In 2012 on the fortieth anniversary of the Watergate Affair, a notable commentary on the state of political journalism appeared in the newspaper whose investigative reporting uncovered the Nixon administration scandal. Leonard Downie Jr., who had worked at the Washington Post for forty-four years, wrote that American investigative reporting was at risk in the “digital reconstruction of journalism.” As Downie noted, the mission of investigative reporting and holding governments accountable remains as essential as ever to American democracy. But, he concluded, it has become a financial burden for established newspapers now struggling to survive, while digital startups seeking to fill the vacuum have not found a successful model for financial sustainability.
The financial uncertainties that Downie describes are a cause of concern for the future of quality journalism. But it is part of a deeper problem—the corruption of American political culture in the United States. The American political system is broken, and political journalism has played a part in that failure.
I saw my first televised political convention at age ten. It was a spectacle that intoxicated me. With my camp buddy Jeff Greenfield (who would go on to become a big-time political journalist at CBS and CNN), I watched the presidential candidate nominations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson II in 1952. We lived in a world of two major political parties with traditions and alignments. Democrats and Republicans stood for different but clear principals. They developed strategies for building grassroots support. The around-the-clock coverage, and the reporting on the political conventions by respected and experienced journalists like CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, made us feel a connection with the democracy we were learning about in school. Then the media consultants took over. The conventions eventually became like conventional TV shows, shorter and less engaging. The big TV networks insisted on their need for commercial support and showed limited appetite for public service programming.
Meanwhile, the merger of the news biz and show biz further changed political journalism. Political reporters began spinning their “face time” on pundit shows into self-promotion exercises. They parlayed name recognition into book contracts and bigger jobs negotiated by agents. Much of the rise of these journalists was tied to their access to government sources and the hype encouraged by their media outlets. Some reporters became prancing egos.
In a 2011 column, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank skewered the annual White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner. Once a “nerd prom” for journalists, he wrote, the event had spun out of control. “With the proliferation of A-List parties and the infusion of corporate and lobbyist cash, Washington journalists give Americans the impression we have shed our professional detachment and are aspiring to be like the celebrities and power players we cover,” Milbank wrote.
The superficial aspect of so much of political journalism today is another huge concern. Hugely popular social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter have become dominant sources of constantly updated information. Thoughtful journalism offering context and background are often conspicuous by their absence from the headline hit parades. A number of new online publications feature deeper long form journalism, but in the Twitter age of endless hits it is not clear how widely they are read, or how munch influence they have outside of a small information elite. There is constant repetition in an ever-changing zeitgeist and stew of sensation. Questions raised in the morning are gone by the afternoon. The public is being exposed to more while absorbing less as a flurry of changing stories compete to dominate the news agenda. Cultural critic Bill McKibben dubbed our times “The Age of Missing Information” in his perceptive 1992 book on sensory overload.
Another problem is how political journalism has contributed to the poisoning of political discourse. Politicians now see politics as warfare. Political parties have fractured as factions and movements manipulated by big-money donors operate with targeted communications and over-the-top partisan online media. Political action committees tie support to ideologically rigid requirements. Supreme Court decisions have essentially supported the takeover of politics by agenda-driven interests. Entities like Fox News can be blamed for supercharging the political environment and assuring a lack of civility. Political polarization is fueled by TV talking heads with prefabricated audience-tested “message points” that make it difficult for people to disagree without anger or find common ground. While the media publishes frequent commentary about America’s broken political system, too few journalists are challenging the new partisan political reality.
That may be partly because of the complicity of political journalism in the broken system. For example, as Huffington Post senior media reporter Michael Calderone has noted, throughout his presidency Barack Obama “has used smaller, private meetings with influential columnists and commentators as a way to explain his positions before rolling out major foreign and domestic policy decisions.” Obama has met with conservative as well as liberal journalists. In 2014, Calderone reported on how the U.S. leader held an off-the-record meeting with more than a dozen prominent American journalists—from numerous leading outlets from the New York Times and Washington Post to the Atlantic and New Yorker—just hours before calling for an escalation of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in a primetime televised address. When asked about the meeting, the White House “declined comment.”
So there you have it, four decades after a newspaper brought down an American president, political journalism is joined at the hip with an administration that doesn’t just secretly brief journalists but sucks up their ideas for how to sell a war to the public. It’s one more nail in the coffin of political journalism.
Danny Schechter is the author of sixteen books, most recently Madiba A-Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela. He was an Emmy Award-winning producer for ABC News and has directed numerous documentary films. He edits Mediachannel.org and blogs at NewsDissector.net.