1970 to 2010 (and federal-budget outlays increased seventeenfold), but the number of journalists watching those in power and scrutinizing those budgetary line items remained unchanged?
Here’s the short answer: In this or any other democracy, any attempt at honest, effective governance is predicated on timely, accurate, independently gathered and reported information that’s widely available to the electorate. As James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” wrote in 1822, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.”
But if information is the lifeblood of democracy, increasingly the most powerful interests — both in and out of government — are attempting to manipulate and control that information, and with it those truths we once held to be self-evident.
"But if information is the lifeblood of democracy, increasingly the most powerful interests are attempting to manipulate and control that information, and with it those truths we once held to be self-evident. "
Blame this, in part, on industry, whose lobbyists ply expectant lawmakers with quid-pro-quo campaign checks, and whose battalion of public relations operatives, which has doubled over the last three decades, employs an insidious bag of tricks that often resemble rigged arcade games. Their repertoire includes such tactics as “green-washing” — creating the bogus perception, for example, that a company’s noxious factory discharges are environmentally benign, even in the face of wetlands destruction and wildlife die-offs. They concoct “Astroturf” campaigns — manufactured grass-roots programs, often accomplished via payments to the sign-waving “activists,” that are intended to display an apparent groundswell of support for a company’s regulatory plight or legislation that may pad its bottom line. And ethics codes notwithstanding, some PR practitioners create the likes of fake blogs, which are represented as the heartfelt opinions of citizens, when in truth they’re crafted to promote a political agenda, garner market share or besmirch the reputation of an adversary.
In like fashion, our information-dependent democratic process is being undermined by the government’s escalating penchant for misdirection and secrecy. The abuses have gotten so extreme that whistleblowers, leakers and hackers are heralded as intrepid antidotes to everything from the clandestine scrutiny of our digital footprints to the whitewashing of scientific inquiry related to such critical issues as the lethal side effects of prescription drugs and the dangers of climate change.
We saw clear evidence of the latter throughout the administrations of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, former Texas oilmen who at the dawn of their first term ignored a persuasive body of scientific evidence and, heeding the wishes of their energy-producing cronies, refused to ratify an international treaty aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Cheney’s energy task force, convened early in 2001 to hammer out the new administration’s energy policy, met repeatedly behind closed doors with a parade of unnamed officials and lobbyists from the petroleum, coal, natural gas, and other polluting industries, the nature and details of their discussions kept secret by an unwavering claim of executive privilege.
Photo by Jens Norgaard Larsen/Scanpix Denmark/Reuters
James E. Hansen, then director for NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, photographed at the Climate Change Copenhagen Congress on March 11, 2009.
In the years that followed, the administration and its political appointees also waged a “systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming,” according to a report issued in 2007 by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Administration officials, the investigation noted, edited or suppressed scientific reports, congressional testimony and media communications to downplay links between human-caused emissions and global warming. Government scientists such as Dr. James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, were pressured not to talk to the media about global warming. Jeremy Symons, who represented the Environmental Protection Agency on Cheney’s task force, later called the administration’s policy on global warming “a charade.”
“They have a single-minded determination to do nothing — while making it look like they are doing something,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 2007.
In truth, they did do something: they emulated the public- and private-sector virtuosi of Orwellian doublespeak (the famed author once described political language as “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable….”) and hatched a series of green-sounding initiatives that, in truth, held more promise for industry than for the environment. The proposed “Clear Skies Initiative,” which Congress nixed, by many estimates would have weakened Clean Air Act standards and allowed industry to fill the skies with more pollution. Similarly, the “Healthy Forests Initiative,” billed as a way to suppress wildfires in overgrown National Forests, was roundly criticized as merely a giveaway of public lands to the logging industry.
2009 file photo by Jason Reed/Reuters
U.S. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney waged a “systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming,” according to a report issued in 2007 by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
And what’s changed since then? For one thing, the climate: According to the World Meteorological Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, 13 of the 14 warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st century, and the decade beginning in 2001, when the Bush-Cheney administration perpetrated its climate-science snow job, was the warmest ever recorded. What’s more, a report issued on March 31 by another UN group, the respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warned that, around the globe, climate change has affected agriculture, human health, water supplies, terrestrial and ocean ecosystems, and some people’s livelihoods, with the world’s supplies of food and fresh water at considerable risk. And the worst, the report concluded, is still looming.
What hasn’t changed over that time is the pushback against sound science by the global warming deniers, most notably the high priests of industry who fear their profits may suffer because of laws and regulations aimed at mitigating this gathering crisis. Among those leading the charge are Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who own the oil and chemicals conglomerate Koch Industries. As the Investigative Reporting Workshop detailed in July 2013, a nonprofit organization that the free-spending industrialists co-founded has persuaded a quarter of the U.S. Senate and more than one-third of the House to sign a “No Climate Tax Pledge”: Funds may not be allocated to fight climate change without equivalent tax cuts. As we reported, several pledge signers, their election coffers fat with donations from Koch affiliates, pushed a series of bills designed to severely restrict the EPA’s ability to regulate perilous greenhouse-gas emissions.
And thanks to the historic, anti-transparency Citizens United Supreme Court decision in early 2010, which struck down restrictions on campaign giving by corporations and special interests, the floodgates are open for deep-pocketed kingmakers like the Koch Brothers, the casino magnates, the large labor unions and the anonymously funded Super PACs to blanket the airwaves with even more deceptive attack ads, unleash more scurrilous opposition research, and throw more of their ideological weight around. So cycle after cycle, there will undoubtedly be unprecedented amounts of secret money legally washing through “independent” outside organizations attempting to influence elections and confuse voters about key issues. And along the way, I believe our elected officials and our wealthiest donors will become even more indistinguishable from one another, with the latter substantially underwriting the campaigns of the former.
What's real? And what isn't?
It’s that sort of secrecy and incestuousness, coupled with the demise of truth and accountability explored in Part 1 of this series, that speak to a great irony of our times: As the volume of issues and abuses of power deserving scrutiny has increased, the number of watchdogs has decreased.
To complicate matters, our ever-shrinking news media has, in many cases, abandoned core principles like bona fide objectivity and formed unholy alliances with spin doctors and corporate or government shills —those paid to confuse us about what’s factual versus what’s ideology masquerading as truth. Indeed, with more than three times as many PR pros than journalists in the United States, the regrettable fact is that a disturbing percentage of newspaper stories today are based solely on press releases, no reporting or fact-checking required. And local TV stations broadcast stealth commercials passed off as “news” — mere puffery in which reviewers are quietly paid to tout consumer products, with little or no disclosure about the back-door arrangements and scant federal prosecution for such illegal “plugola.”
It’s these sorts of trends that should leave us pondering some unsettling notions, including: Has it become more difficult to know what is real and what isn’t? Whom can we trust and whom should we not? Have the public or private powers that be learned to obscure the truth and our perceptions of reality itself?
And there’s another question that hangs like a toxic plume above our democracy: Has the truth-telling capacity of journalists become so debilitated that we’re now substantially less informed than we should be? If so (and I fear that’s the case), it’s unlikely we can make sound decisions at the polls. That we can seek and obtain redress when wronged. That we have much chance of holding accountable those who’ve abused their office or violated the public trust. That we can make necessary decisions about our collective destiny. In short, if the trends we’re witnessing remain intact, we risk losing what the political theorist Hannah Arendt called “the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world.”