Journalism’s next big problem

January 8, 2014

For a brief time at the beginning of the last century, politicians and journalists were friends. Not just friends, but colleagues, comrades in arms, letter-writing correspondents who praised and flattered each other in copious screeds. The politician during this period was President Theodore Roosevelt and the journalists were a handful of driven and talented writers. Many of them — Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker, Ida Tarbell and others — were brought together by Samuel McClure in the magazine that bore his name.

McClure’s was published with the dual intention of explaining the contemporary era in lengthy researched pieces and supporting reform, especially of corrupt city governments and the huge, powerful corporations or trusts of the time.

Novelists, like Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair, and social investigators, like Jacob Riis, Gustavus Myers and Frances Kellor, compiled loosely fictionalized accounts of mass poverty, exploitation and desperation — the underside of America’s vast expansion. Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, about the meatpacking district of Chicago, brought about significant legislation on working conditions.

In her account of the age, The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin showed how writers were regarded as front-line activist-investigators of Tammany Hall and corporate America. Roosevelt opened his mind and the White House to them (not without an element of calculation). The McClure’s writers both venerated and served him, responding to his suggestions to investigate this or that abuse, and even bringing him the results of their research before it reached their editors.

Eventually, the relationship turned sour. Roosevelt got fed up with the more sensationalist material that copycat investigators produced, and he included in his indictment even the serious “muckrakers” (an affectionate nickname that the president had bestowed to journalists). Writers thought him too moderate in his second term and resented his resentment of them. McClure’s staggered on for some years, but its golden age turned leaden.

Today, no American investigative reporter would dare to duplicate that relationship with a president. No president would wish to be that beholden to a journalist, nor would it be possible to have a notionally equal relationship with other journalists outside of a magic circle.

But which president really cares now? There is an uncomfortable fact emerging in journalism — an area presently battered by uncomfortable facts — that no (mainstream) news is good news for leaders. They don’t need us.

In a speech Paul Steiger, the founder of the investigative organization ProPublica, gave last November at the Committee to Protect Journalists, he spoke of “denial of access and silencing of sources” on the part of President Obama. Steiger’s view is now more widely held, which is surprising to an outsider coming to the U.S. who supposes that it is the freest place in the world to be a journalist.

Reluctantly, because Obama had promised a more open administration than any that had come before, journalists now say they fear for their ability to report on politics. A report by former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie found that “the administration’s prosecution of suspected leakers, combined with broad electronic surveillance programs,  have left government officials deeply wary of talking to the press.”

Obama is being tough on the press because he’s a successful communicator himself. The psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge says that the 2012 Obama campaign — which spent ten times more on social media than Republican contender Mitt Romney — won  by understanding that “social media create a new political dialogue.” Obama spoke to millions of Americans this way, and many believed that he spoke directly to him. Who needs the press?

It’s not just Obama. Pope Francis rarely talks to the media, according to Eugenio Scalfari, founder of Italy’s daily La Repubblica, who exchanged long letters with him and published them as a “Dialogue between Believers and Unbelievers.” The pope’s personal charisma, his outreach to constituencies outside of the faithful and his use of Twitter remove the need for the “Vatican watchers,” who were necessary to interpret a closed world. When the pope seems so open, what’s left to watch?

India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has given three press conferences in ten years. The leaders of China’s Communist party rarely speak to the news media in other than a highly formalized and controlled way, though they are now active on social media. Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to the press, but often to harangue foreign and domestic reporters. Putin is secure in the knowledge that he controls the means of television communication in Russia.

Singh will retire this year with a mixed reputation and Obama is now under constant fire for cracking down on leakers — among much else. But the others are generally seen at home as dominant and efficient leaders. The common lesson is that, through showmanship and charisma and perhaps through a strong showing on social media, leaders can do very well with the public, even while the press complain about access.

It isn’t just politicians. The late Steve Jobs’ performances were choreographed and staged with as much attention to detail as a grand opera. Apple’s product launches generally received raves. Meanwhile, journalists sought Jobs, largely in vain. His staff was told not to speak to the press on pain of dismissal. Yet Jobs was considered one the most successful business leaders of the last decade.

Journalism now has to fight another threat, which is as stark as falling revenues — irrelevance. The leaders we once watched are instead watching us, and then swerving to avoid us. There is increasingly little downside for them.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama holds his year-end news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House in Washington December 20, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


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>Putin is secure in the knowledge that he controls the means of television communication in Russia

Definitely said by one unfamiliar with russian TV. Even state-owned RTR often pulls things considering gov’t and country that outright impossible on (private but self-censoring) CNN or FoxNews.

As for old NTV story…well, i’d like to see what’d happened if one of major TV station in USA was owned by Enron or Madoff and directly attacked government over their masters’ agenda, incl. blatant lies.

Last ‘control’ thing that happened was state pulling _state_ financial support of ‘Dozhd” channel – after direct calls for takeover of power by force. Channel itself is alive and, sadly, noone was arrested.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

The mainstream media was and still is to easily manipulated by just about anyone. So yes, it is becoming irrelevant. It sucks that we will inevitably lose the investigative reporters. Perhaps they will find some other avenue; investigative bloggers?

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, ‘investigative blogging’ lacks one major thing that made investigative journalism great – ability to independently(by editor/publisher) check and _VERIFY_ facts.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

And also – with blogging, unlike old-fashioned general-audience newspapers, people are much more living in their own ‘echo chambers’, auditory is fragmented by definition…

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

Thank you for your article Mr. Lloyd. But are you sure fault is all with leaders and others? I mean do you think the standard of journalism is always at the level required? As you know technology has created new information and communication conditions which I am not sure all journalists take sufficient and/or appropriate advantage of.

Posted by J.A.Economides | Report as abusive

The will always be money to made and relevance to a main stream press. It just might not be the model you imagine and it jut might not be the company you work for that succeeds. Take RT (Russia Today) for example, while I don’t doubt its coverage of Russia is censored, it is prepared to report on domestic matters of foreign countries with far more openness than the local news of those companies. They are making money too.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Maybe if “journalists” actually behaved like journalists instead of breathless Elvis groupies we, the public, would be more interested in their opinions. As is, pretty much everything one reads is agenda driven propaganda from one side or the other.

Posted by agular17 | Report as abusive

To the extent that the press can be by-passed, we will all gain. Direct communication with the public is better. The press in recent years has proven too A-D-D in its coverage. A topic lasts 4 – 7 days, then they HAVE to move on, even if it’s to Miley Cyrus. Because they are in the get-eyeballs business.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The media relies on access to information from powerful government players. Since they have no sources other than the powerful, they must dance to the tune of their powerful player sources which essentially turns the media into government propaganda outlets. This all happened beginning when the news became entertainment and not news. The media is becoming irrelevant because who needs a stenographer when you can get your propaganda straight from the government?

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

It seems the next big problem on Reuters is all of the Paid content article by corporate CEOs and lobbyists. I can’t believe they are doing this! This isn’t journalism, it’s propaganda.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I couldn’t get past this opening comment. “For a brief time at the beginning of the last century, politicians and journalists were friends. Not just friends, but colleagues, comrades in arms, letter-writing correspondents who praised and flattered each other in copious screeds.”

NOTHING is more dangerous to a free society than what you just described.

As far as I am concerned, THAT is still the main problem with your reporting.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

@EconCassandra is right.
Since two out of six opinion articles posted on Reuters are by big corporate CEOs lobbying for government changes, I would say that the Media and Politicians are still quite chummy. Considering that Politicians are merely representatives of big business.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive