Monday, March 17, 2008

The WSJ Briefly Remembers the Role of Journalism

The March 12 edition of the Wall Street Journal filled the entire op-ed page with two columns on Spitzer: Spitzer's Media Enablers and Eliot the 'Enforcer', critical looks at both Spitzer and his media coverage. The op-eds make some great points and are well-argued, leaving one has to wonder: why don't these same arguments get made the other 364 days a year when someone other than Spitzer is the subject? The former in particular raises many points that are mainstays of this blog:

Journalism has many functions, but perhaps the most important is keeping tabs on public officials.
Mr. Spitzer portrayed himself as the moral avenger. He was the slayer of the big guy, the fat cat, the Wall Street titan -- all allegedly on behalf of the little guy. The press ate it up, and came back for more.

Time magazine bestowed upon Mr. Spitzer the title "Crusader of the Year," and likened him to Moses. Fortune dubbed him the "Enforcer." A fawning article in the Atlantic Monthly in 2004 explained he was "a rock star," and "the Democratic Party's future." In an uncritical 2006 biography, then Washington Post reporter Brooke Masters compared the attorney general to no less than Teddy Roosevelt.

What makes this more embarrassing for any self-respecting journalist is that Mr. Spitzer knew all this, and played the media like a Stradivarius. He knew what sort of storyline they'd be sympathetic to, and spun it. He knew, too, that as financial journalism has become more competitive, breaking news can make a career. He doled out scoops to favored reporters, who repaid him with allegiance. News organizations that dared to criticize him were cut off. After a time, few criticized anymore.
The press would do well to meditate on that, and consider how many violations they winked at and validated over the years. Politicians don't exist to be idolized by the press, at least not by any press corps doing its job.

And speaking of the press eating it up and coming back for more: Back in Arizona, McCain Tends the Grill.

John McCain portrays himself as an independent maverick and the press eats it up. Fawning articles and uncritical biographies have been written about McCain, Obama, Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice and a host of other political figures. (I purposely didn't list Hillary Clinton, I've yet to see a fawning article about her) Doling out scoops to favored reporters in exchange for allegiance is what got us Judith Miller's reports on Iraqi WMDs and anthrax and Joe Klein's body of work. Cutting off news organizations that criticize too strongly is standard procedure for most politicians and occurs regularly at White House press briefings and on the campaign trail. Validating and winking at violations is something the WSJ does every week regarding the Bush Administration.

"He knew what sort of storyline they'd be sympathetic to, and spun it." The "he" here could be one of hundreds of figures, from Kenneth Star to Ahmed Chalabi to "an anonymous high-ranking official." So much of our news is based on a source whispering into the ear of a reporter who then passes that on in print, gossip columns masquerading as journalism.

In one sense it's nice for someone at the WSJ to demonstrate an awareness of what proper journalism looks like. But there's nothing about these complaints that are specific to Spitzer's coverage. Shouldn't the WSJ apply their journalism standards across the board rather than only to the reporting on a Democratic corporation-busting governor?

That was the WSJ on March 12. It's now March 17 and the message of that op-ed has been quickly forgotten. Here is Peggy Noonan, a regular columnist at the WSJ, writing about McCain, a prime example of assigning lofty titles and reporting based on the subject's own preferred narrative:

He's gentleman Johnny McCain, hero, maverick. He has more knowledge on national defense in his pinky than the others will have, after four years in the White House
McCain, to McCain, is defined by his maverickness. That's who he is. (It's the theme of his strikingly good memoir, "Worth the Fighting For.") He stands up to power. He faces them down. It's not only a self image, it's a self obsession.

Noonan is also the author of "When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan", an "elegiac tribute to one of America's most beloved leaders." What was that about fawning, uncritical biographies?

The lesson appears to be that bad journalism is ok unless it favors a guy you don't like. Bad journalism that enables Spitzer should be excoriated but bad journalism that enables Republicans is something you pay a regular columnist to produce.

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