Courage in journalism today takes all the obvious, traditional forms — reporting from a war zone or from a totalitarian country where a reporter’s life or safety are issues. In Washington, D.C., where I work, it’s a far less dramatic form of courage if a journalist stands up to a government official or a politician who he or she has reason to believe is not telling the truth or living up to his or her responsibilities.
But I believe a new kind of courage is needed in journalism in this age of instant news, instant analysis, and therefore instant opinions. It also happens to be a time of government by public relations and news stories based on prepared texts and prepared events or responses. Therefore, this is the time for reporters and editors, whether from the mainstream media or blogosphere, to pause before responding to the latest bulletin, prepared event, or the most recent statement or backgrounder, whether from the White House or the Democratic or Republican leadership on Capitol Hill. Of course, I’m not talking about reporting of a bomb blowing up in a restaurant, soldiers being shot, police caught in a firefight, a fire, an accident, a home run in the ninth to win a game, an Oscar winner, or a drop in the stock market.
I also am talking solely from the point of view of a reporter who has spent almost 50 years watching daily coverage of government in Washington become dominated by increasingly sophisticated public relations practitioners, primarily in the White House and other agencies of government, but also in Congress or interest groups and even think tanks on the left, right or in the center. Today there is much too much being offered about government than can be fit into print or broadcast on nightly news shows. The disturbing trend is that more and more of these informational offerings are nothing but PR peddled as "news."
At the beginning of the Reagan administration, Michael Deaver — one of the great public relations men of our time — began to use an early morning "tech" session at the White House as something more than notice to television producers as to when and where the President would appear each day. He turned that meeting, which began in prior administrations to help network news television producers plan use of their camera crews each day, into an initial shaping of the news story for that evening. He would roughly say President Reagan will appear in the Rose Garden to talk about his crime prevention program and will discuss it in terms of Chicago and San Francisco. That would allow the networks to shoot B-roll matter in those two cities so there would be pictures other than the President speaking when it went on the evening news.
The President would appear, make his statement, perhaps take a question or two, and vanish. After a while, the network White House correspondents would attend these early morning tech sessions and even later print reporters did. On days when there was nothing prepared and the President went off to Camp David or his California ranch, ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson began his shouted questions — and those flip answers became the nightly news, and not just on television. The Washington Post, which prior to that time did not have a standing White House story scheduled each day (running one only when the President did something new and thus newsworthy), began to have similar daily coverage.
At the end of Reagan’s first year, David Broder, the Post’s distinguished political reporter, wrote a column about Reagan being among the least involved Presidents he had covered. The result was he received an onslaught of mail from people who repeatedly said they had seen him every night on TV working different issues. The often told Deaver story is that one night CBS News correspondent Leslie Stahl met him after narrating a particularly critical piece on Reagan, and Deaver told her as long as the President was on camera smiling it didn’t matter what she had said about him. When President George H.W. Bush succeeded Reagan and occasionally drifted off the appointed subject, criticism began to appear that he "couldn’t stay on message." When Bill Clinton arrived and as President did two, three or four things in a day, some critics went after him for "mixing up the daily message."
The truth of the matter is that with help from the news media, being able to "stay on message" is now considered a presidential asset, perhaps even a requirement. Of course, the "message" is the public relations spin that the White House wants to present and not what the President actually did that day or what was really going on inside the White House. This system reached its apex this year when the White House started to give "exclusives" — stories that found their way to Page One, in which readers learn that during the next week President Bush will do a series of four speeches supporting his Iraq policy because his polls are down. Such stories are often attributed to unnamed "senior administration officials." Lo and behold, the next week those same news outlets, and almost everyone else, carries each of the four speeches in which Bush essentially repeats what he’s been saying for two years.
A new element of courage in journalism would be for editors and reporters to decide not to cover the President’s statements when he — or any public figure — repeats essentially what he or she has said before. The Bush team also has brought forward another totally PR gimmick: The President stands before a background that highlights the key words of his daily message. This tactic serves only to reinforce that what’s going on is public relations — not governing. Journalistic courage should include the refusal to publish in a newspaper or carry on a TV or radio news show any statements made by the President or any other government official that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public.
Walter Pincus reports on national security issues for TheWashington Post.