The News No One Dares to Cover

 This article first appeared in The Washington Post on August 29, 1999. It offers a look beyond The New York Times at the broader problems that beset the nation's journalism community today.


It's no secret that journalism in America has become more slipshod and reckless, at times promiscuous—and as a result less credible. The public seems quite aware of the slippage and has shown occasional indignation. Every journalist surely also knows that the old-time standards—that news reporting and opinion must be kept separate and distinct, for example, and that a public official's private life is just that unless it affects his or her public performance—have been weakened if not discarded.

Most of us in the business, however, stand by as mere observers while our editors, our corporate owners and some of our most prominent colleagues offer up the rationalization that the furious speed of the cyberworld and the round-the-clock nature of cable news are the competitive devils that make them do it. The new mantra of editors and media proprietors seems to be: "We have no choice but to cut corners if we are to survive."

If this were happening in any other profession or power center in American life, the media would be all over the story, holding the offending institution up to a probing light. When law firms breach ethical canons, Wall Street brokerages cheat clients or managed-care companies deny crucial care to patients, we journalists consider it news and frequently put it on the front page.

But when our own profession is the offender, we go soft. We report the occasional firing of a journalist who abuses ethical standards, especially if it happens in a major-market city. But we usually do so without exploring whether these practices are a larger problem in the industry.

Why is it that the press doesn't cover the press—or, to be more precise, doesn't cover itself with the same energy, resources, detail and spirit of reform that it applies to every other influential constituency in our society? Though we can hardly deny we're a center of power, we barely cover ourselves as news at all, nor do we readily reveal our processes to our readers. Two elemental questions emerge from this double standard: 1) How do we justify not reporting energetically on ourselves? and 2) Would it have a positive effect on journalistic ethics and standards if we did?

The answer to the first question is: We don't even bother to try. There are roughly 1,500 daily newspapers in this country. Only a handful—at most a dozen, including The Post—actually have a reporter who covers the press full-time as a beat. What critical reporting exists, though at times refreshingly good, is for the most part timid and superficial. About 15 papers have an ombudsman on staff to respond to readers' complaints. When it comes to looking at itself, society's watchdog is a lamb.

I know this from personal experience. For the last three years, I have spent much of my time trying to persuade the mainstream media to embrace the idea of covering the press in the same way they cover everyone else.

I went to major newspapers and magazines, and also to the major networks. Their responses will make a great chapter in my memoirs. Most of the editors and news executives said it was a fine idea—and then they all came up with some pesky reason why they couldn't take it on. My favorite was: "We don't have the right person to do it."

I was disappointed, but not exactly surprised. On the subject of whistle-blowing, we're not much different from the institutions we cover. No newspaper is eager to acknowledge its own deficiencies—or expose those of its peers (who might return the favor). Everyone has dirty linen.

And there's no doubt that the press beat I propose would be a difficult assignment—reporting on one's own. Who would volunteer to ride the tiger? But daunting and unpopular as this beat might be, I believe it may be our best chance to shore up journalism's now-tattered standards.

What kind of stories would we see from this press beat that we don't see now? Well, the majority of the articles would probably not be about bogus practices, which do not dominate the world of the newsroom. They would instead be in-depth pieces about how we gather news, about our processes, which are not always very attractive. One story might focus on how page one is put together each day, which stories are chosen for the front, which are rejected—and the reasons why. This would give our readers, who are part of every paper's extended family, a way to understand and relate to us, and even make assessments about our cultural and political makeup.

Another piece (or series of pieces) might take up the subject of how many stories originate from people seeking media attention—public figures and their press agents—rather than being developed by reporters or editors. The article would closely examine this promotion industry (not just in the entertainment and sports world, but in government and every other precinct where headline-seekers reside) and dig into its relationships with the press. There would be stories about lazy reporting, careless reporting and great reporting, each describing and dissecting, step by step, how the article in question made its way into the paper. Is the reporting in sports, arts or the business section different from the reporting in the main news section—and if so, why?

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