Journalism’s next big problem
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