Bill Moyers made waves this week with his special report on the role of the press in the run up to the war in Iraq. His story dovetails nicely with PBS Frontline's ongoing series of reports on the state of the press. Both are available online, and well worth watching. I would start with with Part III of the Frontline series, followed by Moyers's Buying the War.
Moyers has few true revelations and little new information, but it is well worth going back and seeing how badly the press got this war wrong, and revisiting some of the more egregious false claims of the pundits. Those pundits, as Moyers points out, are alive and well in American journalism. Many have been promoted. No one has been called to account.
The Frontline report helps to illustrate why American journalism is failing. No one does real reporting anymore, save a few national newspapers, and even they are cutting back. The newspapers are still highly profitable, but their readership and their revenue is in steady decline, and so sacrifices must be made for them to maintain their high margins and keep the corporate overlords happy. This was very much my concern while researching the media ownership rules last summer. Maintaining the prohibition on TV-newspaper crossownership has long been a central goal of the Democrats with respect to the media ownership rules. While I certainly see the value in that policy, for me the financial well-being of our newspapers has to be the top concern. I'm frankly not sure whether they would be helped or hindered by relaxing the cross-ownership rule. But I think we have to be willing to try anything that might preserve our last bastions of actual journalism.
Of course, the Moyers piece illustrates that even when newspapers have the resources to perform serious research they can fail to use them when caught up in the political conventional wisdom (as was the case of the New York Times and the Washington Post with Iraq). The conventional wisdom is created in part by the efforts of political actors (the White House in particular), but also by the media itself when it parrots the lines fed to them by those political actors. When real journalism is a small slice of the news media universe it seems that it is easily cowed by the overwhelming majority of the press for whom statements issued by the White House define reality. There needs to be a critical mass of independent press for news outlets to gain the courage of numbers to be willing to take risks.
Neither of these two pieces paints the whole picture on its own, the business of the news and the politics of the press, but together I think they give us a good look at what has gone wrong. The newspapers have a long way to go before they can recoup their lost hard-copy profits through their online presence. Given how much the internet has shaken up other industries, it's not clear they ever will. If they don't we can look forward to further setbacks to the quality of journalism in the US. We need to start to consider the degree to which quality reporting is a public good. In my opinion, in a democratically governed nation, journalism is the highest order of public good. The public cannot make informed choices if there is no one to inform them. If the market is unable to provide what we need, we will have to explore other avenues.