Exploring connections between what the public thinks about journalists and whether and how reporters and editors display courage in their work can be tricky territory. We know that most people today do not have high regard for reporters or news organizations, even though important stories, faithfully handled, sometimes elicit great respect. But surveys inform us that majorities, sometimes large ones, think journalists do not care about the people they report on, bully victims of personal disasters until they cry, try to cover up or not accept blame for their mistakes, are in bed with politicians, and quake when the powerful look at them sideways.
Not much middle ground can be found between these disparate assessments. At least that’s my reading of public-opinion polls taken during the past 25 years, including ones I was involved with during the 1980’s when I ran the news polling operation for The Washington Post.
Of course, there are many journalists who won’t be deterred from taking a courageous course in their work, even when they don’t sense a great deal of support for what they do. The problem is they are heavily outnumbered by reporters who are less independent-minded and tend to be more prone to following than leading, as well as by self-censoring editors who too often view challenging stories as headaches.
What Surveys Tell Us
Since 1973, The Gallup Organization has asked the public about confidence in American institutions. Last year only 28 percent of those interviewed said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in TV news and in newspapers. Pretty poor scores — the lowest for the press since the questions were first asked. Weak as those ratings were, they still were on a level with confidence in the criminal justice system (26 percent), and better than the scores for organized labor (24 percent), Congress and big business (each at 22 percent) and, lowest of all, HMO’s (18 percent).
In 1985, the old Times-Mirror organization sponsored a poll on the news media. On its completion, full-page ads promoting the findings asked: "Is the Watchdog Really a Lapdog?"
Despite the low esteem in which the news media are held today, some of the best, most courageous news coverage is being produced. And it’s being done despite a lot of factors that would mitigate against it. There are all-too-frequent cuts in newsroom staff and the news hole at a time when the antinews climate, set by the Murdoch-Ailes-O’Reilly-Gingrich-Republican Party cable TV crowd, is popular. There is, too, a sustained effort by the President and vice president to discredit the press, with more than $1.6 billion in spending by the Bush administration on a campaign of propaganda, including support for the creation of fake news by fake reporters. Then there are the Bush administration’s varying characterizations of the U.S. press as just another annoying, self-promoting, untrustworthy pressure group, while it proclaims the core value of a free press in its messages about democracy in countries where authoritarian governments now rule.
Reporting in Different Eras
Some of the 2006 Pulitzer Prizes, for example, honored reporting that was so powerful that, for at least a few moments, all seemed well in the news business.
The Hurricane Katrina coverage of Biloxi, Mississippi’s Sun Herald was declared "valorous," while The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune was regarded as "heroic," and its breaking news reporting was said to be "courageous and aggressive coverage … overcoming desperate conditions facing the city and the newspaper." Some of the journalists’ hardest work took place as floodwaters forced an evacuation of their newsroom; many of them lost their homes and dealt with tough personal circumstances while remaining on the job to tell other people’s stories.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s "personal risk" in going to Sudan was acknowledged as he was honored for drawing attention to the horrendous massacres of people in Darfur.
Washington Post and New York Times reporters won Pulitzers for stories that President Bush personally sought to block. The publication of these news stories has led to government leak investigations and recriminations, even the firing of a CIA leak suspect. Secrecy advocates say the reporters should be getting prison terms instead of Pulitzers.
On the April day when the Pulitzers were announced, two newspaper veterans, Jay Harris and Alex Jones, exchanged views on the PBS NewsHour about challenges confronting watchdog reporting in today’s inhospitable business environment. Harris, a member of the Pulitzer board and former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, was impressed by the finalists’ work: "… the press as a watchdog did its job remarkably well this year." Emphasizing the value of investigative reporting, Jones, a Pulitzer winner who directs the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, observed that "in the environment that we’re in . there’s probably a lot more work that could be done and should be done that isn’t being done because of the sort of turmoil that the newspaper industry is undergoing."
Harris, who resigned in 2001 rather than execute deeper cuts in his staff and news hole, concurred, and lamented the grip Wall Street profits hold over the news business. He went on to note that "there’s still excellent investigative work being done out there, but it’s being done as much as anything because of individual journalists and editors who are concerned that this work be done. Even with the budget cutbacks, they are doing it out of dedication to the best of what journalism is."
With scarcer resources to devote to what can often be lengthy reporting stints, editors are working at a time when shortages of staff and budget are paired with an historic moment when political and societal pressures are aligned against thepress. Before this current administration, the press’s most hostile President was Richard Nixon, who used his vice president, Spiro Agnew, as attack dog. Mouthing sly phrases written by William Safire, Agnew labeled the press "nattering nabobs of negativism," describing them as a liberal bunch out of synch with American values.
How does one measure the chilling effect of such characterizations, then and now? By lack of coverage, perhaps? If so, the attacks worked then, and they seem to be working now — a time when similar political pressures combine with the new, difficult financial constraints.
For a long time during Nixon’s presidency much of the fourth estate were onlookers, not independent and aggressive in reporting on either the Vietnam War or about Watergate.
Watergate has often been hailed as a great press triumph, but the fact is that only five news organizations did much to move the story along in its crucial early stages: The Washington Post (where I was in charge of the coverage and given the title "special Watergate editor"), The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the now defunct Washington Star, and Time magazine. Television was absent altogether. In the critical four-and-a-half months from the break-in to the 1972 election, the only broadcast news attempt at telling viewers about Watergate came when Walter Cronkite, on a Friday evening newscast, did a lengthy report in which he recapped news that had been in the papers. He promised a second report on Monday, but CBS Chairman William S. Paley intervened; while there was a second report, it was much abbreviated.
Watergate was a 26-month scandal — from the break-in to Nixon’s resignation. About nine months into it a lot more news organizations got to work — pack journalism, it might be called — and began to report the story aggressively and well.
Now in the sixth year of this administration’s drive to discredit the press (and therefore make it an irrelevant part of our democracy), news organizations are following a pattern not unlike what happened during the Watergate era. For the first four years or so, including the run-up to the Iraq War, only a small number of journalists at only a few news organizations did independent, aggressive reporting. Using Harris’s notion, these were primarily individuals acting out of dedication. Over time, a pack mentality has set in.
As I write this, the Bush administration’s K Street and Capitol Hill occupants’ arrogance and corruption are fair game. Unfortunately for citizens, the journalists’ pack is smaller these days, and they’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Barry Sussman is editor of the Nieman Foundation’s Watchdog Project and the Web site, www.niemanwatchdog.org